The Pembroke-King’s Programme’s third plenary lecture of the 2016 programme was delivered by medieval historian Dr Helen Castor. Dr Castor’s talk was entitled ‘She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth’ and drew on her book of the same name.
Dr Castor began the talk by going back to the 12th Century when England very nearly had its first queen. Matilda was the only surviving heir of William II, son of William the Conqueror, who was declared his heir and successor. It was important to note that no one objected to the idea of a woman as Queen at this time. In fact, Dr Castor explained, it wasn’t until after her cousin Stephen had challenged her for the crown and she had captured him that her supporters noted that she did not act in the demure, proper manner expected of a woman. In fact they said that she was acting in an arrogant fashion or, as Dr Castor pointed out, like her father, like a King.
This introduced the theme of the talk as it moved on to the 16th Century and Mary and Elizabeth Tudor both of whom had problems balancing the expectations of what a King should be and what a woman should be. Even Mary’s greatest supporters wanted her to marry as quickly as possible so that a man could lead which she did to her own detriment. Elizabeth on the other hand declared that she was capable of leading on her own but that was because she was special. In her famous speech to the Troops at Tilbury, Elizabeth declared that she had “the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a King”.
From Elizabeth, Dr Castor took the talk to Margaret Thatcher and women leaders in politics, explaining that although England has had four Queens since Elizabeth I, they have all held the throne since the Glorious Revolution and the beginning of parliamentary democracy which meant that subsequent monarchs have reigned rather than ruled making them figureheads, which is a typically feminine concept anyway. Thatcher then is a better example of modern perceptions of female rule and she took her lessons from Elizabeth I. Margaret Thatcher, like Elizabeth, was not just a woman, she was an icon. An icon who did not believe that all women could rule but rather, that she was the exception as emphasised by the all-male cabinet she chose.
Dr Castor then explained the difference between the approaches of Angela Merkel and Theresa May in asserting themselves as female rulers. Hillary Clinton she noted is another in a list of women who have inherited political power due to their father or husband such as has been seen in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Argentina.
In conclusion, Dr Castor said:
If we can be alert to our language and assertions, if we can ask more questions about how they shape the reality in which we live then we might have a chance at moving the story of women in power out of the 12th century and into the 21st.