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Femininity Leading the Nations

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...

Liberty Leading the People commemorates the French ‘July Revolution’ of 28 July 1830. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Riyadh: Sunday 10th June, 2012

My late father was fond of telling a story, which has always obtained a raucous laugh. It was crude and my father was good at telling it, but there is more to the story’s comic success than its popularism or delivery.

For it conveyed on multiple levels something true about the teller, the subject, the listener and their respective prejudices.

It concerns a function hosted by a British Trade Delegation to the United Arab Emirates during the early 1980’s. The weather was hot and sticky and the company flagging as various British businessmen tried to excite an Emirati trade minister and his delegation as to the merits of British Exports. Then, as one of the Businessmen referenced his product as having been tried and tested during the recent Falklands Conflict, the Arab Official became suddenly expansive, animated and enthusiastic.

“Let me tell you, I love your Mrs. Thatcher!!” he glowed,“She has Balls!!”

As my father would mimic the punch line, he would make a hand gesture to accompany the word balls, turning his palm upwards and contracting his thumb and fingers to simulate compression of the testis in a hand.

Invariably, my father would tell the story when someone would attempt to belittle or question Mrs Thatcher or her policies. The clear implication behind the story was that international perception of Britain abroad had been revolutionised and restored by a woman who resurrected and exerted a style of leadership associated in the world’s collective mind, with positive masculinity. She might not have been a man, but she was one of the boys, dragging Britain (by the balls) back into the boy’s club of nations.

We should not be surprised at this perception, least of all from an Emirati. The Middle East is a profoundly male oriented region where male traits are encouraged and admired and where perceptions of masculinity are deeply engrained with ideas of leadership, responsibility, status and power.

But while the laughter this story would engender proves that these notions are common to all cultures, Western nations have historically divined idiosyncratic and surprising historical associations between women, power, leadership and national Identity. While it is fair to say that Chauvinism and Prejudice have flourished everywhere, Western Society has an unusual story to tell about the relationship between gender and nationhood.

To be abundantly clear on this. While gender stereotypes might not be nice, they not only exist, but form a critical to understanding Western attitudes towards Leadership.

The West has spent most of it’s history fighting. Occasionally these wars have been against people from other continents, but mostly we have fought each other. And because we have done so,our societies have evolved mechanisms for dealing with war. Feudalism, and the formation of easily defendable food stores and bureaucracies in towns and villages, the construction of roads, the development of institutions such as marriage and the preponderance of certain trades, were all designed around the central requirement to move quantities of armed young men into place to fight one another.

People looking to understand why nations exist, why they developed complex state infrastructures and behave the way they do, need, first and foremost need to understand this basic fact. Partly, this is simple geography. Rivers or mountain ranges or seas form the natural frontiers of a state and essentially determine why a given nation is where it is and why it behaves in the way it does.

But most countries do not see themselves that way. Why should they? They have fought and sacrificed to get where they are. It was man’s sacrifice which vouchsafed the national achievement, not nature’s.

Which begs a question. Since Western nations are usually the product of geography and war, and since wars are perpetrated, in the main, by young men, why do those same young men, go on to personify their national character in distinctly feminine terms?

For, while there are exceptions to this rule, most Western Countries do exactly that. To Arabs this characterization might make no sense. Arab counties are male in orientation, run by men and they reflect male preoccupations. Hierarchical in structure and instinct, they can give the impression of the boys only school at which I was educated. Here too, ideas such as social mobility or compassion (instincts which can be said to characterise much of western discourse) were none-existent. Your status in the line of hierarchy was decided within a few hours of your arrival and never wavered for a single day until the day you left: unless, and only unless you made it with a girl. This was the goal of all adolescent boys and to achieve it could transform your social standing overnight.

Is Joan the first model for the Statue of Liberty?

Women are the key to Western Values, therefore. They are the key to unlocking social mobility and introspection, compassion and fairness. They are the key to providing nations with positive narratives beyond power projection and military success. And just as importantly, women are the glue that bind men to a nation. The famous saying that behind every great man lies a greater woman, is just the tip of the iceberg. For while men might have developed the religions and political philosophies at the core of western values, but it is very often the priorities, actions and utterances of women which have informed this thinking. And when men construct national ideas, it is to women they look to for inspiration.

