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Powerful Women – And The Men Behind Them

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History is littered with smart, strong women who willingly subsumed their ambitions for those of a man. Polly Devlin is outraged at how many simply became handmaidens to men

This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in September 2013. We’re opening the archives so you can read a Polly column every week … 

So I was asking around about powerful men behind strong women. No, no Polly, you mean strong women behind powerful men. The other way around is as rare as hen’s teeth. Correct me if I’m wrong. Please. Please.

The adage that behind every successful man is an astonished woman I have long held to be true (the masculine reprise? Behind every great woman is a man checking out her butt) and I sometimes detect a look of wonderment in Michelle Obama’s eyes as they rake the most powerful man in the world – the President of the USA. When someone suggested another American President’s wife, Nancy Reagan, I was outraged. But then I live in a permanent state of outrage: about the weather, about Anglo Irish Bank, about everything; the rage ratchets up and some day I will implode in a cloud of fluff.

It wouldn’t have taken much to be the power behind Ronald Reagan, who had the brain speed of a tranquillised bear. Nancy, without embarrassment, nay proudly, once said, “My life really began when I met Ronnie.” (A saucy-angry song by post-punk band Mission of Burma has lyrics that go; Five-foot-one, Eyes as cold as stone … And I’m haunted by the freakish size, of Nancy Reagan’s head.) Talking of songs, guess what was played at the Gipper’s second Presidential inauguration gala? Yes! Yes! “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings”. I think we’re talking light breeze here.

A far cry from Hurricane Hillary. When she met bold Bill at Yale Law School, she espied something special in him. She bought into the vaunting vision he had for himself, shared her breathtaking energy with him and provided a sounding board for his ideas and actions in his political campaigns. The Clintons came to the presidency with a history of consulting each other on aims, policy and political decisions – did she subsume her own ambitions to push him? Yes. She stood not by, but behind her man, at the time of the affair and the notorious dress, and got him through the crisis. He had the power, she had the strength. Jacqueline Kennedy, with her wispy voice and devotion to fashion, seemed like the archetypal “little woman”. But she had the power to stop JFK in his tracks towards the presidency, and afterwards at his re-election if, as she threatened, she had left him because of his philandering. He was in awe of her superior cultural and social knowledge, and when he went to Paris he said, not wholly jokingly, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.” She was strong and became powerful (Hillary was born powerful), and never more so than when walking behind her dead husband’s coffin.

Jaqueline Kennedy was strong and became powerful. Hillary was born powerful

History is littered with women urging men on, not always for the best. Perhaps the most famous power behind a throne was the devout Marquise de Maintenon, the second wife of King Louis XIV (although her marriage to the king was never officially announced or admitted). Her life is one of the most extraordinary rags-to-riches stories of all time, and she herself described it as a miracle. Her influence on the king was such that ministers discussed important business with her beforehand that the king had to deal with. She changed the behaviour, modes and mores of the Versailles court – gone were excess, decadence and frivolity and in came prudence, piety and moral uplift. How the courtiers groaned.

Sex is part of the repertoire of strong women. And so is the power of image. Eva Perón, often described as a woman who used men to get what she wanted, knew how to use her allure to amazing effect. She effectively brought Juan Perón to power. He was aged 48 (and she only 24) when they met, and he claimed in his memoir that he selected Eva as his pupil, and set out to create in her a “second I”. She was a quick learner. She achieved a new form of communication by image. She was the first woman in Argentinean history to appear in public on the campaign trail with her husband during his presidential bid, and she used her weekly radio show to persuade the poor to vote for him. She was named “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”, and when she died, at only 33, she was a legend. In many homes, the image of Evita is on the wall next to the Virgin Mary. Evita made being second the prime position.

Roman empresses, like Livia and Agrippina, were a bloodthirsty crew: ambitious, murderous and literally poisonous, they made their weak men into emperors through violence and death. And only think of dazed and confused Macbeth with that termagant Lady M raging behind him. (I wonder what her first name was … not Dorcas certainly). He begged her to give over – “Prithee peace. I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none” – but she would have none of it. “When you durst do it, then you were a man: And, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man. But screw your courage to the sticking–place and we’ll not fail.” There are two meanings to that sticking-place as well she knew. She is the most dire example of the ambitious wife who pushes her man too far.

