Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Little Help?

Thanks to the bookshelf review I undertook for this post, I'm now rereading Mary Renault's The King Must Die. It's the story of the mythical hero Theseus, King of Athens. One of Theseus' early adventures (before he gets to Crete and deals with the Minotaur, the book's centerpiece) takes place in Eleusis, a kingdom ruled by women. The women are like despotic rulers throughout time: contemptuous and dismissive of those not like them. In Eleusis, men are considered childish, weak-minded, and utterly unfit for the worlds of business, government, religion and everything else the society deems important.

Women rule in Eleusis because the society is an antiquated one, still wedded to cultural dictates developed in response to the ancient notion that women and the gods create life. Although the Eleusians in Theseus' time know the role earthly men play in conception, Eleusian culture has not evolved to take that into account and elevate men above second-class status. Everyone seems OK with this except, of course, our hero.

As events spin out, Theseus ultimately finds himself in position to modernize (it's killing me, but I'm not going to put that word in quotation marks) Eleusis. The following passage made my hair stand on end:

Later that day, I appointed my chief men, from those who had been resolute in defying the women. Some of these would have had me put down women from every office in the land. Though I tended myself to extremes as young men do, yet I did not like this; it would bring them all together to work women's magic in the dark. One or two, who had pleased my eye, I should have been glad to see about me. Only I had not forgotten Medea, who had fooled a man as wise as my father was. And there were the old grandmothers, who had run a household for fifty years, and had more sense than many a warrior with his mind only on his standing; but besides their magic, they had too many kindred and would have managed the men. So I thought again about what I had seen in Eleusis of women's rule, and chose from those sour ones who took their pleasure in putting the others down. And these did more than the men to keep their sisters from rising up again. A few years later, the women of Eleusis came begging me to appoint men in their stead. Thus I was able to make a favor of it.

I recognize that Mary Renault wrote those words in the 20th century, but they haunt me anyway. There were written records in the times the book depicts; I presume she relied on them for political and cultural realities just as she did to paint the book's remarkable depiction of the time's religious rites and its architectural, scenic and other physical realities.

Obviously, the passage says a great deal about the nature of power and how and why institutions as well as individuals promote on the bases of sexism, opportunism, tokenism, protectionism and atavistic fear, rather than solely on the basis of merit. But does it also
illustrate something fundamental in the nature of women? Or does the passage simply confirm that in times of oppression and discrimination, when power is scarce for one gender or the other, some of those with power will do anything to hang onto it?

Most career women have at some point in their careers run across a successful woman who's reached an elevated position and acts as if she believes there's some honor and glory in remaining alone there. Instead of trying to help other women succeed, she revels in her exclusive status. This sort of queen-bee behavior does as much to mask opportunity and hold women back as do sexist men or the pressures of the status quo. It horrifies me to think it might have been going on since ancient times.

Either way, I'm feeling galvanized. I'm determined to do something right this minute to help another woman succeed. I hope you will, too.

6 comments:

Annie said...

Very inspiring indeed! Just today I took pity on some poor intern who called our hotline and explained to her how to use the SEC website :)

Anonymous said...

It is extremely interesting for me to read this article. Thank author for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

Angela Montague said...

A great story and clever strategy. We can all think of Sour Ones who just want power, and it seems a greater crime when it's woman to woman.

I took immense pleasure in mentoring two young women who worked as my assistants during my 12 years of corporate climbing. To see them succeed was my success. Both went on to run their own companies, and remain good friends. To have taken the other road and blocked their development to maintain some kind of top-dog position would be a loss, not a gain.

Lea said...

Having worked in both predominantly female and predominantly male environments early in my career, I'll just say that it was easy to tell the difference. While each had their pros and cons, my experiences with Sour Ones and Queen Bees were definitely memorable... and not in a good way!

Debra, thank you for being one of those "other" women for me. You've become a wonderful mentor at a critical point in my life, and I appreciate it very much.

Fantastic, thought-provoking post!

Anonymous said...

Hey, have I met someone else who thoroughly disliked Theseus' attitude towards woman (and sadly, the author's too?

Jessica

Debra Snider said...

You have indeed met someone else who thoroughly disliked Theseus' attitude, which I found deeply misogynistic. I'm not so sure about the author's attitude, though. Being an author myself, I try not to attribute character attitudes to authors. :)

Sometimes, creating a despicable characteristic or even a wholly despicable character (which I don't think Theseus is) is critical to the conflict in, and the truth of, a story. And for all sorts of reasons, including the quoted material above and the pitiful end Renault brings Theseus to, I rather doubt she shared his attitude.

Thanks for reading and commenting!