Machiavelli and HRC: La Mandragola

Given that HRC’s campaign for president is about to end shortly, the punditry has already begun to offer explanations for why her campaign failed. And the most obvious, but the least talked about, potential explanation is sexism. Certainly sexism is something that HRC’s own supporters have argued: whether it is a true or not, I can’t say, because I have any kind of empirical evidence can only come after the fact.

But I’m not really interested in whether sexism played a salient causal role in HRC’s failed campaign. No, what I’m interested in is this: which matters more? that a woman can hold the highest office in the land? or the fact that we still think of politics in gendered terms? In other words: would it matter all that much that a woman can become president when we haven’t moved past the notion of gender itself in politics.

And this got me thinking about Machiavelli’s La Mandragola, a satirical play he wrote while in exile. I read the play in a political theory class, which is unusual, because usually in these classes, the only Machiavelli texts we read are (of course) The Prince, and in a longer course, The Discourses. In hindsight, I’m really glad that I read the play, and Professor Wendy Brown should be given a lot of credit for introducing this little-read text to an undergraduate class.

Anyways, I bring up Machiavelli and HRC, not in the usual sense, which sees HRC as a kind of Machiavellian figure who’s willing to use any and all tactic to gain power. To be honest, I really don’t see HRC as a kind of Machiavellian figure, and I think this aspect of her public life is overblown. No, what I have in mind is something broader, not constrained to the person of HRC herself, but to our political system as a whole.

In the La Mandragola, the plot revolves around Callimaco and his single-minded objective of having sex with Lucrezia, the young, beautiful married wife of a much older man named Nicia. The fairly standard (and I think non-controversial) interpretation of the play is that Lucrezia stands for the Italian principality, and the various characters’ conspiracy to gain sexual access to Lucrezia as standing for political machination to control Italy.

Clearly, this interpretation of the play sees politics in explicitly gendered terms: political success, however conceived, is a woman. And inevitably the metaphors for achieving political success is couched in sexual terms. And the implication of this is that one must pursue political success like one would pursue a woman: with cunning, wiles, deception, and sometimes even force. This gendered view of politics is also evident in The Prince, because Machiavelli says that man must struggle against the goddess Fortuna, either through cunning, or with force. As he writes in The Prince, men must wrestle with Fortuna and force her into submission.

“It is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortuna is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her…She more often lets herself be overcome by men using such methods than by those who proceed coldly…therefore always, like a woman, she is the friend of young men, because they are less cautious, more spirited, and with more boldness master her.”

Again, it becomes very clear that for Machiavelli, politics is gendered. And this raises the question which I brought up at the beginning of the post: would it matter all that much for a woman to attain the highest political office if the way we talk about politics is still in very gendered terms

I don’t have a clear answer for this question, but what is clear to me is that HRC and her supporters talk about her campaign in these terms. HRC herself constantly speaks of herself as a fighter that never quits, tough enough to roll with the punches, and all these other kind of very masculine metaphors.

But I wonder if a woman’s becoming the president is truly a substantive victory for women in general. If we really want to make gender a non-issue in politics, then perhaps we ought to re-think politics. It might be necessary that for this process to start, it must first be possible for a woman to attain the pinnacle of political success. But if we continue to think in terms of gender when we talk about politics, then how much have we moved beyond sexism?

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