rusted crown

2.1 Why So Few Women in Power?

Why So Few Women in Power?

Most of this miniseries will be biographical sketches of a few of the more daring power-grabbers in history.

Generally speaking when we say queen, we mean the woman who happens to be married to the king who is the ruler. A queen who ruled in her own name and her own right, either solo or as the dominant figure in a marriage is a rare thing, but even so, everyone’s heard of at least a few. The current Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of these Queen Regnants, as they’re called.

A Queen Regnant is rare because in general, girls don’t inherit the throne. It does sometimes happen, and we’ll talk about why, but the women I’m going to feature in this series don’t fall into that category. This time we’re talking about women who definitely didn’t inherit the throne. Women who looked at the top job, said, “I could do that,” and did.

But this initial episode is on why there are so few women in power anyway. I take a look at the evidence for more powerful women in pre-history, followed by the impact of the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of city-states. I then move on to discuss the rationale for primogeniture and the situations in which women do get to inherit.


Among other things, I discuss the Venus of Berekhat Ram.

If this is a human artifact, it is the earliest representational art we have, dating from 230,000 years ago, but not everyone agrees that it is. Does it look like a woman to you? Or is it just a rock with some suggestive scratches on it?


I also discuss one of many possible interpretations of the Book of Genesis, which suggests that at the time of these stories, the people may have been moving from a matrilineal to a patrilineal society. As promised, here are the references for the examples I list:

  • For example, father Abraham is married to Sarah, who is also his half-sister. They share a father, but not a mother (Genesis 20:12). In many matrilineal societies, that would not be considered incest because only the mother’s lineage matters.
  • When their son Isaac needs a wife, Abraham sends a servant to the land he came from to bring back a wife. The servant is concerned that the woman might not be willing to come and perhaps Isaac should go to her instead (Genesis 24:5). In matrilineal societies, the man leaves his home to live with the wife’s family, but in patrilineal societies it is almost always the other way around. Here it appears there was some doubt.
  • As it happens, Rebekah is willing to leave and marry a man she has never met, but while the servant deals with her father, her opinion is consulted and she could have said no (Genesis 24:58). When their son Jacob needs a wife, he actually does go himself.
  • Far from requiring a dowry as is common in patrilineal societies, Jacob labors seven years to marry Rachel, gets tricked into marrying her older sister Leah instead, and then labors seven more years to marry Rachel as well, living all the time with his wife’s family, rather than his own (Genesis 29:20-30).
  • Leah and Rachel name their own children, a privilege that often goes to the father in a patrilineal society (Genesis 29:32 through 30:24).
  • When Jacob gets tired of getting cheated by his father-in-law, Leah and Rachel agree saying that the riches and money of the household should belong to them (Genesis 31:16), which is a far-cry from later societies where a husband or father always owns whatever property a woman might inherit.
  • So they all pack up and sneak away in the middle of the night, and Rachel also takes the religious icons, clearly believing they belong to the women of the household. Her father disagrees and comes after them for those icons, but she succeeds in hiding them from him (Genesis 31:19-35).

Women (and goddesses) mentioned include Elizabeth II of England; Rhea; Gaea; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ruth and Mary from the Bible; Elizabeth I of England; Victoria of England; Isabella of Aragon; Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress; Empress Suiko; Pharoah Hatshepsut; and Cleopatra.

This episode is part of the series Women Who Seized Power.

Selected Sources:

One of many sources for this week is the first volume of Marilyn French’s A History of Women. If you choose to pick it up, be warned, it’s the super angry version of feminist history, and some of her claims are definitely overstated. But it is a nice counterbalance to all those histories that don’t take women into account at all.

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Feature Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

4 comments

  1. What a great episode! This is the first one I’ve listened to and I found the ideas fascinating and the presentation clear and interesting. Keep up the good work and I look forward to catching up on the other episodes!

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  2. I love how you present various viewpoints of why power has fluctuated for women in various societies. Very balanced. Also informative. I’m going to listen to it again with my husband ( he will like it). P.S. I hope you’re uninterested in “bumping of [your] older brother!”

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