Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump

Electric Ladies, Will You Sleep?

There were several moments during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign when different aspects of sexism and misogyny were topics of discussion. Perhaps most notable among these was the “Access Hollywood tape,” which captured Trump speaking explicitly about sexually assaulting women. There were many other less shocking moments in which Trump or Trump surrogates made gendered attacks on Hillary Clinton and other women (Megyn Kelly, for instance). Attacks on family-friendly policies and women’s health care have only bolstered arguments that Trump’s presidency is anti-women, which may account for the numerous women-led resistance movements that have emerged in the past ten months.

At the same time, Ivanka Trump has been given an unprecedented role in her father’s administration and has, among other actions, sat in for President Trump at the G20. Kellyanne Conway has also been a constant face of the Trump campaign and administration, and she was the first woman to ever run a successful presidential campaign. While male staffers have been regularly and quickly fired in this turbulent administration, a few select women seem to hold uniquely secure positions.

The topic of women and the Trump presidency is, to say the least, complicated. This module will explore these complications through ancient parallels. We will explore questions of complicity, resistance, and the ways in which both ancient and modern women cannot be neatly placed into one of these two categories. We will examine the careers of five ancient women leaders in the sources that come down to us. You may remember their names with this acronym: A BOAT (Aspasia, Boudica, Olympias, Agrippina, Tomyris).


Meet the module creators, Rebecca Kennedy and Amy Pistone!

Read and watch the following:

What do we mean by complicity (look the word up in the dictionary to start)? How about resistance? Is there any middle ground between the two? Can women who are complicit still be considered leaders--or does complicity disqualify a woman from being a leader?

Part One: The Complexity of Complicity in Ancient Leadership: Aspasia and Olympias

ASPASIA OF MILETUS (5TH CENTURY BCE, GREECE): Aspasia was the 2nd wife of the Athenian general and politician Pericles. She was also the mother of his third son, known as Pericles Jr. Aspasia was not an Athenian citizen and her son by Pericles only gained citizenship because of changes in the citizenship law of 451 BCE that Pericles himself proposed that restricted citizenship of Athens to those born of two citizen parents (see module on RACE). Perhaps because she was a foreigner, Aspasia was frequently accused by Pericles’ enemies of sexual depravities including of running a brothel. The result of this has been a checkered history of reception for Aspasia, where modern historians, perhaps because of their own prejudices concerning foreign women (who were frequently exoticized in the 19th century) not only believe the charges from his enemies that she was a madam, but they also assume that she herself was a prostitute. Recent historians, however, have strong evidence to dispute these beliefs and instead suggest that we should be a bit more critical of believing without skepticism the accusations of comedians and political enemies. It is most likely that Aspasia was from a wealthy, well-connected family from another Greek city (Miletus) who moved to Athens in search of stability and a better life after a civil war in their own home.

Besides Aspasia’s being a foreigner, another reason why Pericles’ enemies may have taken aim at his wife is because she was thought  by many of our ancient sources to have been a highly intelligent woman, who may even have taught rhetoric and philosophy. She is linked extensively in our sources to Socrates and there are a number of philosophical treatises from Socrates students named after her and in which she appears. This intelligence in a woman, especially a foreign woman, seems to have been considered dangerous to some Athenians and we have a number of references to Aspasia that assert or imply that she had excessive sway over Pericles’ political and even military decisions making.

READ the Ancient Greek sources on Aspasia in the document below

Like Aspasia, President Trump’s wife Melania has undergone some aggressive scrutiny. From questions about the validity of her early visas and her immigration history to her days as a model, which included nude photos, to her decisions to forgo many of the activities that have been traditionally expected of First Ladies to even suggestions that she may have been a prostitute, Melania shares with Aspasia being a target for her foreignness and her supposed sexual habits. And yet, some of these same things--in particular, her decision to not conform to past First Ladies--have been praised. What is the truth of it? Is there a truth?


Listening for Leadership One-a

How does their foreignness shape the narratives of these two women (Aspasia and Melania)? Is it relevant to modern or ancient discussions that these women are foreign, or is their foreignness used purely (or primarily) as a weapon to discredit them?

How are arguments about “decorum” or “appropriate behavior” used against these women? How legitimate are these claims?

