I have always identified deeply with Virgil’s Dido, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Homer’s Penelope. These characters never fail to enthrall and compel me. Their “infinite variety” seems a roundabout way to describe their complexity, their strength, their diligence. These are women who occupy patriarchal roles, ingraining within themselves a system of masculine power that would otherwise marginalize them entirely. They must be man and woman, masculine and feminine, at once: The ill-fated Dido must divide her heart between her city and the hero Aeneas; Cleopatra, the woman-goddess hybrid, must manage a private romance in the public sphere while protecting her nation from the same empire as her lover; Penelope must assume the throne of her husband for decades, all while outsmarting and manipulating a slew of violent suitors.
What intricate characters—what beautiful, tragic stories. I always gravitate to these women, these same ones who are constantly overlooked by history, for their capacity to convey both power and compassion, loyalty and heart, in the face of severe threat and danger. Their identities are erased: They must be what others expect of them—no, not even that, they must be more than their male counterparts, they must be without flaws, without feminine traits, without masculine stoicism. They must, to summarize the words of Queen Elizabeth I, have the body of a woman and the heart of a man. They must be an infinite amount of mutually exclusive characteristics all at once—and for what? Oftentimes, Dido is viewed as weak, Cleopatra as lascivious and sneaky, Penelope as archetypal and dependent.
Seldom, in the modern world, do women ever find themselves in positions of power. And for the few who do, I contain immense sympathy for them. This is not due to some kind of pity or internal belief that women leaders need my sympathy. They do not, they are perfectly capable, and even the worst of them have my respect.
Just the other week, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke about her gender. This was a rare remark from a leader who’s always shied away from feminism, from the female identity and experience. In a way, she’s seemed to erase her femaleness, eradicated it from her persona in order to assimilate into the power structure and gain respect and admiration. But that’s an impossible feat, and—although I, personally, am not the biggest fan of her politics—I was intrigued that now, as she gradually exits politics, she’d finally crack about her gender. She spoke on the pay gap, discrepancies between the genders in leadership, and her own experience having to “radiate authority” and finding her “way” to contribute to women.
Merkel is different than, say, those like Hillary Rodham Clinton and other powerful women who have made feminism their ultimate goal. Truthfully, I wish for a world overflowing with women leaders; I believe it’ll improve the world tenfold. My dream is for the current systems of power and privilege to be uprooted, to be replaced with more feminist models of egalitarianism and humanism. But these are just dreams. In reality, women leaders—like Merkel, like Clinton—are often referred to as a plethora of slurs, as a bitch, a snake, a phony, a devil. People say they want a woman in power, just not “that woman.” They said that about Clinton, they say it now about Warren and Harris and Pelosi, and they’ll continue to say it about every woman with even the most minuscule speck of power because they don’t want women to have any power. We wish to elevate the voices of women until they become a priority—then they must be silenced.
In these cases, I can’t help but contemplate history’s pattern of suppressing powerful women: When Dido and Cleopatra inevitably fell to power-hungry men, their authors killed them off. Even today, that’s what we expect of women leaders. Even today, the “greatest” of women are not enough.