Just as sailors apply gender to their vessels, referring to them as she: just as young airmen paint attractive girls on the aircraft, so the men who have traditionally held leadership positions or fought in the service of nations have come to think of their homeland in decidedly gender specific ways.

To the French, La Republic came to be personified person of Marianne (or Liberty), a young, usually statuesque, pale skinned and often bare-chested woman. In the painting, Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, we see the epitome of the warrior-like and scandalised personification of French Revolutionary spirit. Risen and leading on Parisians in revolt.

Why should the French choose to apply gender to their nation in this way? Well, there are a number of reasons. For one thing, there is the continued historical memory of Joan of Arc, the French peasant girl from the charming sounding village of Domremy-la-Poucelle who was visited by the archangel Gabriel and set about restoring fighting spirit, and winning ways to the army of the French Dauphin, triumphing at the siege of Orleans and leading France to victory over the English during The 100 Years War. It does not take feminine levels of empathy to see a direct connection in people’s minds between Joan and her idealised personification in the person of Marianne.

Then there is the stark contrast between Liberty herself and the much less attractive personage of Madam Guillotine; whose preeminent role in the 1789 Revolution has not led to anywhere near the same level of cinematic stardom encountered by her Bete Noir, Marie Antoinette. In simple terms, the toothless, knitting crone sitting at the base of the guillotine does not make for great propaganda. Liberty, with her purity, her passion, vitality and beauty does. Young French men would fight and die for Liberty, in a way they would not for Madam Guillotine. Beauty trumps proximity every time in the dirty business of inspiring male loyalty.

And France is not alone in depicting herself in terms of gender. Was not the Britannia, the personification of Britain, a woman?

Like Liberty, Britannia is statuesque and beautiful. Unlike Liberty she is seldom depicted striding forward into battle with sward aloft. Rather, Britannia’s work is temporarily done. She, is depicted in repose, shield and trident to hand, ready to defend her nation if called upon. She is a warrior. But unlike Liberty, she is not a strident, unremitting warrior of revolution but stands for order and the rule of law. Britannia has completed her fighting and stands for peace and justice. Which curiously, is usually the very thing the British will justify have gone to war for.

A modern-day advert depicting the classic image of Britannia

But if Liberty is based upon Joan of Arc, upon whom is Britannia based? Well her long hair, left down, tends not to indicate the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, though her slender proportions perhaps do. A more likely personage is Boudicca (who was called Boadicea in my childhood Ladybird Books). Certainly the classic image of Britannia, carrying Trident, Shield and Roman Helmet loosely recall the chariot warfare of the Iceni Tribes preferred means of waging war.

But Britannia does owe something to Elizabeth. For before there existed a Britain to personify, the Virgin Queen, marched out in gilded breastplate to meet her armies preparing to meet the Spanish Armada should it land.

“I may have the body of a week and feeble woman,” she conceded, “but I have the heart and stomach of a King;and of a King of England, too.”

This was England’s Joan of Arc at Orleans moment. With Elizabeth’s childless life and heirless death, the Scottish King James IV would inherit the English throne, thus beginning  the process which would lead to the formation of the United Kingdom, just over a Century later, and see its zenith a century after that, with the incorporation of Ireland. Much history remained to be written at that moment, but Britain already had her protean gendered personification waiting for her moment to shine.

Britannia is an interesting choice for another reason, which is that the Northern Portion of her realm, Scotland, has a decidedly less successful cast of women to call upon as inspiration to her warriors. Mary; Queen of Scots was tragic as well as somewhat Catholic for the prevailing mood of her age. Margaret, Maid of Norway,was another tragic Scottish female , whose childhood death on her way back to Scotland from Norway, where she had been sent to protect her from enforced marriage to an English Prince, triggered a constitutional crisis.

Another Margaret, sets a purer example of Queenship, but unfortunately, her reforms of the Scottish church away from the Celtic model are really the result of her having been raised in the English court.

When Scotland looks to examples of leadership, it tends to look to men.

Take this evocation of the heroes of the Wars of Independence, by poet, Robert Burns.

“Scots, wha Hae, Wi Wallace Bled.

