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.