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What Cleopatra teaches us about gender equality in politics

Duane W. Roller's "Cleopatra" portrays a highly gifted woman smeared by an early (and highly successful) PR campaign.

By Nikki Terpilowski / September 29, 2010

The obsession with female politicians and their looks began not with Sarah Palin but is at least as old as Cleopatra.

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We’ve come a long way, baby.... or have we? So far, the first decade of the 21st century has been a banner era for the female politician. The United States saw one woman in serious contention for the Democratic presidential nomination and another as the vice-president running mate on the Republican ticket.

We have also seen the rise of something very ugly, the double standard applied to women who throw their proverbial hats into the political arena. Female politicians are criticized for their beauty routines and wardrobe. And while men do receive media attention when they are part of a scandal, a conspicuously bright light is shown on their female counterparts' marital history and sexual past.

How can we forget the media storm over the Republican Party’s Katherine Harris’s use of heavily applied makeup when the important issue was “dangling chads”? There was a dust up over Sarah Palin’s wardrobe when there were clearly larger issues at stake. Everything from Hilary Clinton’s graying locks to the leather pumps she wore were picked apart, none of which had a direct impact on her ability to lead a country.

This obsession with women who rule and the examination of their physical appearance and personal lives did not begin in the modern era. In fact, it is the main reason that all the sensational, lurid stories about Cleopatra have found their way into art, literature, and popular culture.

Duane W. Roller begins his recent Cleopatra: A Biography with the refreshing idea of writing based on what Cleopatra wrote and what her contemporaries had to say about her. In the past, biographers of the Ptolemaic queen used accounts of her life originating essentially from second- and third-hand accounts from her enemies.

All of Cleopatra’s biographers seem to agree upon the dysfunctional nature of her family. What with all the incestuous royal marriages, fratricide, and filicide in the name of line of succession, Cleopatra is distinguished in Roller’s account by her love for her four children and the destiny she strove to create for them.

It is obvious in Roller’s portrayal of Cleopatra that all of her decisions as Queen of Egypt were made in the best interest of her country. She was obsessed with expanding the area she reigned over and increasing her wealth for her children’s future. Nowhere in Roller’s profile of the queen is there evidence that Cleopatra was a promiscuous wanton who seduced her way to fame and fortune.

I must say that I liked this view of a dynamic, intelligent Cleopatra who used all of her wiles and assets to the benefit of her country. The Queen of the Nile certainly had her faults, but at least Roller’s profile of her recognizes that she did more than introduce the hairstyle that was history's most famous until the Jennifer Anniston shag came along.

It is also quite clear that Cleopatra was a thorn in the side of Imperial Rome. She strategically had children with two of Rome’s most prominent men. Marcus Antony gave her land that belonged to Rome and she was not afraid to engage in military and naval combat with the ancient world's version of a super power.

When Cleopatra died the Roman government purposely set out to deface and defame their most powerful rival. Naturally, an example had to be made of Cleopatra in case other smaller kingdoms dared to stand up to them. And of course, it had to sting just a bit that she was a woman. What better way to discredit a female than by attacking her appearance and morals?

It would seem that human nature has remained constant. People would still rather gossip about who a queen slept with than to marvel at the fact that she spoke at least seven languages (if not more) and wrote scholarly papers on science and mathematics.

According to Roller and his research, Cleopatra was the target of one of the very first negative PR campaigns – although later no one remembered it was all public disinformation, designed to re-brand, re-image, and reposition the former Queen of Egypt in history. And the salacious facts about who she slept with, the magic spells she conjured, and questions about who fathered her children, were all designed to remove focus from the indisputable facts of her reign. She was the most powerful ruler of the Ancient East during her time.

Besides providing a compelling story and breathing fresh air into a heretofore two-dimensional caricature from history, Duane W. Roller’s "Cleopatra" provides an interesting commentary on the attitudes still prevalent towards women who rule. It tells us that we still have a ways to go before there is true gender equity in the political realm.

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Nikki Terpilowski is a freelance writer based in New York City. You can also find more of her thoughts and writings on books, travel, and food at awomanreading.

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