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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7 thoughts on “Wherefore Art Thou “Leader”?”
Very well written.
Great thought provoking post. Here are some of my thoughts on leadership. Rather than looking for governmental heads of state, I look for leaders in many walks of life, which to me means they have followers. If someone has spread their personal message and been rewarded with fans and followers, they are leaders.
I think Oprah Winfrey is a leader. I think she opened the door for black women to see themselves on the television every day, and not in a role as housekeeper, or cook, or nanny. She made white women in America recognize that the intelligence, desires, and power in black women easily matched their own. That has led directly to our current ability to demand that ‘black lives matter’. No, Oprah didn’t inspire that revolution. But she did give the women who participated in its creation the understanding that they, too, could become the most powerful women in America by working hard to achieve their goals.
I also think of Georgia O’Keefe, Grandma Moses, Sojourner Truth, and Anne McCaffrey as leaders. Each broke ground and developed vast followings that ultimately helped change traditions and unspoken rules keeping women from achieving full personhood.
We’re not there yet, and we do need young leadership. Emma Watson is definitely a woman to watch. I’m going to keep an eye on Chelsea Clinton as well. And I hope that someone who is relatively unknown, yet, will one day make all the difference in the world. Maybe it’ll be you.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Genta!
I definitely agree that many need to look outside of governmental “leadership” as it is very limited. I respectfully disagree with your definition of leadership only on the grounds that one can lead without followers. Whether others recognize them as leaders is different, but that does not mean they don’t make progress with a certain issue.
I certainly think the most important is that people have someone they can look up to, big or small. We may disagree on who we think is a great leader; but ultimately, everyone is trying to figure out how they can relate and what it means to their aspirations and perspectives on issues. Best~
I have read both of Malala’s books [One is simplified, and technically for young children, but I liked it a lot because it didn’t have as many names and acronyms and dates to remember and was more updated on her current life] and since then fallen in love with her. She is such a wonderful role model for young girls and is an inspiration.
I also really like Emma Watson. I knew her first from Harry Potter, but when she became the UN Women Ambassador, I was really excited. Her speech at the UN was fabulous and I really admire her for it.
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Thanks for sharing Chloe! I’ll have to read the other version, then.
I certainly have less qualms with Emma Watson being a UN Ambassador than I do Jolie. Emma at least has been attending school and is not unlike Hermione in that respect: a brilliant young woman (I saw them featured on a Japanese talk show during Harry Potter and she was the only one that bothered to learn Japanese!)
I do wish, though, that the UN would start employing average citizens who work tirelessly to make a difference but are rarely recognized; I don’t like that it seems to so often go to celebrities. But starting small will always lead to bigger changes right 🙂
Why was I never taught about some of these great female leaders, like Hatshepsut? I really enjoyed hearing about her, and it makes me wonder what other women leaders from history are out there for me to learn about that I’ve never heard of before.
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Isn’t it fascinating? It’s so sad that our World History courses don’t do a better job covering these leaders. Both that and American history classes study mostly male leaders but ignore the women who are often behind the scenes. But I think modern history is finally starting to change that–hopefully our modern historians catch on 😉