Women in power have always been a fascinating, magnetic force. From Cleopatra to Margaret Thatcher, women who hold the throne or high office are exceptions to the rule, unique pops of energy among an otherwise gender-static landscape of male rulers and officials. In our own culture and societies throughout history, female leaders were treated as an anomaly, a break with the natural order of things that requires an explanation, qualifiers, or rationale for success.
Wu Zhao, also known as Wu Zetian or Empress Wu, is one such woman. In the late seventh century, she became the first and only female ruler of China who held the throne in her own name. She founded her own, short-lived dynasty and held power for fifteen years. Starting as a concubine to Emperor Gaozong and deftly navigating the channels of power to position herself as a logical ascendent to the throne, Wu Zhao has drawn admiration and ire from historians who challenge her morality, maternity, and alleged willingness to cut down anyone who stood in her way. Ambition in Wu Zhao’s case is a liability, despite her incredible achievement in ruling China.
A new study of the machinations behind Wu Zhao’s hold on power begins to answer the question of how. How did a woman claim the throne in a patriarchal society? How did she hold onto power once she had it? How, simply, can Wu Zhao exist in history? Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers by professor of Asian history N. Harry Rothschild offers a comprehensive image of the mythical imagery Wu Zhao built around herself to justify and explain her claim to authority.
The obstacles that Wu Zhao overcame sound very familiar. “Although ‘China did not have a written Salic Law,’ remarked Zhao Fengjie nearly a century ago, ‘nevertheless there was a prohibition, silently observed through dynasties, that a woman was not to become emperor.’” Wu Zhao’s ascent to the throne was not forbidden, but prohibited and blocked by the cultural norms of her time. And in order to overcome those barriers that stood between her and power, she pragmatically embraced the goddesses and historical women who could feed her own image as a natural born ruler.
The parallels between women both before and after Wu Zhao paint a complex picture of female leadership that has changed woefully little over the course of human history. Much like Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Wu Zhao staged elaborate religious spectacles to frame herself as a chosen leader. The Lou River and the city of Louyang were used to connect Wu Zhao to ancient prophecy of a sage ruler arriving to lead the country, a power play that mirrors religiously significant rituals Hatshepsut used to solidify her position as the gods’ representation on Earth.
Among the significant concerns about Wu Zhao’s leadership role was, unsurprisingly, her ability to be both a ruler and a mother. In attacks on her character, she was criticized as having abandoned or hurt her children in order to obtain power, sacrificing her maternal responsibilities for self-serving political interest. The false dichotomy between a woman as mother and a woman as leader has plagued women throughout history, from Wu Zhao to Hillary Clinton. And just like Clinton today must find ways to bring her quest for the presidency and her role as a mother into harmony in order to appease those who would treat them as mutually exclusive, so Wu Zhao had to find ways to do the same.
In Wu Zhao’s case, she decided to co-opt women who historically guided their emperor sons and had made a name for themselves in the process. By aligning herself with women who had deftly assisted in the leveraging of power and helped keep China safe and united in the face of sons who were less than up to the task, Wu Zhao underlined the female ability to rule justly and fairly. She also created a clear path to her own leadership, showing that women in leadership roles were far from uncommon. Her own jump to the throne may still have been a stretch, but the distance between right hand woman and sole leader was considerably shortened.
While the details of Wu Zhao’s pantheon of female support is fascinating and frustratingly intricate by turns, the larger image of what she built in order to gain power is striking in its near universal application to women in leadership roles. In order to justify her claim, she had to work harder and dig deeper to explain herself in relation to the throne. She had to build myths around herself in order to make clear that she was the exception, she was good enough to overcome the supposed limitations society placed on her gender and lead her country. Much like ancient female leaders across civilization, from Hatshepsut to Zenobia to Wu Zhao, women crafted elaborate shields to guard them against the sharp eyes watching for cracks that could discredit them. In the case of Wu Zhao, unlike those who came before her, historical record allows us to track not only her rise to power but her time on the throne. In comparison, other women were lost completely in the shadows of prophecy, religion, and mystery that they constructed.
Today the layers of legitimizing projection may be subtler, designed to appear more transparent and ultimately appeal to the strength of women rather than pander to the latent fears of women in power that have kept us from seats of true authority. But much like seventh century China, the lack of explicit laws locking doors to power does not erase or ease the restrictions that exist in practice. Women today are still required to justify their claim to power in ways men do not, and while the avenues by which they do so have changed, the ultimate meaning has not. Wu Zhao may have broken a barrier, but even in that significant achievement lies the rub, as no other woman has repeated her feat. Wu Zhao, like all women in power, remains an anomaly, not the norm.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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