Lacey Baldwin Smith has written that “Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes.” A slight exaggeration, maybe. But it is true that the historical accuracy of the depictions in Tudor portraits, particularly of royalty, was often at war with “symbolic iconizing” — the use of imagery to represent the person’s character, position or role. The symbolism could include inscriptions, emblems, mottos, relationships with other people, animals, or objects, and it could also be written into the body itself. A famous example is Hans Holbein’s sketch of Henry VIII — the painting itself was destroyed in a fire — with the king posed to emphasize his power, authority, and resoluteness: legs spread and firmly planted, broad shoulders, one hand on his dagger, and a very visible codpiece (larger, art historians have noted, than portraits of other men at the time.) His stance, as historian Suzanne Lipscomb points out, “mimics the stance of a man standing in full armour…sparking associations with martial glory.”
Holbein’s sketch is an idealization, for sure. But accurate or not, it demonstrates something significant about notions of male authority and the male body. When the monarch is a man, the flesh-and-blood body and the body of monarchical power work in tandem. As a particularly clear historical example: the codpiece. It houses a flesh-and-blood penis, which engages in (and can fail at) the biological functions of sex and reproduction. But as ostentatious armor for that flesh-and-blood organ, it transcends the biological to symbolize the magisterial phallus, invulnerable, unchangeable, always upright and at the ready — and in early modern portraits, intentionally so. For Henry VIII, that power was also tied to generative ability via the capacity to bring forth male heirs. “Am I not a man like any other?” he is said to have thundered when Ambassador Eustace Chapuys dared to suggest that perhaps Henry’s union with Anne Boleyn wouldn’t produce an heir. “A man like any other” here is no lowly thing, for the ability to generate heirs to ensure the continuance of the Tudor line is not just (or even primarily) biological — it’s cosmological, it secures Henry’s immortality, and preserves his kingdom. A king is never merely a reproducer.
When the monarch is female, however, the situation is very different. The female body, being famously associated with inferior intelligence, emotional instability, and indeed, as French philosopher Beauvoir wrote, with the body itself, “weighed down by everything peculiar to it” is virtually defined by its imperfections. And when reproduction fails, of course, it is the Queen who is to blame. So, Katherine of Aragon’s and then Anne Boleyn’s failure to produce a male heir was taken by Henry as a sign from God that he was married to the wrong woman. It was unthinkable that it should be Henry’s fault. The biological body of the queen, in contrast, like all female bodies an undependable quagmire of female stuff, only becomes mystically aligned with God when chosen by the King, and that mystique only lasts so long as she produces heirs.
It’s no wonder that Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, avoided marriage and a domestic, reproductive life and felt the need to dissociate herself from her female body, as in her famous speech at Tilsbury to the troops about to fight the Spanish Armada. Dressed in armour (although undoubtedly not with gorgeous red hair blowing freely in the wind, as imaginatively depicted by Shekhar Kapur in the film Elizabeth) she famously insisted that although she had the vulnerable, physical body of a woman, she had “the heart and stomach of a king.”
But there was, of course, a catch. While to be perceived as kingly it was necessary to disown the “weak and feeble” female body, at the same time, to be not female enough was to invite suspicions and accusations of being “unnatural” — or, as Hillary Mantel once described Margaret Thatcher, a “psychological transvestite.” (Yes, it’s cringeworthy.) This charge was popular among Elizabeth’s detractors, both in her own lifetime and during those periods (such as the Victorian era) when Elizabeth’s failure to behave in a gender-normative way jangled cultural nerves especially harshly.
In her own time, Elizabeth herself recognized that the danger in being perceived as “too masculine” — especially as she remained unmarried and without children. To win the admiration and love of her subjects — and with the help of her courtiers and officials, the “spinmeisters” of the time — she developed a whole new vocabulary of public symbols, establishing a “cult of Elizabeth” to replace the idolatry of the Virgin Mary that was banned from her officially protestant England. Historian Susan Doran has argued, however, that it’s wrong to over-emphasize the “virgin” part, except in terms of more pagan rather than Christian associations, not indicating an intact hymen but a woman “sufficient unto herself” (rather than in need of a man.) And the Virgin Mary, besides being a virgin, was also famously a mother, and many of the symbols in the most glorious paintings of Elizabeth employ other symbols of generativity and material self-sacrifice — the pelican, for example, often depicted in renaissance bestiaries as sucking blood from its own body to feed its young.
Since she had no biological children, the emphasizing of Elizabeth’s maternal nature was recast by Elizabeth as embracing the “mothering” of her subjects. A famous incident took place in 1559, as the House of Commons was pressuring her to choose a husband, arguing that “nothing could be more repugnant to the common good than to see a Princesse…lead a single life, like a vestal nun.” According to some accounts, Elizabeth had replied that she was “already bound unto a Husband, which is the Kingdome of England” and went on to tell them to “reproach me no more, that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many are English, are my children.”
In this way, Elizabeth I challenged — and in many ways succeeded in transcending — the double-bind that plagues female leaders to this day. The challenge: to exhibit the strength and authority associated with masculinity while at the same time avoiding being perceived as “not woman.” It’s a double-bind, as I argue in my book on the 2016 election, that was especially difficult for Hillary Clinton to navigate. Her famous (and misrepresented) “cookies and teas” remark alienated both men and non-professional women, and the control and discipline she developed over her decades as a public figure was seen by some (and often presented in the mass media) as “stiff” and arrogant. But there’s no doubt that had she made more traditional choices in life — limiting her activities to decorating the White House and advising Bill on via “pillow talk” — she would never have risen as far as she did.
