Can a Woman Be Both Powerful and Sensual?
A female colleague told me once that self-sacrifice is natural for a woman. I just looked at her and asked, “Why?”
Commonly, power, brains and sexuality have been traits separated from each other across all cultures and religions.
In traditional societies, women were granted two respectable archetypes to choose from: either that of the mother or the saintly virgin. Both are strongly connected to the concept of self-sacrifice.
Of course, the mother archetype is valid and very powerful (and who does not want to have access to the all-forgiving and powerful deity?). But it also the most coveted and promoted most widely by traditional religions (that is, if they are allowed a feminine archetype at all).
Not that there is anything wrong with the archetype of self-sacrifice which can be — like most — both female and male. But what I was questioning was why the archetype of self-sacrifice was chosen for women, and by whom.
I notice that often it is religious men who put women in a place of self-sacrifice.
Among the many possible archetypes of adventurer, intellectual, spiritual seeker, writer, seductress, soul-mate, teacher, leader, I find the self-sacrificial one the least appealing. I have always preferred the former as much more interesting.
Yes, I am guilty of always having had a rebellious streak, but I have always been a rebel with a cause; give me truth, please.
And the assumption that self-sacrifice is a typical feminine quality I treat with great suspicion.
There is also the third archetype of the bad woman — the one who is always smart, powerful and not afraid of her sexuality.
Let’s look at the history of magnificent women who were powerful, brainy and sexy, but received negative or condemning reviews from their contemporaries or were portrayed as sinners in religious terms.
Let’s have a look at two spunky but powerful bad women in history.
The most interesting, perhaps, of historical women who were both powerful and renowned for their sensuality was the Byzantine Empress Theodora (sixth century CE); she was so controversial that some believed her to be a saint others a monster, depending on whose account you are reading.
Coming from a poor background but very smart and beautiful, Theodora started out as an actress, dancer and, possibly, a prostitute.
In her teens and early twenties, she was a mistress to, at the very least, imperial officials. She traveled widely, including to Syria and Alexandria in Egypt.
She eventually returned to Constantinople (the imperial capital) and caught the eye of one of the greatest Byzantine emperors, Justinian.
She became his mistress — the law did not allow a future emperor to marry a dancer back then. That is, until he became the emperor and changed the law so he could marry her.
Theodora wasn’t just an empress, she became a powerful figure who advised Justinian on the most important matters of the empire. Theirs was true partnership.
Here are some examples: she saved his throne by insisting that he faced a rebellion instead of fleeing the capital, she co-founded one the most beautiful buildings in the world in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and when a pope in Rome objected to her religious convictions as being heretical, she simply replaced him with am more amicable pope.
She also passed laws against rape and gave women better divorce rights. Okay, so perhaps she was enjoying her power a bit too much, as Procopius in his Secret History insists she forced senators to crawl in front of her especially if they were naughty boys and disobeyed her.
Procopius’ Secret History often reads like a 6th century gloss magazine. For example, he spent an inordinate time describing her sexual excesses, including some tricks with geese, which makes me suspect that he enjoyed writing them a little too much.
Then there was Eleonor of Aquitaine (12th century France) who had the rare luck in those days of not having brothers and thus, on her father’s death, inherited the entire Western France.
Like Theodora, she was highly intelligent and sensual. She married the saintly French king Louis VII; it was an arranged marriage she did not enjoy.
So she insisted on going on a crusade with her husband during which she had an affair with her young uncle from the Holy Land.
Eventually, she managed to divorce Louis VII by seducing and marrying the future king of England, the young and handsome Henry II.
She was imprisoned for a while after disagreeing with her kingly husband on some matter, and raised a rebellion against him. But no family is perfect, right? Later, after his death, she ruled the kingdom when her sons went away on crusades.
And, of course, there were others. The point is that while the men they married were called great kings, their wives or mistresses were often vilified either for their political influence or their sexual conduct.
For example, kings almost as a rule had several mistresses and it was assumed to be the status quo; this did not deter historians from calling them great.
These powerful women accomplished important political feats, but often attention was on their immoral behavior, which was no different from that of their husbands.
The interesting question is: were they really ‘bad’ or was it that people could not deal with women who were smart, powerful and in control of their sexuality?
Personally, I like them because they did not submit to the prevailing idea of the self-sacrificial female. They were gutsy and smart in times when there was no place for women to exercise influence apart from that of being a mother.
Someone may ask why bother with this speculation, and my answer is: because it affects women today, and it affects men as well, as they are also trapped in these limited perceptions of what women can be.
We need more examples and archetypes of powerful women.
Indeed, some argue that even in fairy tales, we are told to fear and dislike powerful women, who are always portrayed as evil step-mothers who want to destroy some innocent child-like maiden (a non-threatening young girl with no will of her own who can only hope to be saved by a gallant prince).
Thus, from an early age, we are conditioned to identify with the girl rather than the powerful female figure, and believe that we need to be saved by a man so, in turn, we can bear his children.
It’s no surprise then that professionally successful women meet resistance, with often the strongest resistance coming from other women.
Why is it such a challenge for women to admire powerful women?
I believe it is largely because many women still struggle with the idea of self-empowerment and equate powerful women with dangerous women.
How can we address this?
By discovering our inner strengths, by asking ourselves, “Who do we really want to be now?” and by acting on it.
In his book on the Feminine Divine, Joseph Campbell says women are in need of a new archetype, and I could not agree more.
What do you think?
1. What examples of women were you given when you were growing up?
I was always a hopeless case, and refused the holy brainwashing from an early age. My nana tried to feed me stories of saintly nuns, but I discovered my grandpa’s old books and preferred to read stories about pirates (Captain Blood was my favorite then).
2. What feminine archetype do you keep replaying (the sacrificial woman, the princess who needs saving, the damsel in distress, the cold but ambitious intellectual/businesswoman, the perfect mother…?) And for men, what archetype do you keep falling for over and over again?
My answer: I still need to think of that one. I have a habitual I can do it attitude even if I am falling apart.
3. How well does this archetype still serve you? Where could you find another archetype/example that would serve you better at this current stage of your life?
My answer: I would love to relax more and be more free-spirited. I would like to experience more of the lightness of being and a Jupitarian good luck. At times, it feels like I have been working too hard for too long.
And most of all, I would like to reap rewards from things that fire my passion rather than from jobs. I long to come out of the shadow and stand at the center of my life, unapologetically and joyfully and with a little bit of an attitude. What about you?
Joanna Kujawa is the author of Jerusalem Diary (a spiritual travelogue) and many short stories, essays and academic pieces. She sees herself as a Spiritual Detective who asks difficult questions about spirituality, such as ‘Can spirituality and sexuality be experienced as one?’, ‘Eho was the real Mary Magdalene?’, ‘How can we include eco-spirituality in our belief systems?’ and ‘How can we bring back the Divine Feminine to create a more balanced and interconnected world?’ Her goal is to create and participate in the shift in consciousness about spirituality, our connection to nature, and our place in the Universe. She has PhD from Monash University, and MA and BA from the University of Toronto. She is immoderately passionate about her Goddess News blog. You could connect with her via her website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.