Is it ever okay for a woman to exercise her sexuality to gain political power?

Posted on February 15, 2010.

Kudzai Makombe

Queen Elizabeth I kept a reign on power by becoming "The Virgin Queen"  Credit

Queen Elizabeth I kept a reign on power by becoming "The Virgin Queen" Credit

This question has been puzzling me since a late-night, noisy get together with friends where we got talking (some might say gossiping) about the alleged cross-party sexual politics taking place in our government. The men, it was said, were using sex as a strategy to silence the women from the opposite camps. The woman targeted  loses her standing once she’s been seduced as it quickly becomes general knowledge among other politicians.

“Once you see that so and so who used to be so vocal has gone quite then you know they’ve been had,” said one friend. Much like the boarding school strategy employed by male students to remove the top performing girl student’s ranking as number one in class I’m told. But, never having been to boarding school, much less a co-educational school, I am not aware.

As much as this dirty trick is an age-old male strategy to silence female opponents, women throughout history have used their sexuality, that is — whom one has sex with (or not), in what ways, why, under what circumstances, and with what outcomes — as a strategy to gain power.

I’m thinking Anne Boleyn, Cleopatra and Eva Peron. Make no mistake about it. These were no dimwitted women bumbling their way to power. Neither were they the most attractive of women. No doubt their intelligence, wit, charm, humour and deep passion to succeed all combined to give them charisma, which played an important part in their sexual allure. And their sexual power lay in this desirability, not in handing out sexual favours.

More recently, we had general head shaking disapproval from many quarters over German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Christian Democratic Union Parliamentary candidate Vera Lengsfeld’s bosomy “We have more to offer” poster, which featured in last August’s election campaign. The posters were put up by Lengsfeld, who said she wanted to give the campaign a bit of humour. Reading up on Lengsfeld I found out she has a degree in Philosophy of Religion and is a civil rights activist which was my confirmation that she really thought this poster idea through. I wonder if there would have been less head shaking if the bosoms had not been middle-aged ones.

The example of all these women got me thinking that male politicians’ strategy of using sex against women could be turned on its head after the style of Anne Boleyn. It seems that sexual unavailability will get you ahead. Anne Boleyn’s “Queen or nothing” strategy worked well with Henry VIII. She refused to be his mistress and all the while his attentions and favours towards her flourished. Eventually he married her, annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. But no sooner had she become Queen than Henry VIII began to lose interest and eventually got around to beheading her.

Elizabeth I (Anne Boleyn’s daughter) perfected her mother’s strategy. She came into power at age 25 despite being declared illegitimate and stayed in power for 44 years until her death. Sometimes called ‘The Virgin Queen’, she never married. Not only did Elizabeth avoid losing her power to a husband by marrying, she also avoided the problem of succession. Personally I’m not convinced Elizabeth was really a virgin, but either way, her strategy of sexual aloofness certainly kept her in the game of politics.

I can just picture many readers are tsk tsking, thinking this type of discussion is not going to help advance the feminist cause. Some will argue that in those days women may have had to use their ‘feminine wiles’ in addition to their intellectual skills to get ahead but now we have to employ ‘fair’ tactics and play strictly by the book. The problem for me is that men’s unfair tactics — violence, money and character assassination being the primary ones — are rarely questioned. In fact, they tend to be rewarded.

Surely denying women use of their sexuality in the game of politics and power is yet another reflection of the power imbalances between women and men where women’s sexual rights are limited while men’s sexual freedom grows. In the so-called “dirty game of politics”, are we stifling women’s progress to the top by refusing them the right to use their sexuality while we applaud men’s use of the same?