President’s Day is a reminder to reflect on history and, of course, on our presidents. As a woman, I’m rather conflicted on this. It’s not that I can’t identify with any of our leaders or have some sort of crazed “every male leader is irrelevant” mind-set. However, I find it dull from a historian’s perspective. Indeed, during the colonial period America was behind on the times. Whenever asked to think of a leader to admire in history class, many people’s responses involved some American president; my mind, instead, would wander to England or Egypt. What always fascinated me was the many women who had a large part in the shaping of their respective countries, though these countries’ modern day politics may or may not reflect that part. As a history scholar, I chose a couple of my favorites. While I would not agree with every decision or type of government, we can learn significantly from these historic leaders.
England fascinated me because it was as often ruled by women as it was by men. Elizabeth I was the first to really powerhouse her way through the English monarchy. Her intuitive intelligence, determination and keen judgement pulled England into a new age. While I disagree astutely with her religious doctrine, her ability to stabilize the church kept England from religious wars that plagued other European countries at the time, such as France, who had a male ruler. Furthermore, she heralded in an age of exploration with famous explorers such as Drake, Raleigh and Gilbert; this eventually led to the formation of the East India Company. Often referred to as the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth chose not to marry; a decisive, incredible feat at a time when most women would have been pressured to take a husband. None of this should conclude that Elizabeth’s reign was perfect; she built up some of the largest debt of any English ruler at the time. However, she brought a Golden Age to England when it had previously been falling behind Portugal and Spain in colonization and exploration.
Cleopatra and Nefertiti are the most recognized queens of Egypt, but there was one that pulled off a spectacular heist unheard of in Ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut was the third woman to become a pharaoh in three thousand years and the first to attain full power. It was understood in Ancient Egypt that women could not handle the the power of being pharaoh and so titles were passed from father to son. In 1479 B.C., her half-brother, husband and pharaoh, died. As was the custom, she began acting as the reagent for his infant son, who was born from another woman. Within less than seven years, Hatshepsut assumed full power. Later in her reign of 21 years, she reinvented her image as a male in statues and paintings to solidify her claim to the throne. Interestingly, her official title before her husband died was “God’s Wife of Amun” instead of the typical “King’s Wife.” Some speculate this may have paved her way to the throne. Despite sometimes disguising her identity as a man, Hatsphepsut was not immune to her emotions and often expressed her doubts and thoughts openly, an attribute often frowned upon in today’s female politicians. Her reign was known for ambitious building projects such as Deir el-Bahri which stands as a prominent wonder today. An ambitious expedition to Eritrea (then known as Punt) brought back wonderful riches such as ivory, gold and incense. Like Elizabeth the I, she brought Egypt into a new era as the New Kingdom.
It is easy to reflect on historic icons in order to reference what we admire in a leader. It is quite another to evaluate present day leaders whose actions may have not yet seen ramifications. Perhaps it’s because we often romanticize history; perhaps it’s because we have shrunk the gap between women and men; or perhaps it is because our important political roles have become sensations or reserved for celebrities. In fact, our very definition of leader seems faulty as it is synonymous with more “important” titles such as President or Queen. Whatever the case, we often see the historic accomplishments of other leaders in a bigger scope. I find it’s harder to determine what I would want in a female leader today; indeed, I don’t really have any people in mind presently that I would call leaders, except one.
The best contemporary female leader that comes to my mind is Malala Yousafzai. I first heard her story on the Daily Show and I was awestruck by her courage in a country where women are afraid to merely walk down a street, let alone attend a class. The historical icons above paled in comparison to Malala’s account. This was no queen, this was no diplomat, president or even celebrity; yet, she forever changed and disrupted the upheaval happening in Pakistan and the Middle East concerning women’s rights. This young woman, Malala, began an international movement of advocacy for girls’ rights to education. She demonstrated to the rest of the world that you don’t have to be a royal, you don’t have to be a celebrity or even be well-known in order to make a difference. Sometimes all that stands in the way of progress and change is that one small voice of courage.
If you haven’t already (it’s on my list to-be-read!), I have heard the reviews about her book are excellent. You can find her book, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban”, here.
Now that you’ve heard from me, I want to hear from you. What female leaders have inspired you, either past or present? What would you want to see in a female leader today?
Elizabeth the I:
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