In particular, how does the topic of each of these women’s sexuality play into this conversation? 

Ivanka, too, has a prominent place in the stories surrounding the Trump White House. And, like Aspasia, she, too, finds herself the subject of questions about her political influence. As Pres. Trump’s daughter with no professional experiences that might prepare her for government work, many view the fact that she has an office at the White House as problematic and the result of corruption and nepotism. Others, however, initially viewed Ivanka’s possible influence on her father in a positive light--Ivanka has often presented herself as more liberal on social issues such as LGBTQ rights and a strong feminist. But whether she has had this moderating influence or not on policy is debateable.

Perhaps more like Ivanka than Aspasia, however, is Alexander the Great’s mother, Olympias (c.375-316 BCE). Olympias was married to Philip II of Macedon and after Philip’s death, Olympias ordered the  execution of Eurydice (another wife of Philip’s) and Eurydice’s child, in order to solidify Alexander’s claim to kingship. During political struggles, both during Alexander’s life and after his death, Olympias was very politically and militarily active. She was also quite ruthless, particularly in the aftermath of Alexander’s death (though, one could argue that her reputation for ruthlessness was due in large part to her gender -- her actions were politically motivated and might not have provoked the same outrage had she been a man).

Read in the document below the ancient sources on Olympias

Listening for Leadership One-b

Do you view Ivanka and Olympias differently because of their gender than you would a man in their positions? What expectations do you have for powerful women that you might not have for powerful men?

In what ways might gendered expectations actually create opportunities for politically savvy women, rather than simply limit them? If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, you might think about the different modes of female leadership that occur there -- how is leading as a woman different?

How are Ivanka and Olympias able to shape the story that is told about them? We don’t have any stories about Olympias where she describes her actions in her own words -- how does that show up in the accounts of her? What aspects do our ancient sources choose to highlight? What differences do you see in the media treatment of Ivanka?

Part Two: The Resistance and its Radicalization: Tomyris and Boudica

The ancient world is filled with women who embody resistance to the political and military power of the Rome, Greeks, or Persians. These women are frequently foreign women whose lands are being attacked. The mythical model for many of these women seems to be the Amazons, whose matriarchal warrior society set them apart from other societies in the ancient world. Although mythical, the Amazons seems to be rooted in knowledge of warrior women in the Black Sea region and the Eurasian Steppes. Some of these women are described in the histories of Herodotus (Tomyris, queen of the Massegetai, is one such woman) and archaeology has supported the existence of warrior women (even if they did not live in isolation from men as in the myth). Boudica, the warrior queen of ancient Britain carries a number of attributes in the sources describing her that suggest a strong influence of the ancient Greek stories on the Romans writing of her. The stories of both of these women demonstrate female leadership and resistance.

BOUDICA (1st CENTURY CE, BRITON),: “The Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio made her famous, although neither witnessed the rebellion. 3 Their opposing images form a core dichotomy in representations of Boudica. Whereas Tacitus heightens the glory of the woman warrior and celebrates her motherhood and noble fight for freedom, Dio’s sensational portrait highlights her non-Roman appearance and the brutality of her actions. Tacitus’ and Dio’s texts have been supplemented by an increasing number of archaeological discoveries that allow us to fill in some of the details about Boudica’s life and times. But many questions remain. The depictions of Boudica in Tacitus and Dio, and the archaeological evidence of early Roman Britain, give varying impressions of Boudica as a powerful woman of late Iron Age and early Roman Britain. Given such contrasting impressions, how do we understand Boudica as a historical figure? Should we see her as a barbarian woman, the ultimate “other” in the Roman imagination? Should we compare her to other rebels, symbols of freedom and the opposition to tyranny? Was she a prophetess, similar to the Druids? Or should we imagine her as a model mother, caring for her daughters above all? While Tacitus’ Boudica represents Roman Republican values of motherhood and freedom, and demonstrates how the Romans encroached upon native independence, Dio utilizes Boudica to examine the place of women in leadership positions, and to condemn the negative models among the imperial family. In the Roman imperial system, there was no room for institutionalized power for women--no place for an empress with a shared role in ruling the Empire. Boudica allowed Roman historians to explore a culture with a different gender ideology than their own and to illustrate the consequences of such an ideology. Historical comparisons allow us insight into which aspects of Boudica individuate her and which traits characterize her as a stereotypical female barbarian, as seen through Roman eyes. While many details of Boudica’s life may never be resolved, comparisons better equip readers to understand her importance in the ancient texts.”  From Boudica: Warrior Woman of Roman Britain by Caitlin Gillespie

