Two of the best-known women in history are the Egyptian Cleopatra and Catherine the Great of Russia. Both have been portrayed frequently in popular culture and are known to many non-historians as well as scholars although both lived centuries ago. And even though both of them spent most of their time and efforts on ruling large and tumultuous countries, they are both remembered primarily for the men they had sex with. Their two recent biographers have had to point out that neither of them was as promiscuous as the male rulers of their times and later.
Cleopatra is one of the few rulers of ancient Egypt whose name is still widely known. She has been celebrated in stories and art for century, yet she is almost always remembered as part of a couple. Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” gave way to George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and a series of other efforts. Even the movie “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which finally let her dominate the title, treated the monarch as a lovestruck woman. Furthermore, that movie had a lasting impact on American culture by making the glamorous Taylor the permanent face of the less-beautiful but more powerful real Cleopatra.
Now Cleopatra has become for many people a glamorous figure suitable to be impersonated in Halloween costumes and dramatized in plays for children, but never really taken seriously. The transformation of this powerful ruler into just another femme fatale began soon after her death. As her biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
For anyone who would like to get a reasonable idea of what Cleopatra was like and the story behind her misrepresented life, read Stacy Schiff’s great biography, Cleopatra, available in every public library I’m sure, and also from most bookstores.
Another woman I’ve been reading about recently who suffers from the same problem is Catherine the Great of Russia. Although she was born a German girl named Sophia and became the wife of the heir to the Russian throne almost by accident, she dedicated her life to improving her adopted country. Starting with changing her name to Catherine and her religion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Catherine studied the Russian language and history. Although she was saddled with a mean-spirited and somewhat stupid husband, she seized control of her life and of the country she had adopted.
Her husband, Peter III, had none of her love of Russia and instead tried to follow the model of Prussian military rule. He enraged his own subjects so much that no one complained much when Catherine helped to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. It was a wise move. Catherine was an intellectual who read and corresponded with some of the leading thinkers of Europe. She introduced modern enlightenment into the rigid Russian society, although even she could not completely change the pattern of serfdom and the stubborn resistance of provincial landowners.
Catherine reigned for more than thirty years and changed the country dramatically. Besides introducing Western ideas and developing closer ties with other European countries, she also extended the country to the East. It was during her reign that Russia began to explore Alaska and to establish a presence there. Yet, what is she remembered for in popular culture? It’s mostly for her lovers who helped her politically and made her personal life endurable. They were certainly close colleague and some of them were important political allies, but Catherine’s achievements didn’t depend on them.
Male monarchs are seldom defined by their lovers, but female rulers are. Anyone who reads Robert Massie’s recent biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman will come to understand how much more there is to know about her.
Perhaps as we enter this Mother’s Day weekend we ought to think about not only loving the mothers in our lives but looking at them as the individuals they are. Partners and children are an important part of most women’s lives, but they are not the only thing. If we love and respect our mothers, our spouses, and our daughters, we should look at them as individuals and not define them only in their relationships with the men in their lives. Cleopatra and Catherine the Great are not typical women, but they are emblematic of the problem of viewing women solely through the lens of their emotions. We certainly owe all women more than that.