What made you write Off With Her Head?
One day I was reading Stacy Schiff’s 2010 biography of Cleopatra and learned that her Roman enemies—who wanted to steal her fabulously wealthy country—orchestrated a PR campaign to take her down. They made sure everyone knew:
I noticed that in Cleopatra’s rise and fall, the story of her power and Rome’s horror that a woman should wield it, there were uncanny similarities with Hillary Clinton’s trajectory through the 2016 election and beyond. Certainly, we can judge some of the political choices of both Cleopatra and Clinton negatively. But what I found was more than that. In each woman’s story, I discovered organized smear operations churning out unfounded accusations of sexual improprieties and criticisms of her ambition, untrustworthiness, appearance, and unlikability, accusations rarely made about male leaders either in the first century BCE or today. Wait a minute, I said to myself as my jaw dropped. Has this same stuff really been going on for more than two thousand years? Longer than that, I found, when I delved into female pharaohs who lived many centuries before Cleopatra. More than three thousand years. That realization was the impetus that drove me to write Off With Her Head.
So criticisms of women in power usually aren’t warranted?
Certainly, some can be. But many criticisms have nothing to do with experience, political mistakes, policy, or platform. They are name-calling caricatures that create two-dimensional comic book villainesses. She’s a whore. A lesbian. A nymphomaniac. Frigid. Or all of the above. She’s treacherous. Decadent. Power-crazed. Frivolous. Her voice is shrill. She is phony, inauthentic, unlikable, unpresidential. She is a witch. A bitch. She’s ugly. Dresses poorly. Her clothes cost too much. Her butt is big. Her hair is wrong. She is angry, nasty, hormonally imbalanced, and irrational. She is a bad woman, a bad wife, a bad mother. She’s a sexy vixen whose wanton ways and feminine wiles destroy good men. She is the very essence of moral turpitude, demolishing everything she surveys as she strides through life in four-inch stilettos, cackling wildly.
How can we tell if we are being misogynistic, giving men a break and unfairly criticizing women in power?
One way to identify misogyny is to picture a well-known politician as belonging to the opposite sex and see where that takes you. For instance, imagine Donald Trump as a woman. Let’s call her Donna. During the 2016 presidential election, Donna Trump said the exact same things as her male twin, Donald, did in real life. Orange-faced, sporting a fantastically cantilevered helmet of yellow hair, she hid her weight under baggy, navy-blue pantsuits. Bellowing from the podium, she was angry, boastful. Only she could save the country. She called people nasty names, made fun of handicapped reporters and Gold Star families, and refused to turn over her income tax returns. She lied and/or exaggerated on a daily basis. She had been married three times and cheated on all three husbands. She bragged about grabbing unsuspecting men’s penises. Would Donna Trump have been viewed as blunt, honest, and refreshing? Would she have won the election?
Now imagine Hillary Clinton as a man. Harry Clinton said and did the exact same things as Hillary. He had been a popular senator and secretary of state, with high approval ratings, though he did send emails from a private server, as had his predecessors. Would Harry have been harshly criticized for his body shape, his suits, his thick ankles, and his voice? Would Harry Clinton have been portrayed in a thousand Pinterest images as a witch, stirring a cauldron or riding a broomstick? Would he have been called a bitch on countless T-shirts? Would his thoughtful, circumspect answers to media questions have been seen as inauthenticity, secretiveness, and untrustworthiness? Would Harry have been accused of running a child sex ring under a Washington, DC pizza parlor? Would attendees at Trump’s political rallies have shouted: “Lock him up!” “Put him in prison!” “Hang him!”
I don't think so.
When looking at misogyny against powerful women in history, what did you find?
I found the story line of blame the woman pretty much everywhere. Cleopatra used her dangerous allure to unman poor Mark Antony, the beefy Roman general, who lay supine on a purple couch as she dropped grapes into his mouth when he should have been conquering new territory for Rome. Anne Boleyn wrapped Henry VIII—that compliant, easily manipulated fellow—around her witchy sixth finger, making him ditch his faithful wife and give his own finger to the pope. Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” and bought a billion-dollar diamond necklace while the people of France starved. Wallis Warfield Simpson used her feminine wiles to make Edward VIII abandon his duty to the realm.
Why are we so eager to blame a woman rather than admit to the shortcomings of men? Why can’t we agree that Mark Antony was a drunken, womanizing fool? That Henry VIII was a ruthless sociopath who never did a thing he didn’t want to do? That Louis XVI was a weak king, caught in the lethal mix of economic disaster and political change spiced by climate cataclysm? That Edward VIII was a Nazi-loving dolt who never wanted to be king, was looking for a way out, and took his bride on a honeymoon trip to visit Adolf Hitler? Why is the trope of the evil woman so powerful that it’s still with us today? Why do we so often still give appalling men a pass with “boys will be boys” and “it’s only locker room talk” while we demonize, belittle, shame, ridicule, vilify, slander, and silence women?
And, by the way, Catherine the Great did not die being impaled by a horse she was trying to have sex with. She died of a stroke at the age of 67. That horse story was a misogynistic lie to ruin her reputation as a gloriously successful female monarch and threat to the Patriarchy.
What’s to be done to stop this? Can we stop this?
I doubt we can ever totally silence this vicious misogyny against women in power, but we can certainly diminish it. For one thing, we need to point it out. Discuss it. Shame those who attack women politicians as bitches, witches, and sluts, whether on social media or in the press.
In 2020, the women’s organization UltraViolet put out media guidelines on how to avoid sexist tropes when reporting on female candidates. Titled “Reporting in An Era of Disinformation: Fairness Guide for Covering Women and People of Color in Politics,” it points out that a candidate must be evaluated on her experience, her past decisions, and her ability to step into the top job. The guide then asks reporters and commentators:
Women running for office need to be prepared for the onslaught of misogynistic attacks. It’s not going to be pretty, and they need to know what’s coming. Also, both men and women need to stand up on social media for women candidates being unfairly attacked. And everyone, including the person being attacked, needs to shame the shamers. Call them out. Until recently, most women didn’t respond to the attacks, hoping they would go away. That just encouraged them.
The most effective step, however, is to get more women elected to office so that they no longer seem to be oddities. Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a non-partisan organization which advances women’s representation in American politics, described the “imagination barrier” that hurts women candidates, the fact that many voters have difficulty picturing “women in power, an area dominated by white men.” She said, “Seeing more women in office, seeing a woman vice president, chips away at the imagination barrier and takes down stereotypes. Women governors often open the door to other women governors. We will change the conversation by having more women run for and get elected to office.”