From the Desk of Jacqueline Vanhoutte: Perceptions of Female Rule, Then and Now

Jacqueline Vanhoutte is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas, where she also chairs the English Department. She received her B.A. from Carleton College and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Jacque has published on Renaissance literature and culture in a range of scholarly journals, including ELR: English Literary Renaissance and Philological Quarterly. Her third book, Age in Love: Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Court, is in the Early Modern Cultural Studies series and now available. 


Perceptions of Female Rule, Then and Now

The 2016 American election and its aftermath showed our democracy to be stubbornly hostile to female politicians with presidential ambitions. As a student of Tudor England, I find attacks on women candidates uncannily reminiscent of those on Queen Elizabeth I and other sixteenth-century female rulers.

“To promote a woman to bear rule,” the polemicist John Knox wrote, is “repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

Knox expresses an orthodox opinion. The notion that female rule is a form of “usurped authority” has long structured Western political thought. Elizabeth I came by her crown through impeccably legitimate means—she inherited it. Nonetheless, she fought perceptions of usurpation and illegitimacy throughout her long reign.

Few today would openly espouse the view that women are “unconstant, variable, cruel,” given over to “inordinate appetites,” and therefore “lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” Nonetheless, it continues to shape attitudes to female politicians. Just ask the “Queen of Mean,” Nancy Pelosi, or the “Queen of Flip-Flopping,” Kirsten Gillibrand.

A recent New York Times article offers another case in point. It begins with the statement “Senator Amy Klobuchar was hungry, forkless and losing patience,” before accusing this “demanding” politician of “volatility” and “highhandedness” (never mind that she’s a US Senator, a job that requires its holder to demand things). Knox used different words, but he was talking about the same traits when he described the “monstrous regiment of women.”

The feminist philosopher Kate Manne attributes our negative perceptions about powerful women to the “residual patriarchal forces operating in our culture” (Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny [2018]). Not coincidentally, Manne quotes from Elizabethan works in her analysis of vestigial patriarchy. The longer I study Tudor England, the more I think that misogyny is built into Western democratic concepts, many of which were first formulated in response to the Tudor queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Age in Love explores perceptions of Elizabeth I in the final decades of her reign (1583-1603), when English subjects felt increasingly entitled to discuss matters of state. After it became clear that Elizabeth would never submit to a husband, English men sought to address perceived deficiencies in the queen’s judgment by turning to the printing press. This development was democratizing, in that it helped transform subjects into citizens. But it was also fueled—and therefore shaped—by misogynistic impulses.


The anxieties about the queen’s judgment produced an unprecedented series of public attacks on Elizabeth’s elder favorites, Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Both were considered upstarts, promoted because of Elizabeth’s irrational attraction to them. One especially influential pamphlet, known as Leicester’s Commonwealth (1584), offered a searing portrait of the earl as an “old adulterer” who resorted to aphrodisiacs to overcome the physical limitations imposed by age.  The poet Sir Philip Sidney observed that “who goes about to undermine” royal counselors in this manner “resolves withal to overthrow” the monarch.

Taking their cue from Leicester’s Commonwealth, anti-court writers showed a court awash in geriatric sexuality. In addition to calling the queen’s judgment into question, these attacks reduced her to an object of masculine discourse and manipulation, enforcing rhetorically the patriarchal norms that she had violated politically. By targeting the queen’s chosen men, and by figuring their submission as form of masculine degeneration, writers also redefined proper publicity in terms of traditional (rational, dominant) masculinity.

Only when women are in power does their judgment of men become such a source of hope, anxiety, and fascination. The possibility that a female ruler might alter the basis of society took root in the Elizabethan imagination because of the queen’s alleged preference for men who defied patriarchal norms. On the one hand, Elizabeth’s less favored subjects felt that her favorites usurped proper men, without having “merited…  to be so highly favored of her Majesty” as one anti-court polemicist put it.  On the other hand, male subjects hoped that they, too, would have their deserts graced one day.

Despite the Privy Council’s best efforts, the conversation about the queen’s men found its way onto the stage, where it assumed certain conventional patterns. Playwrights like Shakespeare catered to a taste for fat, lubricious, and lecherous old courtiers: the kind whom “men of all sorts take a pride to gird at,” the ones who are “the cause that wit is in other men” (2 Henry IV, 1.2.6, 10). Such characters embodied the adulterating effect of female rule, which Knox claimed caused “suche a metamorphosis and change” in men as “was made of the companions of Ulysses.”

In this context, Bottom, Falstaff, Malvolio, Claudius, Antony, all attest to Elizabeth’s shaping influence over the imagination of her most talented subject. When Puck finds his “mistress with a monster is in love” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.6), he gives comic expression to pervasive reservations about female rule, shared by the common people who gossiped about Hatton and Leicester’s sexual proclivities and the polemicists who denounced them. And yet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra show that the dream of election by a powerful woman could also be enthralling, a “most rare vision” to which Shakespeare succumbed time and again (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.2.204-205).

To go from Bottom to Antony as I do in my book is to chart the gradual elevation of the “age in love” figure in Shakespeare’s canon, an elevation that reflects his growing resistance to misogynistic prejudice and appreciation for Elizabeth I.

Although I started writing Age in Love over ten years ago, it ended up feeling strangely timely. The belief that to empower women is to disempower men persists today (see, e.g., the “Pelosi’s puppet” meme). As Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine observed in 2016, traditionally the concept of the “strong man” does not include serving a “strong woman” in a supportive role. We might do worse than turn to the Elizabethan past for ideas on how to overcome such beliefs and make our future more hospitable to female rule.

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