Scots wham Bruce has often Lead.

Welcome tae yer gory bed;

or tae victory!”

No evocations of feminine virtue to defend and inspire here. Instead Burns provides young Scottish manhood an altogether different notion of national sacrifice.

Wallace and Bruce do not really inspire in the same way as Joan or Elizabeth inspire. Rather, Burns offers Scots a stark choice. Victory or a gory death, This is fairly brutal stuff, is their not a third option?

Sadly not. Burns points out, that we can, “see approach Proud Edward’s power; chains and slavery.” [The Edward in question being either Edward I Plantagenet, opponent of Wallace, or his son, Edward II, whom Robert Bruce Robert I of Scots, defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314] “

So that’s it, then. Slavery, death or victory.

But Burns offers an alternative; or rather, four alternatives, positive inspirations for which men will fight and die.

“’Wha, for Scotland’s king and law,

Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,

Freeman stand, or Freeman fa,

Let him on wi me.

By Oppression’s woes and pains,

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free

Lay the proud usurpers low,

Tyrants fall in every foe,

Liberty’s in every blow!

Let us do or dee

So according to Burns, Scots do not fight for a personification of nationhood, but for King, Law, Freedom and Liberty.

And this chimes with the prevailing surviving document of the time, The Declaration of Arbroath, the most quoted passage of which reads,

“for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

The Declaration is an important document and is directly incorporated into the modern British Constitutional Settlement. It asserts that the King’s position is subject to continued support from a nobility who’s first loyalty is to the Nation and to Freedom rather than the King.

In other words, King Robert I is King of Scots, not of Scotland. His powers are contingent upon the continued support of the Scottish Ruling Estates, whose legacy has since passed from the Nobility to the legislature, executive and judiciary.

To this day, the Queen is Queen of England, but she is Queen of Scots, not of Scotland.

And so we see a fundamentally different perception emerge between ideas of Nation. England has a long history of deep-rooted relationships between strong female leaders and their people and unsurprisingly, her men are inspired to invoke a powerful female character and personification to their sacrifices. Scots, have a more brutal and divided history to fall back on and a more equivocal historic relationship with femininity in positions of power. Correspondingly Scots must seek to find other things to inspire tenderness and sacrifice. On the face of it, Burns falls back on the leadership of national icons, Wallace and Bruce, but as we can see, the underpinning images of Scottishness, are actually values based.

Scotland is not personified, but ideas based. This ‘Idea of Scotland’ is becoming increasingly important by the time of Robert Burns as, with the Union well established it is increasingly of concern to men like Burns and Walter Scott,that Scottish difference be emphasised in order that Scotland survive at all.

Scotland is not personified, but created as a series of ideas and concepts. But why? France is a country founded of revolutionary ideas: Liberty, may lead the people but she is joined in the struggle by egalite and fraternite. The key to the answer of why France has personified herself in feminine terms and Scotland hasn’t is only partly answered by the fact that there was no Scottish Joan of Arc..

To answer it fully, we must look at the defining political settlements of these two polities, both of which took place in the 18th Century. And what do we find? We find that the Treaty of Union in 1707, brings forth a British Britannia and the French revolution of 1789 heralds a French Liberty. But crucially, we also find that the nations that personify are themselves increasingly basing their understanding of themselves in terms of the predominant Enlightenment thinking. Britannia does not stand for some loose notion of a geographical entity, but for a nation which increasingly sees herself in terms of Freedom and civilisation, continuity and Free Trade. It is worth considering that there is no modern equivalence to these confidently asserted values in modern Britain. Patriotism is increasingly defined in terms of sporting achievement more than ideas.

Britannia, incorporating both the English and Scots, is the personification of the new United Kingdom. This need to personify the new polity is unsurprising, given the deeply pragmatic nature of this Union. This was not a holistic union in the sense of two systems being combined to make one new one, or one system taking over the other. On the contrary, the English sought union in order to protect and secure her northern frontier from the influence and invasion of the French, while the Scots sought independence in order to gain access to the large English market place. This Union was very much a marriage of convenience, with separate systems and values being retained and fought over throughout history. In time, shared values would form, around shared interest, but Britannia was never the result of an ideological union. Other than itself, The United Kingdom stood for nothing very much at the outset. This changed with the rapid expansion of Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Britannia, became the image which ‘Ruled the Waves.’

