Lessons to Learn from Elizabeth I on Being a Working Woman

Lessons to Learn from Elizabeth I on Being a Working Woman



Today I taught some speeches and letters written by Queen Elizabeth (the first one, not her frumpier-although-probably-less-syphilitic sequel), and to illustrate my point about how deftly Elizabeth navigates “her woman-ness” in a profession that not only demanded masculinity, but in fact an active absence of femininity, I pulled up Hillary Clinton’s Twitter feed.


“Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD…” her bio reads. The order of succession of these items is likely indicative of the order of importance in which former Secretary Clinton would personally rank them, but it’s also a powerful rhetorical device that reminds a patriarchal public that she can be all these things without denying her basic responsibilities in the “female estates.” In other words, Hillary might be doing all these man jobs, but fear not; she’s still doing the woman ones, too. And the success of the juggle, the success of not having abandoned one’s gendered job while also managing to infiltrate the male sphere, is on the whole a successier success than having simply been, you know, one of only three women in history to serve as Secretary of State. This has nothing to do with the actual amount of work put in (because being a mom is, like, the fucking hardest ever), but rather simply with having done what one is supposed to do.

And that is largely because success is, at its core, a male trait. A successful woman’s success is usually more a “success despite.” She’s successful despite raising a family. She’s successful despite having this grotesque malfunction where she bleeds once a month out the very hole that, at least for poor Elizabeth, was wholly owned and debated over by a Parliamentary body that insisted she get a freaking husband and have a freaking baby already so we can stop worrying about a) who’s gonna run the country after you, and b) who’s gonna run the country WITH you.

None of us bleeders, including Hillary, are out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. Hillary’s presidential campaign slogged through hilariously stupid questions about her ability to run a country when she’s an emotionally emotional emotionful woman, and HILARIOUS and HAHAHA NO REALLY SO FUNNY LOL suggestions that she “stop running for President and make me a sandwich” (you clever, clever man boy oh boy I bet your momma’s proud). Hillary does what she can in the society she’s been dealt, and navigates femininity with grace and poise (qualities that, unfortunately, we rarely ask of men) not necessarily because she wants to, but because she knows she has to. It is a difficult line to walk between too woman and not woman enough. And they can never not be at odds, because when a woman is too woman, she’s de facto not man enough. Which is, I guess, bad. Worse yet, when a woman isn’t woman enough, she’s absolutely nothing at all.

Just ask Elizabeth. When she took the throne, royal lawyers actually drafted arguments regarding the “two bodies” theory of kingship that they hoped would legitimize Elizabeth’s reign in spite of her gender. The argument goes something like this: when Elizabeth became queen, her whole being was profoundly changed. Her mortal “natural” body was entwined with a new immortal “body politic.” “I am but one body, naturally considered, though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern,” Elizabeth said in her accession speech. Her flesh was subject to the imperfections inherent in being human (including those specific to her gender), but her body politic was timeless, perfect, and ordained by God. So in theory, her vagina and all things derived from it were no threat to the stability of the nation.


Mecha-lizabeth, stomping all over poor unsuspecting England.

This is why Elizabeth so frequently called on, and then immediately negated, her “weaker” feminine traits. “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and a king of England too,” she said in her speech at Tilbury to English troops just prior to the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. This wouldn’t be entirely unlike Hilary Clinton’s twitter bio reading “Wife, mom, daughter, but FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, too.” You can start to see the rhetorical importance of the tiny “but.” Elizabeth paid lip service to a notion that she couldn’t possibly have actually believed: that she is a Queen, successful despite her feminine handicaps. If this doesn’t sound contemporarily familiar to you, it should. It’s hard to see how terribly much has changed in that shift nixing the “early” from “early modern” when our gender assumptions seem only to be swept under the rug along with our prejudicial conjunctions.

Her statement is rhetorically brilliant on a few levels, and to further illustrate this, let’s look at one more quote. Parliament spent a decent amount of time pressuring Elizabeth to get married. She always answered diplomatically, astutely, eloquently, and most importantly without ever actually answering at all. “The weight and greatness of this matter might cause in me, being a woman wanting both wit and memory, some fear to speak and bashfulness besides, a thing appropriate to my sex. But yet the princely seat and kingly throne wherein God…hath constituted me…boldeneth me to say somewhat in this matter, which I mean only to touch but not presently to answer.” This was in a speech in answer to the House of Common’s petition that she marry, presented in January of 1563. There’s that tricky conjunction again, but. Elizabeth made a point to call on what was likely the deeply-held belief of most members of the Commons that she was by her nature weaker and dumber, then proceeded to spend the next few hundred words chiding them like children for being raging dickholes and not just taking a chill pill already.

Women are still justifying their ever having decided to leave the house. We see it in the gender pay gap, we see it in the fact that we have to, for some unfathomable God forsaken reason, even talk about what Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan looks like, we see it when BIC graciously offers our fragile fingers something softer and pinker to write with, lest we should perchance procure some unsightly digital injury whilst writing out the week’s grocery list. Whether this means justifying our right to function in the world because of or in spite of our gender, the need for justification is always there, and it’s always gendered. One is not more preferable than the other. So long as our not having been born with dicks is the paramount medium by which we explain ourselves, so long as we are lauding the be-pantsuited lady not because pantsuits are rad but because they’re more masculine, and so long as a self-professed feminist can make ironic sexist jokes and like a moron with his head in a bucket not understand what’s still problematic about that, we’ll see something of ourselves in Elizabeth. We’ll look to Elizabeth’s argument that “though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had,” and think mmm hmm, gurl. I hear you. And then make ourselves a goddamn sandwich.

Katie Sisneros

(Elizabeth I quotes taken from Elizabeth I: Collected Works)