Megan Schmidt
KU News Service

Professor's new book examines deep roots of opposition to female rulers

Tue, 10/22/2013

LAWRENCE — She hasn’t officially thrown her name in the ring yet, but political commentators are already musing that “Clinton fatigue” may hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of being elected president in 2016.

It’s a theory worth consideration, especially taking into account how much of the press Clinton has received not only in recent months, but over the duration of her career, has been negative. Most recently, some have questioned whether, at 69, Clinton will be “too old” to lead, but she’s also faced accusations of an “unlikable” personality and encountered dismissiveness about her husband’s role in her ascent to power.

Many of the obstacles Clinton faces are rooted in gender bias, and they’re the same ones women have been trying to overcome for centuries, all over the world, to convince others they can rule, said Keith McMahon, KU professor of East Asian studies and author of a new book, “Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao.”

“It’s as if there’s something about women ruling that’s still in question in parts of the world,” McMahon said. “I think it has a lot to do with tradition and patriarchy, and the fact that women were seen for so long as wives and mothers.”

McMahon’s book explores how, in early polygamous Chinese dynasties, female rule was an absolute last resort — but it did happen, he said. Some women became leaders when their husbands died or other male heirs were too young or unfit to rule.

“If a woman did rule, her power was usually only temporary,” McMahon said. “A woman like Empress Wu, however, became a permanent ruler because she terrorized people, was good at creating propaganda and had enough support to protect herself.”

Wu Zetian established her own dynasty in 690 AD, following the death of her emperor husband. Each of her four sons attempted to rule, but either died (some say by her order) or were pressured by Wu to cede power. Chinese rulers had always been men, so Wu and her supporters used language, ritual, religion and art to legitimize her power. For example, a Buddhist text was altered to state Wu was the reincarnation of a deity.

In Wu’s case, the public — and those who documented her reign — accepted that she was actually emperor. As time passed, however, historians referred to her as a usurper. She was described in dynastic history, fiction and even a famous pornographic text as an “insatiable” woman who had many affairs with younger men.

“Parts of the story are nothing but an outright glorification of sexual ecstasy,” McMahon wrote. “At the same time the author (of the pornography) is thoroughly motivated to prove the villainy of Wu Zetian’s rule and the necessity of potent and upright men to return the empire to its proper path.”

History is filled with other examples. Marie Antoinette was accused of incest. Catherine the Great was said to have engaged in bestiality. China’s Empress Dowager Cixi, also described in the book, allegedly had young men delivered to her, slept with them and then had them killed.

These so-called sexual scandals of women rulers are just stories, scholars say, but they once served a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They were meant to tarnish reputations.

“One of the most common ways to vilify a woman was to accuse her of sexual crimes,” McMahon said.

Women like Wu were rare in early polygamous Chinese dynasties, where a male ruler typically had his first wife, the empress, and any number of lesser wives and extramarital lovers. Multiple wives were meant to ensure at least one woman would give birth to a male heir. Some of these women were jealous rivals, fixated on destroying fellow wives or mistresses, and sometimes their offspring, too.

Wu’s daughter, as well as the wife and daughter of Wu’s successor, each schemed to take power, but failed. It was 300 years before another woman, Empress Liu, ruled, and when she did, Chinese officials set boundaries for her and fully expected her to step down when her son was old enough to take the throne.

Over centuries, the status of women has improved in many parts of the world, creating greater possibilities for females to become leaders. Yet, it’s interesting to note the unexpected places female leaders have emerged — and where they haven’t, McMahon said.

“A nation like Pakistan has had a female prime minister, yet we still haven’t had a woman president [in the U.S.],” he said. 

McMahon is currently writing a second book on polygamy and women's political roles in the later dynasties, which he hopes to finish this spring, he said.

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