A look at female power in the eighteenth century with Elisabeth Badinter

Ahead of International Women’s Day and on the occasion of the release of her book, Le Pouvoir au féminin, Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche l’impératrice-reine about Maria Theresa of Austria, Elisabeth Badinter tells us about the monarch and major female figure in European diplomacy. What makes Maria Theresa such an important figure in the history of powerful women?

What was the origin of women’s "unfitness" to rule?

The idea that women were incapable of ruling was connected to their supposedly "inferior" intellectual and physical condition. Considered more fragile, a woman’s primary function was to bear children, especially male heirs in the reigning families. That idea had its roots in the Bible - where God says to the man "by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" and to the woman "in pain you shall bring forth children" - and in Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelian philosophy, in which man represents mind and woman matter.

How did the "Pragmatic Sanction" overturn the original illegality of a female monarch?

Without a grandson, the Habsburg emperor Leopold I amended the law of succession so that the daughters of his eldest son Joseph I would be allowed to reign. By that act, he authorised succession by females. His younger son, Charles VI, subsequently betrayed the pact by amending the Pragmatic Sanction to allow his own daughters to take precedence over his nieces. Although Maria Theresa was destined to reign by law, she was not prepared to rule in practice, because Charles VI still hoped to have a son. Maria Theresa was not brought up to rule, but received the education of a princess, instructed in the arts, languages, theology and ancient history. Although Charles VI wanted his eldest daughter to reign, he did not prepare her for the role.

Why is the eighteenth century considered the most feminist century before the twentieth?

In the eighteenth century, women became mathematicians, astronomers and physicists. Others played a leading role in intellectual and social life. Women began to enjoy these more prominent roles in several European countries, from England to Italy, via France. In Austria and Prussia, however, women still had a more traditional status. Furthermore, these new roles were the preserve of women from the privileged classes. Moreover, Émilie du Châtelet complained bitterly that only the domain of knowledge was open to women, not that of power.

Of all the powerful women of the eighteenth century, why did you choose Maria Theresa?

Maria Theresa struck me as a unique case: she was an absolute monarch but did not renounce her status as a wife and a mother. Other powerful women in history did not face that triple challenge. Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia lived and ruled like men: they did not have to negotiate maternal love, love for a man and the responsibilities of power. Women who were both regents and mothers had to give up power as soon as their sons were of age to rule. Lastly, Queen Victoria never had absolute power, only representative power; it was the prime minister who governed. Maria Theresa of Austria stands out as a major figure in women’s history. She reigned as an absolute monarch for forty years over one of the largest empires in Europe, while facing a situation familiar to women today: trying to strike a balance between her public and her private life. Although she differed from us in her devoutness, she was like us in that she had to juggle the same problems as women in the twenty-first century: being a wife, a mother and having a career.

In what way was the "monarchy-femininity-maternity" at the heart of female power as embodied by Maria Theresa of Austria?

Unlike her arch-enemy Frederick II of Prussia, the embodiment of virility, Maria Theresa had to combine masculinity and femininity, while playing her three roles of wife, mother and queen, sometimes at the cost of acute tension and failure. Her co-regency with her son Joseph illustrated for example the conflict between her roles as mother and monarch, as she wrote herself. "I adore him, although he torments me." When she signed the new alliance with France, against her husband’s wishes, the monarch conflicted with the wife and she put politics ahead of her personal feelings. Subsequently, she remained loyal to the reversal of alliances and worked fully to ensure their success despite the hostility she encountered around her. Her loyalty and reputation for honouring her word made her unusual in eighteenth-century diplomacy. Ultimately, she embodied Christian morality more than politics.

How did Maria Theresa of Austria consolidate her power?

By defining herself as the "benevolent mother of her people", she chose a policy of closeness to the people, which represented a break from traditional power. She turned the age-old weakness of women into her personal brand and a strength. By imploring the Hungarians for assistance during the War of the Austrian Succession, she appealed to the chivalry of the day and sought to be loved. She did something else unthinkable in the eighteenth century: she strolled freely around around Vienna accompanied by her children and made it known to the court that she would receive anyone who sought an audience. That was her political genius: she presented herself as a mother who took care of her people. She embodied a model of personal diplomacy.

Today, the German media refers affectionately to Angela Merkel as "Mutti" ("Mum"). Is that a legacy of the same personal diplomacy?

Angela Merkel does have the image of a mother in Germany. However, she does not have 16 children to manage and she places no importance on her physical appearance. By contrast, Maria Theresa of Austria was highly coquettish, at least until she was widowed. The German chancellor’s model is more one of gender neutrality. Today, women are practically forced to wear a neutral suit, as if the aim were to make their femininity invisible. Hillary Clinton and Theresa May are elegant, but no more than that. It is quite the opposite for the wives of powerful men, who are expected to be feminine, to embody the class or the beauty of the women of their countries, or to be perfect hostesses. Even today, femininity is not considered the mark of seriousness. Women have to fit into a masculine mould, since for millennia masculinity has embodied competence and seriousness. While Barack Obama could have the luxury of crying twice in public, it is embarrassing for a woman to give in to tears. But Maria Theresa could play the card of emotion and seduction.

Maria Theresa was crowned "king" of Hungary. What was the significance of that title?

To the Hungarians at the time, it was unthinkable to elect a woman to the throne. So Maria Theresa circumvented the custom by retaining the title of "king". Moreover, she valued her title of Queen of Hungary and Bohemia more than that of Empress consort, which referred only to her status as a wife. Her preference was not unlike that of women today who use their maiden names at work so as not to be reduced to the status of "Mrs" someone else. Maria Theresa thus demonstrated a keen sense of absolute monarchy. Conscious of the importance of titles, she even sent back a letter from Louis XV of France, who addressed her as empress, not as "empress and queen".

You devote a sub-chapter to "women’s diplomacy". What was the role of those ambassadors behind the scenes?

When Maria Theresa came to power, she did not want women to be involved in politics. Several years later, however, she wrote to Count Rosenberg saying that she had no reason to deprive herself of women’s abilities if they were competent. Over the years, she forged political and friendly ties with women based on trust and complicity. Friends like Antonia of Bavaria rendered great services to the monarch. Entrusting women with diplomatic assignments was another of Maria Theresa’s innovations.

When researching your book, you drew on the notes and letters of ambassadors from the time. What is your assessment of that diplomatic work?

I judge the quality of an ambassador by his perspicacity and the multiplicity of his interests. The more emphasis an ambassador placed on portraying leading figures from the court and endeavouring to understand the relationships between human beings, the more his notes reveal a keen analysis, which can be used to chart the future of a particular court. For example, Venetian ambassadors early on recognised a strong personality in young Maria Theresa and understood her love of power. By contrast, many French ambassadors completely underestimated her, by focusing only on her beauty and pregnancies. They never suspected she would take power after the death of her father. Some were interested only in war, not in individuals.

Which new rights should women in the twenty-first century be fighting for?

My answer today is different from the one I would have given a year ago. New rights are no longer at the top of the agenda. Instead we need to defend the rights we thought we had already secured. We need to pay careful attention to how things develop and hold onto the ground we have gained since the war. The situation in the world, and specifically in the United States and in Poland, stops us from campaigning for new rights. Abortion was already not available to all women in those countries. But even in France, slogans such as "abortion is child murder", which we hadn’t heard since the Veil Act (which legalised abortion in 1975), are coming back. I am worried. We cannot fight on several fronts at once. We have to focus our energy on what is most urgent. And it is vital to secure the rights we have already gained because, as Simone de Beauvoir and Benoîte Groult said, women’s rights can always be called into question for one reason or another.

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