March 8th was International Women’s Day, and in that spirit, I wanted to dedicate this post to a particular group of unsung heroes across the ages: Women who were partners to men in positions of power. One such woman is Lady Macbeth (but more on her in a moment).
Since America has not yet had a female head of state (unlike these countries), we’re well acquainted with women who were partners to men in positions of power. Throughout America’s history, we’ve seen the office of FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) take many forms depending on the personality of the First Lady herself. A leader in her own right, FLOTUS is arguably the highest profile person in US government that is unelected. And she is capable of doing something that few, if any, others can do: She can remind the President that he is human. When you’re repeatedly called the Leader of the Free World, that kind of power is likely to go to anyone’s head. Enter FLOTUS; she was around before POTUS got the nuclear launch codes, she’s one of the few people who can call him by his first name, and she can point out his flaws and tell him he’s wrong without fear of losing her job. She exemplifies the kind of woman described in the immortal words of the great poet James Brown: “This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’ without a woman or a girl.”
My favorite fictional FLOTUS is Abbey Bartlet (played by Stockard Channing) from the TV series The West Wing. When the show began they hadn’t cast a First Lady (if that isn’t a testament to how women are regarded in our culture, I don’t know what is). She doesn’t appear in the series until the 7th episode of the first season, in which they explain her absence by suggesting she’d been away visiting a foreign country. Near the end of the episode, she says:
“I shouldn’t have stayed away so long… You know, one of things that happens when I stay away too long is that you forget that you don’t have the power to fix everything. You have a big brain, and a good heart, and an ego the size of Montana… You don’t have the power to fix everything.”
And with that, you see President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) go from having the gravitas of POTUS to the vulnerability of a schoolboy. That is the effect that these women can have on men in positions of power.
The women in Macbeth are likewise influential but in different ways. The three Wayward Sisters (of “Double Double Toil and Trouble” fame) set the story in motion with a prophecy. Lady MacDuff, raising three young children while her husband is off at war, tells the story of the sacrifices some women make while her husband is off increasing his status. A modern touchstone is Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver who left her career in 2004 due to the conflict of interest that had arisen between her work as a journalist and her new role as First Lady of California.
Lady Macbeth infuses Macbeth himself with her own ambitions, moving him to claim that which he believes is rightfully his. Her level of ambition is quite common for women in our day and age but may have been extraordinary in Shakespeare’s time. She grounds Macbeth in moments when he tends toward a wide array of emotions and is able to be a rock for him when he is unsettled. Their relationship seems to oscillate between stereotypical gender roles; when he is more emotional, she is more pragmatic, and when he becomes more ruthlessly ambitious, she becomes more compassionate.
Shakespeare is not known for having written many strong roles for women, often leaving even the more prominent women in his plays without much of a voice at the play’s conclusion. And while Lady Macbeth is still regarded as one of Shakespeare’s stronger female characters, we still see how often women are defined by the men to whom they are married. Case in point: None of the women in the play have their own names. In modern times, we know that women may have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
So here’s to the women out there who continue to be under-appreciated for all the contributions they make to our lives. May we be able to see them for all they do for us, and bring their stories to the stage.