**As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a complimentary copy of Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff for review. This post was inspired by reading the book, and you can check out other club members' posts by going to www.fromlefttowrite.com starting on 27 September.**
I recently graduated from college with my bachelors' degree in history. It was a big deal for me, a long awaited dream and a goal that I had put off.
I mention this only because it seems to me that, with said degree, I should have some knowledge of, well, history. I read this book, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff(who is totally my new hero! Author, scholar, historian, yo!) and I learned so much! I learned a lot, and I also disabused myself of some of notions previously held.
Obviously, as a history major, and a historian, I'm fascinated by history. I also love politics, and nothing pumps my blood pressure like an election season, preferably with big issues at stake. And really, when isn't there a big issue at stake? But every election season, I lament the ever-increasing hostility and lack of manners and decency. I wish that we could back to the days when politics was a little more civil and polite. Heh. And when, pray tell, would those days have been? Loosely defined, I think of politics as the relationship between the government and the governed. The bosses and the workers. The leaders and the people. The business of making a nation function.
That's what I mean. You'd think I would know that politics has always been a blood sport, quite often literally, and maybe never more so than in Cleopatra's time. In the early chapters of Cleopatra, Schiff outlines Cleopatra's "ungainly shrub" of a family tree and her early years when she was groomed and trained to lead. She was schooled vigorously in philosophy and language and the art of public speaking and it seems her father had high aspirations for her. She married one of her brothers; a common practice of the time, hence the "ungainly shrub" of a family tree. They were expected to rule Egypt as king and queen and yet they were mercilessly plotting against one another, even to the death.
The thing I find kind of funny, not so much in the ha-ha way, but in the ironic way, is that a woman who was successful in politics in the years before Christ (B.C.) is, to this day, regarded as a wanton seductress, and cunning manipulator. Julius Caesar, with whom Cleopatra crafted an alliance, was regarded as a successful military strategist. Credit is given to his intellect and his leadership, while Cleopatra, who was not necessarily regarded as all that attractive in her time, has emerged from history as a breathtaking beauty who was capable of rendering men senseless with her come-hither smile and a bat of those kohl-rimmed eyes. She doesn't get credit for being smart and well-trained; she gets credit for being beautiful. But love her or hate her, she was on a pretty equal footing with the men of her time and outfoxed many of them, including her brother and husband Ptolemy who was trying so hard to kill her! When he discovered she had tricked him right under his nose, he literally burst into tears and threw a tantrum, so furious was he. Who says she's just a pretty face?
Fast forward about two thousand years...love them or hate them, there are some pretty powerful women in American politics these days. Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin. Their education and expertise, although it is hotly debated by many, was enough for the people that elected them. They didn't come to be governors or Senators or Secretary of State on their looks alone, and yet that is exactly how they seem to be judged first and foremost. Eventually the conversation will turn to intelligence (or perceived lack thereof), training, experience, education, political savvy. But a lot of weight is given to looks, when the same isn't true of their male counterparts. Unless you count the snarky jokes about John Edwards' $400 haircuts, but that's another post for another day....
Cliches become cliches for a reason, and this whole line of thought brings an oldie but a goodie to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same. No, a woman doesn't have to be beautiful to be successful, but it helps. Hillary's presidential campaign was history making, groundbreaking, and yet what got so much press was her wardrobe. Sarah Palin's clothing budget was the stuff of political legend. And just yesterday, I read a snark opinion piece complaining about how much Michele Bachmann must spend on her manicures.
I stand in awe of powerful women, who didn't follow the rules and didn't behave, no matter what they might have looked like. You know, well-behaved women don't make history.