Women and power, a complicated legacy

Queen Victoria

Women and power, a complicated legacy

We’re always trying to explain how and why women rule, writes Julia Baird.


When Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838, Britain roared with enthusiasm for their “English rose.” The last three kings had been mad, corpulent or corrupt, so the five foot tall teenager was welcomed as an omen of a new era; men swooned, penned hopeless proposals and wept when they spied a glimpse of her.

But underlying the cheer was some anxiety about what a female sovereign might mean for the men of England. A satirical broadsheet printed at the time depicted two characters, Kitty and Joan, who were delighted at the thought of having their rights restored. The men, they said, had had their turn long enough! Joan claimed under the new queen all wives would be allowed one pint of beer and a glass of gin a day, as well as unlimited tea and snuff.

Kitty said the entire parliament would be full of women, including “Mother Mouth almighty”, the Prime Minister. But that was not all: “Every man who strikes his wife shall be tied to the leg of the bedstead till he begs his wife’s pardon; all single women, under thirty years of age, having neither crooked legs nor snaggle teeth, are invited to join the Guard of Honour; and anyone having more than six children at a birth is to be promoted to the rank of Staff Serjeant.”

That was the stuff, then, of utopian female dreams.

Nothing of the sort happened of course. England’s greatest Queen inspired generations of suffragettes, but largely washed her hands of women’s rights. She protested women were not made for governing, even as she bossed about Prime Ministers, appointed bishops and agitated for the sacking of cabinet ministers she disagreed with. Those women who argued for the vote ought to be spanked, she said, conveniently forgetting she had more power than almost anyone, male or female.

Women then were not supposed to desire power, though Queen Victoria adored it. What she espoused was amongst the greatest cliché’s of incompatibility of our time: water and oil, chalk and cheese, women and power.

For the better part of two centuries, women have fought to have their authority outside the home recognised; as priests who might represent God, as broadcasters who might report on war, as politicians who might govern. We’ve made massive inroads: we can vote, we can own property, have custody of our children, we can get elected to parliament, sit in cabinet (if doors open to our knocking) and a few have led countries and armies. But what we have not entirely shed is the idea that the nexus between women and power is uncomfortable, and tenuous.

This means we are always trying to explain how and why women rule. The first women to enter parliament were constantly peppered with questions trying to account for their miraculous appearance on the public stage: how do they do it? Why do they do it? Who suffers for it? How long will it last? How does it feel?

For a long time, women’s exercise of power was seen as surprising, secondary or severe. Influential women were described as abnormal, as a perverted female made of iron or steel, as having male genitalia hidden under skirts, of replacing female tenderness with male flintiness. Many were assumed to be puppets, or props. If women were shown to be corrupt, it was more shocking, if shown to lie, it was more unnatural, if playing politics like men, it was somehow dirtier.

But we have had our first female Prime Minister; America may yet soon have a female President. And what we can be sure of is that when women have access to true power, they ask for a lot more than gin and snuff.



Julia Baird, the author of ‘Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians,’ is now writing a biography of Queen Victoria.

Julia Baird will chair the FODI panel ‘The World Is Not Ready For Women In Power,’ on Saturday November 2nd at 6.15pm and the session ‘The End of Men’ at 2.30pm.

Full program and tickets available here: http://fodi.sydneyoperahouse.com/


This piece originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Festival of Dangerous Ideas supplement.