Eliza Lynn Linton, a famous novelist in the 19th century, and an anti-feminist writer and no heroine of mine, warned against such forwardness. She wrote of “yoked tact”. “Wives who are ambitious for their lords have often the discretion to conceal their mood. They may rule with a hand of iron, but the hand is sagely concealed in a glove of velvet. A man may be the creature of his wife’s lofty projects, and yet dream all the time that he is altogether chalking out his own course.” She added (Lord, what a bore she must have been), “I would rather have been the wife of a great man, or the mother of a hero, than what I am, famous in my own person”. She was a bit like an appalling woman in Manhattan in the 1960s called Tatiana Liberman, who was the dynamo behind Alexander Liberman, the most powerful man in the Condé Nast empire and boss of Vogue. She affirmed that womens’ brains were smaller than mens’. He took her advice and often treated women contemptuously. When he sacked Diana Vreeland, a far stronger character than he was, he couldn’t do it to her face. She said, “I’ve known White Russians and I’ve known Red Russians but I’ve never known a yellow Russian.”

So many women are not just eyes and ears for men. Strong men listen to women’s intuition

My favourite literary “strong woman” story, though no doubt apocryphal, is of William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, who supported him adoringly to the sublimation of her own great talent. He hated writing. It gave him headaches. But he had ambition, whereas Dorothy had none but to serve him. When they came in after walking by Lake Ullswater having seen the famous daffodils (and she wrote a description which he used almost verbatim in the poem without crediting her) he intoned, “I wandered lonely as a cow”. She said mildly, “Cloud, dear, cloud”. Jokes apart, she was a huge influence in his life and he wrote, “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.”

So many women are not just eyes and ears for men. Strong men listen to women’s intuition. Research published in the British Journal of Psychology throws new light on “gut feelings”, arguing that they are real psychological phenomena that should be taken seriously. Intuition represents one of the ways our brains store, process and retrieve information. It’s the brain drawing on past experiences and current external cues to make a decision; a process so rapid that the reaction is subconscious. But it’s not just past experiences that trigger this – neurotransmitters in the gut can respond to immediate environmental stimuli and fire the sensation in the stomach known as “butterflies”. It’s a pity strong women at times conceal these feelings, because instinct and intuition can be derided by men who only follow empirical evidence, often to their cost.

I grew up among strong women and weak men. In those technicolour Hollywood movies I saw when I was young, the successful man (generally played by Rock Hudson) had a secretary (often Doris Day) who did his bidding and kept his life in order – his dates, his appointments, his wife’s birthday; she typed and corrected his letters which she could well have written herself. She was a subordinate. That was the default position of many professional women then – handmaidens to men. You can still see a parodic take on this period in any episode of Mad Men. (Remember Roger Sterling’s response to a question about what women want? “Who cares?”) These scenarios could have been my template so strong an impression did they make. But the life displayed was a fantasy. In our district many men didn’t work because there was so little employment, except sporadic jobs as farm labourers or fishermen – no question of an office or factory job – and many drank to excess. Wives, burdened with endless pregnancies, stretching whatever money was left over after the drinking, held the households together, and somehow managed to feed the children and keep them decently dressed. My template was those women – tough, clever, but never independent. They lived interior lives, were often abused and their husbands were treated with respect they didn’t deserve. For years I took this as only natural. Only years later did it make my blood boil. Outrage syndrome again. I rebelled against the template and resolved that if I ever married, never to be in my husband’s gift, never to subsume myself to him. Not that he expected it. I am shocked by women who say to me when I go off to teach in New York for months on end, “Isn’t your husband good to let you?” Let me? Let me? Can you imagine that the other way round? But no matter what I did in my public life I still was the woman behind the man in private. Carol Rumens in her great poem Two Women writes about this dichotomy. The clean-handed woman here is the professional woman – but that’s half the story.

… There’s another woman // who bears her name, a silent, background face // that’s always flushed with work, or swallowed anger. // A true wife, she picks up scattered laundry // and sets the table with warmed plates to feed // the clean-handed woman. They’ve not met. // If they were made to touch, they’d burn each other.

Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now. 

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