Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women of Influence: Then and Now

By Kelly Tweeddale

Like many, I have a longstanding fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots. It began with a compulsory junior high school essay on the Scottish Queen, and led to my visit, in 2000, to Edinburgh Castle—which houses many interesting artifacts of Mary and was the birthplace of her son, who eventually became King James I of England.

The Mary I have come to know is of course more nuanced than her dramatic counterpart. In Seattle Opera's production, you will see a Mary characterized both as a scheming, plotting, and treasonous cousin to Elizabeth I and as a displaced monarch trying to reclaim her birthright after moving from one dysfunctional relationship to another. But you won’t see the woman who, during her 19-year imprisonment, championed her ladies-in-waiting and took up knitting, creating worsted undergarments, pious head coverings, and stockings (which reportedly she knit for her own beheading).

Donizetti rightly knew which Mary would make for good theater. What could be better than two dueling queens singing bel canto opera for revenge, power, and love?

Joyce El-Khoury as Mary Stuart. Jacob Lucas photo
Still, we can’t help but look at Mary and Elizabeth through a modern lens. Today, the Puget Sound Business Journal gives “Women of Influence” awards to honorees who have used their positions of power to make a difference in their organizations and their communities, while mentoring colleagues to do the same. Were Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots the “women of influence” of their time?

By modern standards, neither monarch was allowed to make independent decisions informed by her own accomplishments, education, or experience. Stature was endowed by bloodline and birthright, and both women were surrounded and often muted or manipulated by male consorts, advisors, emissaries, and strategists. Power was often lost or gained through marital alliances, the ability to bear an heir, and the public’s attitude toward a monarch’s chosen religion. Rather than mentor her fellow monarch (and cousin), Elizabeth considered Mary’s existence a threat, a potential obstacle to Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth’s refusal to recognize Mary as her successor built enough political muscle for Elizabeth to rally armies and wage war.

In their dramatic face-off—something of a catfight over the same men and crown—they express emotions historically attributed to women such as piety, compassion, empathy, jealousy and envy. As represented in the opera, both Mary and Elizabeth are still icons of a male-dominated power system
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Elizabeth I) and Joyce El-Khoury (Mary Stuart). Philip Newton photo

Does either woman rise above being a political puppet? The men are the strategists and ultimately the catalysts that propel the action forward. Historians still debate whether Elizabeth was presented with valid evidence before her final decision, but in the opera, pressure from the male characters compels Elizabeth to sign the execution order. Mary’s execution is carried out and Elizabeth emerges as a historical monarch much admired for her “masculine” intelligence.

Is the trajectory for women of influence today markedly improved? As a woman who has built a career to the top leadership position, I’d like to give an adamant “yes,” but I can’t do so without reservation or reflection. Yes, in North America and Europe, women have progressed to a level where they can use their intellect, experience, leadership, and skill to compete successfully at any level. Yet women are still often evaluated, compensated, and measured on a primarily male archetypal scale. Even today, in our current countdown to the next U.S. presidential election, the female candidates are often referred to by their first names (i.e., Hillary or Carly) while the male candidates are referred to by surnames (i.e., Sanders or Trump), a linguistic practice that lends more prestige and importance to the males than the females. It is still common to find coverage that focuses on what women leaders are wearing, whether they have changed their hairstyle, and what their physical demeanor is while men are described in terms of their decisions, outcomes, and performance. Countless studies have shown that men are perceived to be more successful on the merits of their actions alone regardless of likability, while women must first appear likable before the merits of the same actions are perceived as equally successful.

Joyce El-Khoury as Mary Stuart. Jacob Lucas photo. 
Even playing field? Not yet, but the tide may be changing. I have experienced a camaraderie among women leaders that is both empowering and transformative. Their influence, by creating an open forum for questions and debate, is unparalleled in history and quite different from the influence of their male counterparts. I’d like to think that perhaps Elizabeth kept Mary’s execution at bay for so long because deep down she saw something of herself in Mary’s situation. Perhaps in a different world, Elizabeth would have had an inner cabinet of both men and women giving her input, giving credence to intuitive skill as well as the political freedom to make a different and less predictable decision. Perhaps Mary would have used her influence to forge alliances that were less about regaining power and more about keeping the peace. And in a perfect world, having suitors or heirs or neither would have no bearing on a woman’s power, every religion would have a place, each person would succeed on his/her own merits, and capital punishment would be a relic of the past.

But if you’re an opera-lover, these changes would leave a big void in the repertoire. So, for now, let’s praise the different influence at work in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda: that of fiction that puts two historical figures (who never really met) in the same place at the same time, allowing a modern audience to re-imagine history and breathe new life into these fascinating women, as they compete with a musical line that transcends reality. This reinterpretation not only makes for a good story, but a provocative night in the theater.
Kelly Tweeddale worked for Seattle Opera for 15 years and was executive director of Seattle Opera from 2003 to 2016. In 2011, she was selected by the Puget Sound Business Journal as a Woman of Influence. She is now President of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

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