TOMYRIS (5th CENTURY BCE, BLACK SEA) is queen of the Massagetae, a people dwelling in the Eurasian plains north of the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea. Tomyris is introduced by Herodotus after he tells us that Cyrus was at the time brimming with confidence because he had yet to encounter a people capable of opposing his conquests. He thought the Massagetae would be no different, in part because a woman ruled them. Tomyris, however, rejected Cyrus’ offer of marriage, a subterfuge to gain control of her kingdom without a war.

Tomyris can be viewed both as a moralizing agent in Herodotus--her defeat of revenge on Cyrus speak to the limitations of human actions, limitations that Cyrus ignores at the beginning of the Massagetan logos when Herodotus recounts his feeling buoyed by his near-divine birth and his easy conquests--or as a ‘noble savage’, who defends her kingdom against the luxury and guile of the more sophisticated Persians and avenges the death of her son and his earlier ignoble defeat through guile in an almost Homeric manner. She has also been read as a parallel to Artemisia, another non-Greek Herodotean queen who presides over or witnesses the defeat of a transgressing Persian king.


Listening for Leadership Two-a

In reading the stories of Boudica and Tomyris, what elements of leadership do you see in each? How is that leadership defined in relation to their male antagonists?

In the article on Moana, the author suggests that female heroism and monstrosity are often connected. What elements of monstrosity do we also see in Boudica and Tomyris? What is the cause of this monstrosity? How might we understand the leadership of both Boudica and Tomyris in light of their traumas?

Since the election of Donald Trump, a distinctly female strain of resistance has emerged. Like Boudica and Tomyris, the protest movements of today are frequently spearheaded by women. There have been some prominent female politicians who have emerged (namely, Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris), but the overwhelming majority of the female-centered activism has been grassroots activism. From the Black Lives Matter movement to the Women’s March on Washington to Indivisible, women in the United States are demonstrating that women’s issues are central to human rights. As just one example, the Women’s March is a good example of the sort of organized movements that have emerged (and, it should be noted, the Women’s March has taken steps to present a more diverse, inclusive, and intersectional vision of feminism than many mainstream feminist movements have in the past), but there have also been spontaneous and grassroots activities (for instance, the creation and proliferation of the iconic “pussy hat” that populated the original Women’s March).


Listening for Leadership-2b

Why do you think that women have taken such a prominent role in political resistance? Lest you think that high profile instances of Trump’s misogyny are the easy answer, remember that an estimated 53% of white women voted for Trump, so “Trump alienated women” isn’t a complete answer. What do you think led to this sudden swell of grassroots activism? How do you think women leaders differ in this “resistance” than men? Why is it important that women are leading these movements?

It is often easy to valorize and romanticize women fighting back. Due to a general, historical dearth of such figures, media representations of strong, badass women can often have an appeal that makes us unquestioningly accept and praise them (think, recently, of the Wonder Woman movie. Also, Xena: Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer). We should remember that resistance can involve significant violence though, and can have both a negative and a positive side to it. 


Extreme Resistance

Part Three: Agrippina, the Sacrificial Centrist

As we saw above, historical figures can rarely be categorized as “good” or “bad,” and the answer is usually far more complicated than that. For our final section of this module, we will be embracing that complexity and looking at women who sit somewhere between a radical resistance fighter and a complicit establishment figure. One figure who seems to walk a line between complicity in the crimes and bad behaviors of the men in her life and resistance to it is Agrippina.

Agrippina, also known as Agrippina the Younger (15-59 CE, ROME) was the wife of the emperor Claudius, the mother of the emperor Nero, grand-daughter of Augustus,sister of the emperor Caligula, and one of the most powerful Roman women in Rome’s history. SHe grew up at the center of power in Rome and was part of and aware of machinations in the imperial palace was a young age. She was married to an much older cousin at aged 13. Her husband died shortly after the birth of Nero.