We should not see the United Kingdom as a week marriage just because it was not a marriage built of love. On the contrary, this very differentness has created deeply complimentary sides to the marriage, with Scots proving to be enthusiastic Imperialists and the English, an essentially benign presence in Scottish life, content for the most part to allow her church and judiciary to function independently wherever, these did not negatively impact the wider national interest. Scots who occasionally refer to Scotland as colonised are doing so without basis in history.

But other countries, have had even quirkier relationships with gender.

English: Russia stands for truth. World War I ...

English: Russia stands for truth. World War I poster. The double-headed dragon shows the beards of the Austrian Emperor and the German Emperor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Russians refer to “Mother Volga” and “Mother Russia” for obvious reasons. Russia, west of the Urals, is essentially flat, a shallow basin through which the Volga, Dniester and Dnieper Rivers have historically acted as the main unifying arteries of trade and subsistence.

The implications are clear, the Russian people are born of the harvests and trade of the Volga. In a real sense, Russia has nursed the Russians. And in much the same way, the Russians seem incapable of escaping their domineering mother’s purse strings. The history of Russia, it  is argued, not least in Martin Sixmith’s epic BBC Radio History of 1000 Years of Russian History, is an endless succession of relaxations of State control followed by a corresponding tightening of interference. Just as teenagers obsess over freedom from their mothers, so Russians, find it impossible to fully breakaway from the domineering power of the maternal State.

And what a domineering mother, Mother Russia has been, subjecting her people to untold hardships and sacrifice throughout history.

Contrast this with Germany. For the german State has a strange relationship with gender aswell. Fort most of history, there has been no single Germanic State, but rather a loose confederation of statelets. Yet most people are familiar with notions of the German Fatherland. Clearly, Germany sees itself in decidedly masculine terms. Why should there be a Mother Russia and a Fatherland on the North European plane?

We can probably trace this to Prussian Militarism and the striking imagery of the order of Teutonic Knights, whose chivalric and martial values essentially lead to the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. This caste of Male leadership was probably the last casualty of WWII, the generalship and soldiery raised under this system, succumbing to Germany’s defeat, guilt and desire to forget.

Finally, there is America. Like France, the United States, is a nation founded on conflict and revolution. Like France, it has based its understanding of itself upon philosophical concepts like liberty or freedom. But unlike France, the US has based her constitution upon a pragmatic system of federal government. The US might, at first glance, appear very like the French model, right down to the Statue of Liberty, a gift of the French and emblematic of “The American Dream” shared by so many. But on closer inspection, we find her system of governance to be an ongoing and often unresolved series of conflicts between the centralizing instincts of the Federal State and the devolving interests of State legislatures, communities or individuals. Much like the United Kingdom, in fact.

And so we can see the United States, not as the sister of French Liberty but as one of  twins, Each the bastard offspring of a warring couple, Britannia and Liberty (Marianne).

P Statue of Liberty

American Liberty A sober contrast to bare breasted Marianne but dressed as Britannia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have the first American twin, Liberty, every inch the image of her French mother, but retaining some of the qualities of her other British mother, Britannia. Not for American Liberty the bare breasted warrior, of her mother. On the contrary, she prefers the gowns of antiquity, deriving her authority, not from reckless beauty but from sober, steadfast stewardship of the flame. You almost get the impression that she is slightly embarrassed of her mothers past.

And what of the other twin? Who was the other spawn of Franco-British philosophizing?

Why Uncle Sam, of course!! He lacks his sisters intellectualism or her attachment to ideas based patriotism. But he understands her war-like spirit, her love of freedom and her unquestioning patriotism.

Physically, he is clearly Britannia’s son but his temperament is that of Marianne in Liberty Leading the People and he has been cheerfully championing American notions of simple patriotism since his birth.

By contrast, American Liberty is temperamentally, more in tune with Britannia and is prone to tiredness. She no longer welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” with such abandon, though one suspects, like Britannia, after a rest, she will stand up to her brother’s bombastic nature once more.

3 comments on “Femininity Leading the Nations

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