The double-bind for female politicians remains in 2019, but partly because of the price Hillary paid for being so seemingly self-contained, we are far more accepting of emotional spontaneity among female politicians than we were — and arguably, there is both less need for women to demonstrate competence and less resentment of it. I don’t want to over-emphasize how much “things have changed” — and of course, as of this writing in September 2019, the 2020 election is still over a year away. But I do think that such factors have played a role in Elizabeth Warren’s unexpected popularity — and potential to actually succeed not only in winning the nomination but becoming our first female President.
I think that (rather unexpectedly) meeting this challenge is a large reason for Elizabeth Warren’s popularity — and potential to actually succeed not only in winning the nomination but becoming our first female President. I say “unexpected” because if asked several months ago which of the Democratic candidates had the best chance at successfully disarming the weapons used against Hillary Clinton, Warren would not have been my guess. To begin with she had been a — gasp — law professor, a profession that, thanks to films like The Paper Chase, brings up images of arrogant, rigid disciplinarians shaming unprepared students. In 2010, she appeared on a Time cover, along with Mary Schapiro and Sheila Blair, staring sternly at the imagined reader; the headline: “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street.” When Warren was running for the Massachusetts senate in 2013, she frequently was charged with being “harsh” and a “know-it-all” and a democratic analyst for Boston radio station WBUR said she sounded like “some angry, hectoring schoolmarm.” As recently as this past November, pundit Rick Taylor complained that she was “hard to like.”
During the last few months, as Warren began to draw bigger and bigger crowds, that seems to have changed. But while pundits frequently attributed her rise to having a plan for everything — which is indeed refreshing! — and to her boundless energy and passion, I’m not sure that these qualities alone are what have drawn more and more people to her. Sure, Warren is smart, straightforward, and amazingly knowledgeable. And although at 70, she is not so different in years from Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, no one ever raises the issue of her age. Her vitality — and the stunning absence of any turkey-neck — make her seem ageless. All huge plusses, to be sure.
But there are a few other features that most pundits fail to mention — factors that fall on the reassuringly “female/maternal” side of the still surviving dualisms that underly the double-binds I’ve been discussing. It’s striking, for example, that Warren refers to all children (not just infants) as “our babies” — a phrase that suggest her heart goes out to the vulnerability of everyones children. The mothers of black children, in particular, know that feeling, that “sharing” of parental protectiveness over all their children, not just ones own.
The first major plan that Warren publicly introduced (shoved off the tv by Bernie Sanders announcement of his candidacy on the same day) was for universal childcare. And then, too, there are the previously little-known facts of her biography, facts that many women (both those who work outside the home and those who are “stay-at-home moms” — a phrase Warren uses without apology) identified with and warmed them to her. Like many of us of her generation, her path was not one of laser-focused ambition. She dropped out of school to become a wife and mother, and tells the story without an ounce of resentment.
It’s a story which is familiar to many of us but which we rarely had heard from professional women understandably eager to demonstrate their credentials in maleworld. A story of life as lived by a woman of a particular era, who did what was expected of her and who, born into an economically struggling family, expected very little. A story of a woman who knew first-hand what it was like, when she went back to school, to encounter the problem of finding affordable day care. And here’s one that came as a real surprise to many: Long before she went to law school and became a college professor, she not only had been a special needs teacher but becoming that was the realization of her dreams. It was not a second-best job; she wanted to care for special needs children.
Both Warren and her husband were genuinely surprised at the course her life was to take. I “get that” and I’m sure many other women do too. Born just a few years before Warren (I’m 72), it had never occurred to me that I could actually “become a writer.” That was for folks with money and connections — and mostly, that was for men. I dropped out of college when I lost my scholarship and married when I was 21, and although I didn’t have children until I adopted a daughter much later in my life, I surely would have if the marriage hadn’t proved short-lived, for I wanted children more than anything. When I finally managed to make my way to graduate school (after years of odd jobs and eventually get a college degree,) I was astounded at the ambitious plans of the male students. It seemed they all expected to land good jobs and achieve fame in their fields, while I had so few expectations that I didn’t even like to think about the future. I knew I was smart and could put an impressive argument together. But I was genuinely surprised when my teachers praised my writing and utterly blown away when it turned out to not only be publishable but influential within the just-developing fields of gender, culture, and body studies.
My point? It’s not, I emphasize, to criticize those women who do follow a straight career path, or choose not to have children. It is to suggest that women’s lives rarely fall neatly into the categories we assume they do. And while gendered double-standards and double-binds are a fact of politics that no-one escapes, they are fed by stereotypes about “professional women” that need to be exploded, once and for all. We shouldn’t have to prove, as Elizabeth I did, that having the ability to rule does not mean we lack the “softer,” “maternal” qualities associated with the traditional roles of women. We only imagine that to be the case because our images of female leadership are either/or caricatures drawn in the shadow of male paradigms — caricatures that are far from accurate portraits of the lives of so many of us (that applies to men, too), even among some of the most successful. Elizabeth Warren, having been saddled by such caricatures in the past, is exposing those stereotypes, exploding them, and hopefully, helping people to get beyond them — nomatter which candidate they ultimately vote for.
Susan Bordo is the author of numerous books and articles on cultural history, gender, and the media. She publishes regularly on Medium. Her most recent books are The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election and The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen.