An extract from the chapter “Leading from the Fringes: Women’s Paths to Political Power” by Karen Christensen, published in Women & Leadership: History, Theories, and Case Studies edited by George R. Goethals and Crystal A. Hoyt of the Jepson Leadership Academy, University of Richmond (Berkshire 2017). A link to the PDF of the full chapter is provided below.
A common English-language expression is that “behind every great man there’s a woman.” These women have been largely invisible, praised for their self-effacement and their tolerance of the sometimes less-than-admirable behavior of their great men. The British writer Edna Healey (1918–2010), herself the wife of a well-known politician, Dennis Healey, wrote a biography of the wives of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and David Livingstone, exploring the price women pay for loving a man with driving ambition or a sense of vocation that transcends ordinary concerns such as supporting a family or even being at home from one year to the next. Her own marriage, she wrote, was a perfect partnership, and her own ambition was satisfied by being a help-meet to her husband.
The idea of the “power couple”—an intimate partnership that pairs two people’s strengths and weaknesses and enables one partner, and the couple, to achieve things he or she could not have achieved alone—goes back through the ages. There are numerous accounts of weak or sickly leaders bolstered by strong mothers, wives, or lovers. A 1885 collection of biographies entitled Queenly Women, Crowned and Uncrowned (1885), explains that “Josephine was exactly the partner [Napoleon] needed. Her courtly magnificence, her urbanity of manner, and her fascinating talents contributed scarcely less than his victories to the advancement of her husband.”
But the woman was always subordinate, and in many cases there was no acknowledgment of the possibility of female leadership. In Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, author James Davidson cites the example of the orator Apollodorus addressing a court: “Hetaeras we keep for pleasure, concubines for attending day-by-day to the body and wives for producing heirs, and for standing trusty guard on our household property.” But Davidson also points out that reality did not square with these neat divisions—women often stepped outside the boundaries set for them.
Women leaders often provoke accusations of weaknesses and susceptibilities, and questionable loyalties. In Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, editor Anne Walthall points out in the introduction that, “For commentators around the world, women and power constitute an unholy mix. Women, it is assumed , do not know how to use power; they play favorites, corrupt officials if not the king, squander the state’s financial resources, and lack the courage to resist enemies.” Attacks on female rulers were often personal; gossip about female rulers’ sexuality—from Catherine the Great to Hillary Clinton —has often overshadowed attention paid to their policies.
And stories about the incapacity of women are rife. The great Chinese military strategist Sunzi, to whom The Art of War is attributed, proved his methods to the King of Wu by using the king’s two favorite concubines as commanders in a military drill. They were directed to lead 180 concubines but giggled instead of following Sunzi’s orders; he therefore insisted that the king execute them. Two more concubines were chosen to lead the troops. All the “soldier” concubines then followed orders precisely. This fact convinced the king to appoint Sunzi as a general; if his rules would work with women, they would work with any common soldier.