Monday, June 28, 2010


“Real women don’t have flushes, they have power surges.” Sandra Cabot
Weeks after intervening to save the flagging fortunes of the Australian Labor Party by assuming its leadership from a shocked and visibly crushed Kevin Rudd, and media and populace alike are still marveling not only at the augustness of the new captain at the helm of our nation, but also, the apparently ruthless way in which she came to be elevated to the heights of power. Further, as the media has highlighted, these are historic and exciting times, for it is the first time that a woman has assumed the prime ministership of Australia. It is also slightly embarrassing for the various self-appointed Greek-Australian lobby groups, who just a day or two before, rejoiced in their triumphant photo opportunity with the then Prime Minister Rudd and his firm promise that the Federal Government’s stance on the “Makedoniko,” shall remain unchanged. Given the close relationship that Gillard ally and kingmaker, Bill Shorten is said to enjoy with the Fyromian-Australian community, it is clear that these peak representative bodies who represent our interests and positions without us even knowing about it, will have to toddle off back to Canberra, to seek similar assurances from the new Prime Minister, whose stance on such weighty matters, is as yet unknown.
Nonetheless, most leaders of Greek-Australian community organizations would be forgiven for thinking that the latest machinations of the Australian Labor Party are in fact not shocking or novel, but rather, lifted directly from the text book of Greek community politics. In fact, the manner and style of this latest coup, seems to eerily echo the 2008 transition of power in the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we can all be proud of the fact that our people continue to make lasting contributions to this country, in particular, to its political culture. Unlike most of our community leaders however, our most exalted prime minister most likely than not, is committed not just to the acquisition and retention of the pinnacle of power, but also, the application of a broad vision for Australian society. After all, there is only so much perching upon the pinnacle of power, admiring the view below, before chafing sets in.
Just how the gender switch will transform the face of Australian politics remains unknown. Julia Gillard is but one in a long line of female leaders of parliamentary democracies, all of whom have left surprising and conflicting legacies. While each is historically significant in her own right, it would be difficult, or rather futile to ascribe a lasting uniform change or approach to leadership or politics in such diverse leaders as the revolutionary Corazon Aquino, the conservative Margaret Thatcher, the equally belligerent Golda Meir, the fascinating but fundamentally flawed Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, the ineffectual and allegedly corrupt Tansu Ciller, and the glamorous and fascinating Cristina Fernandez, president of Argentina, based solely on their shared gender, as it would to seek common patterns in style of rule between John Howard, Barak Obama and Dora Bakoyianni, based on a premise of a commonality of genitalia. Our new Prime Minister will make history not because she is a woman but because she will, or strive to be, hard-working and inspiring and will cause the mining barons to quake and crumble under her steely gaze.
It cannot be disputed that our new Prime Minister’s appointment will serve as an inspiration for aspiring politically conscious Australian women everywhere. Yet for the historically conscious Greek-Australian woman, Julia Gillard, though impressive and awesome, is but a parvenu when compared to a 3,000 year old tradition of strong and fearsome Greek female leaders.
Artemisia, the ruler of Caria and compatriot of Herodotus, was the only female commander of Xerxes in the Persian Wars. It was she who counselled the Persian king to coordinate a joint land-sea offensive. She wanted the Persian army to march to the Isthmus of Corinth and attack the Greek coalition that was fortifying there, while moving the fleet to attack the Greek triremes. In this, Artemisia hoped that the Greek ships would scatter to their city-states, leaving them vulnerable to an intact Persian fleet. Xerxes refused this plan, instead moving to attack the assembled Greek fleet at Salamis. Artemisia thus ended up participating in the Battle of Salamis as a Persian ally commanding five ships and actually rammed an allied ship in order to escape the pursuing Greeks. For some reason, this apparently earned the admiration of Xerxes. Her namesake, Artemisia II, was responsible for building the Mausoleum, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Travelling a century further in time, we come across the formidable Eryxo, queen of Cyrenaica in Libya, who not only took on the might of the pharaoh himself, but was also, if Plutarch is to be believed, a most noble, modest and courteous woman who whiled away the hours by seducing and assassinating potential usurpers.
Julia Gillard would be wise to take a leaf out of the book of Queen Gorgo of Sparta, wife of Leonidas, who was able to remain cool in a crisis and keep the martial state together in the face of imminent defeat by the Persians. Plutarch quotes Queen Gorgo as follows: "When asked by a woman from Attica, "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?', she said: 'Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.'" The vast amount of Greek queens that ruled or influenced the development of the Hellenistic kingdoms, including the murderous but shrewdly calculating Epirote princess Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, and culminating in the tragic, flawed but fascinating Cleopatra also includes the endearing Hypsicratea Queen of Pontus, who ruled a confederacy of states with King Mithridates. She loved her husband so much that she donned a male disguise, learned warrior skills, being noted to have fought with axe, lance, sword, and bow and arrow (vital skills for a modern day politician) and followed him into exile.
These amazing women cement a pedigree that brings us to the most remarkable Greek woman ruler of them all, the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian. During her reign over the Empire, she presided over and inspired the reconquest of Italy, Spain and North Africa, the codification of Byzantine law, the erection of numerous imposing edifices, if Procopius is to be believed, discovered the secret of silk production and fanned the flames of ecclesiastical controversy.
Irene Sarantapihaina, ruled the vast, multi-ethnic Byzantine Empire ably for five years, attempting to heal the schism caused by the iconoclast dispute, and other Empresses such as Theodora of Paphlagonia, religious disputes that caused civil strife were finally resolved. Theophano, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, apart from being criticized for her decadence, which manifested in her bathing once a day and introducing luxurious garments and jewelry into Germany, is credited with introducing the fork to Western Europe, chronographers mentioning the astonishment she caused when she "used a golden double prong to bring food to her mouth" instead of using her hands as was the norm. It was under her tutelage that her son, Otto III assumed the trappings of Byzantine power and tried to resuscitate the Roman Empire in the West.
During the Greek Revolution, the presence of female captains and leaders, such as Bouboulina, Manto Mavrogenous and of course the inexorable Despo of Souli who fought alongside her menfolk with her daughters-in law continues our venerable tradition of formidable women leaders, a tradition that offers much in the way of examples for our own PM.
Charlotte Bunch, the human rights activist, once opined that “We need women leaders. But we need them to have a vision for something.” Julia Gillard will have plenty on her plate in the coming months and her vision may be obscured by the need to cement her leadership and successfully fight an election. During these heady times then, lessons of fortitude, skullduggery, strategy and triumph abound in the experiences of the amazing female leaders of our past. Robin Morgan may have considered that “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human,” but our PM can be reassured of her ultimate triumph, through the words of the great Groucho Marxist himself: “Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men -- the other 999 follow women.” And if all else fails, try suppressing iconoclasm. It worked for us.


First published in NKEE on 28 June 2010