In 39 CE, Agrippina and her other sister were part of a plot to assassinate their now insane brother, the emperor Caligula. THe attempt failed and both Agrippina and her sister were exiled and their inheritances and wealth confiscated. In 41, only 2 years later, Caligula was successfully assassinated by his own guard. Agrippina was returned from exile and her properties restored. She briefly married again, but upon the death of her second husband (which left her extremely wealthy) and the execution of Claudius’ previous wife Messalina, she was married to Claudius.

One married to Claudius, the sky was the limit. Agrippina was granted extensive honors and eventually convinced Claudius to adopt her son Nero as his own, despite the fact that Claudius had a son of his own. All that seemed left was to have her son named heir; the death of Claudius’ son made that a reality. Shortly thereafter, Claudius himself died (some say she poisoned him) and her son became emperor.

The relationship between Nero is detailed in the work of Tacitus. While Nero seemed to love his mother and respect her early on, as he got older, he began to chafe under her controls. Agrippina was not necessarily ready to release the power she had as empress and eventually, after multiple attempts, Nero seems to have had her murdered. The relationship between Geoffrey and Cersei in the popular Game of Thrones is reminiscent of the way Agrippina and Nero are represented in the ancient sources. It may be that Martin modelled his characters on the historical figures.

Read the sources on Agrippina (below)

Listening for Leadership Three-a

Where do you see Agrippina exercising power? What seem to be her political motivations or objectives? What sorts of power seem important to her? To what ends does she use the power that she has?

How might Agrippina act as a foil for Boudica? Both appear in the same book of Tacitus and are contemporaries. Can we see ways in which their types of power and leadership are similar or at odds?

In modern American politics, Hillary Clinton has been the focus of a great deal of debate about whether she’s progressive enough or whether she’s too much a part of the political establishment. Others have argued that her many years of government experience, as the First Lady, a senator, and Secretary of State, meant that she would be able to accomplish things in Washington, precisely because she understood how the political establishment worked. As a member of a political “dynasty”, as a powerful woman in her own right, and as a political “centrist” many on both the left and right sometimes found her too “establishment”. Further, as the target of decades of political attacks and smears, it often seems hard to know who the “real” Hillary is. Even within the democratic party itself, intense debate has gone on about what exactly HIllary Clinton’s historic campaign and eventual loss means for modern American feminism and for the future of women in politics. The ongoing schism between what has been titled the “Bernie wing” and the “Hillary wing” of the Democratic Party centers on many of these issues and epitomizes the complex and intersectional debate about the role and treatment of women in our modern political climate.


Listening for Leadership Three-b

At the risk of oversimplifying these issues, a central topic of debate around Hillary Clinton has been whether she is “too establishment” and whether she has too much political baggage, so to speak, from her years in politics. From what you’ve read, is her political experience/baggage a strength or a weakness? Was it a strength or weakness as a candidate and if she had won, would it have been a strength or weakness as President?

How much of Hillary Clinton’s access to power is derived from her connections to male political leaders? (the last two articles, by Maureen Dowd, touch on this topic in particular)

Do you see more similarities or differences between Agrippina and Clinton on this front?

How might we consider the condemnations of Hillary as “power-hungry” and “ambitious” in light of the negativity surrounding Agrippina’s power?

And, finally, consider how we can distinguish truth from fiction and the issue of bias--no sources from antiquity survive that can talk of Agrippina outside of the propaganda and justifications Nero and her enemies used against her. How can we trust our sources when it seems that Agrippina was undergoing politically motivated attacks for so many decades? 2000 years from now, how will we be able to sort fact from fiction and bias in the case of Clinton?

Final Thoughts

Does looking at ancient women help you think any differently about modern women?

Are there any similarities between these women in their ancient societies and women in the modern world that surprised you?

The abundance of modern sources from different ideological perspectives are much easier to recognize -- we still have sources from every ideological perspective readily available on the internet, and everyone is able to express (at least in some sense) their own experience. Thinking back on our ancient sources, how do you think these women’s stories would look different if we had more sources preserved? What about if these women were able to write their own account of their history?

Possible in-class activities

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