Zeus – as you will know from Greek mythology – was King of the Gods; but by no means in the mould of your benign, wise, all-knowing Emperor of the Universe. As revealed, through the dark mists of time and the lugubrious annals of the poet Hesiod, he emerges as a jealous, petulant and sexist tyrant, long known as Hurler of Thunderbolts at his wayward, male creations on earth.
He was clearly a considerable pain to his long-suffering consort, the goddess Hera. And if he already begins to shape towards the uncanny prototype of a rather more contemporary tyrant figure, then this brief excursion into the shades of a distant past may be making its point. Step forward President Donald Trump, our very own upstart Hurler of Tweets and the Gratuitous Gibe.
It is, however, the particular theme of sexism and women’s empowerment which mainly fronts the current narrative. In the long, slow, painful march towards equality for women, the dominance of men in the making of society’s presiding myths has been a surprising absentee from the literature and history books (largely written, of course, by men!). Women have not yet fully shaken free from the shackles of male myth, but the recent celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Vote marks both the evolving triumph of their struggle and their insistence on a truer, less biased, reading of history.
Board Rooms were a kind of den
Wholly redolent of men,
Which women mainly got to see
When bringing in the lunch or tea;
Then one or two, whom I applaud,
Did bring a Lady on the Board,
Sometimes out of great acumen,
Or as their ‘statutory woman’;
Though – to their chauvinistic hacks –
Their ‘bomb-shell’ or their ‘battle-axe’.
From ‘Lady on the Board’
© Ralph Windle 1982
The mythology begins its version of this story when the human world was a men-only, woman-free zone; though, centuries apart, the Zeus-Olympus and Trump White House were already astonishingly similar in their degrees of uneasy relationships, deepening disaffections and maverick behaviours.
It was the predominant policies of austerity (it may surprise you to hear) ordained by Zeus for men, which triggered a major, though illicit, act of sympathetic kindness towards mortals by a lesser member of the Olympic hierarchy, the Titan Prometheus. He it was who released the secret of Fire to deprived mankind; for which he suffered grotesque physical punishment and ejection from the Olympic hierarchy.
And, as his crowning act of retribution, Zeus ordained the creation of the very first woman – Pandora – intended as a positive curse on mankind; shaped from the earth and condemned to carry with her the eponymous Box whose contents she was forbidden ever to open, see and possess. Not – as you may agree – the happiest of introductions of ‘woman’ to this version of the creation saga. Yet two unintended consequences followed, as is their wont, signifying Pandora’s undervalued potentials as symbol of her sex.
First she ignored the incipient male myth of a trivialising female curiosity by opening the box, and thus pointing up the fledgling qualities of forensic interest and enquiry which were to blossom into many a woman laureate of the sciences and arts; and, through longer time, progressively flouted the myriad imposed stereotypes of role and potential, dreamed up and imposed in the exclusive, introverted schools, and clubby enclaves of a male-dominated society.
The ‘bomb-shell’ image was a figure,
Like Marilyn Monroe’s, but bigger –
Elegant, but only just,
Clad about the thighs and bust;
And offering, like Eliot’s miss,
Some promise of pneumatic bliss.
Though, contrary to male assumption
That pretty blondes have little gumption,
This modern version boasts degrees,
Like MBAs and PhDs,
And an intellect as real
As her physical appeal.
Given the still un-ended process of attrition by which some of Pandora’s successors have eventually forced their way in to the boardroom; and the more massive significance of our recent celebration of 100 years of votes for women; it’s a good time to remember that, in areas of critical social relationships, both culture and law need to be in line for sustainable change to occur. And, as I have argued, ‘myth’ has been a powerful political tool in shaping society, Zeus to Trump, not least in male/female relationships, where the male voice has continued mainly to prevail.
The ‘ battle-axe’ implied a style
More dependent on her guile,
Since her feministic facets
Were seen as insubstantial assets.
Eschewing every pleasure known,
To which the weaker men were prone,
She maddeningly seemed to know
And, where information’s power,
Accumulate it hour by hour,
Until, by process of attrition,
She hand-bagged all the opposition.
Since, as I argued above, both the ‘cultural’ and ‘legislative’ dimensions need to be in line for sustainable social change of significance to ensue, the accidental contiguity of the Women’s Suffrage centenary and the inundation of Harvey Weinstein sex-pest revelations has super-charged women’s reactions world-wide in unprecedented ways; turning the spontaneous #MeToo and #TimesUp identities into potentially powerful movements of highly motivated women, energised for individual and collective action.
It’s vital that the cultural and political elements of these gains continue to march in step; and the cultural dimension will require no less than a society-wide correction in the balance of the social contract between male and female.
As I have argued, this will require some re-writing, or at least better awareness, of a history and social mythology largely written, or manipulated to a male view, by men. I agree with Sarah Churchill (‘Sign of the Times’, The Guardian, 17 Feb 2018) that ‘story-telling‘ played a major role, particularly through dominant 20th century male writers – Updike, Mailer, Roth and many others – in establishing the ‘male entitlement to be the centre of the story, male voices to dominate…and for a woman to be dismissed’ (or ‘Gaslighted’ as the process became known, after the 1938 play in which the phrase first appeared) as ‘a perfect little silly‘.
These ancient overtones of sex
Will not prevent what happens next,
When every Boardroom stands ajar
To women as they really are-
Good or bad just like the others
Of their gentlemanly brothers;
Revealing – and it really hurts –
The irrelevancy of their skirts !
From ‘ Lady on the Board ‘
© Ralph Windle 1982
This pioneering piece from my Financial Times/ Bertie Ramsbottom series was immediately adopted by The Society of Women in Management and has been reproduced many times in UK and US publications.