What is the role of women in society? This is a hotly debated topic that no one seems able to reach a consensus on. Recently, BYU’s History Department thoughtfully resuscitated four dead queens to teach us more about the topic: Empress Cixi of the Ching Dynasty; Hurrem Sultan; Joan of Arc; and Martha Ballard, queen of colonial midwifery. For an hour on March 1, these women debated various questions surrounding women’s involvement in politics, the work force, and life in general. Like the Dead Presidents’ Debate of last fall, it was an engaging and humorous look at history and its bearing on matters of importance today.
Women in the Workforce
The moderator asked in what capacity should women be involved in the workforce? The queens agreed that females were essential. Martha, who, as we mentioned here, was an 18th century midwife who is primarily known from Laura Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer-prize winning book A Midwife’s Tale, said that women had always worke,d while Joan declared women to be an “absolutely important economic force.” Hurrem had worked as her husband, Suleiman the Magnificent’s advisor, and Cixi, who ruled China on behalf of her son during the Qing Dynasty, termed herself “a professional politician.”
Women in Politics
Her proclamation perfectly segued into the moderator’s next query, which was: “What role should women play in politics?” On this question, the queens were divided. Both Hurrem and Joan supported the idea of females participating in politics. The latter said that women could be inspiring leaders, and Hurrem stated that women needed to be more involved.
Martha and Cixi, however, favored a more restrained role for females in politics. The midwife declared policy-making to be a man’s role and maintained that that was the natural order of things. Similar to this natural order was the “Mandate of Heaven” advocated for by Cixi. Even though lots of women are smarter than men, she said, women in politics violated the divine order.
The Women’s March and whether not women’s involvement in politics was good or bad were the topics of the third question. As with the last query, the queens differed in their responses. Hurrem declared that while it was ok to protest officials, it was not ok to protest rulers. Cixi took this a step further by adding that “no one should have the right to demonstrate…Nobody should march- wrong.” She advocated that God appointed rulers, therefore, people should obey them. “You don’t have to think about it,” she said. “Just obey.” According to Martha, however, marching is a “good way for people to show support, not to protest.” Joan believed the opposite, saying that people need to “make their voices heard.”
Next, the queens were asked if they thought modern women were better off than those in previous generations. Joan and Cixi asserted that they were, the former praising the fact that women could wear pants. Martha acknowledged that while modern times were better in terms of medical care, people spent too much time on their phones. “The old ways are the good ways.” Hurrem, however, pointed out the “big inequality in the world today,” of medical care.
Lastly, the queens were asked if they had any advice to women as they began their lives as BYU students. Joan admonished that it is “important to listen to what God wants you to do.” Hurrem said to overcome obstacles and that “you have to believe in yourself.” Martha encouraged women to keep journals, and Cixi offered sage advice: “Addiction is bad. Pursue your education.”
Hurrem, Martha, Cixi, and Joan debated many pertinent issues facing contemporary women. While they often disagreed, their varying answers provided perspective on the issues that could inform current students and modern women. All in all, the debate served as a fun way to learn more about women’s issues.
Each of the “queens” was interviewed by the professor in separate videos leading up to the debate, in parodies of Zach Galifianakis interview of Hillary Clinton: Joan of Arc here, Empress Dowager Cixi here, Hurrem Sultan here, and Martha Ballard here. We look forward to more fun history debates!