Old English Politics Endure in Modern Sexual Politics

Toni Bowers

Once upon a time--1702-1714 to be exact--there was an English queen named Anne. To engage the affection of her subjects, she ordered her publicists to promote her as the mother of the nation.

Anne had a precedent for her action. Queen Elizabeth had also promoted herself as mother of the nation. She had cashed in on her virginity: virgin queen as virgin mother, with the nation as the Son.

At her coronation, Anne went even further with the metaphor, and presented herself as a nursing mother to the nation.

Some mother. With 17 pregnancies in 18 years of marriage, she had produced not a single surviving heir.

The nation was not amused.

-- Once upon another time, a passenger on an airplane delivered a baby in the toilet. She walked back to her seat empty-handed. The police took her into custody. Convicted of murder by the media, she faced a possible death sentence in the courts. Her husband, who had sat next to her on the plane ride, sat out the furor, somehow blameless in society's eyes.

-- And once upon a time, , then a young graduate student at Stanford, "fell pregnant," and everyone around her--her parents, her physician, even her fellow students--assumed that she faced a choice: to be a mother, or not to be a mother and continue her studies.

Here are her questions:

One: Why did a strategy that had bouyed Elizabeth, whose claim was far more outrageous, subvert Anne?

Two: Why was the airplane mother the only bad person in the story and why did the husband have no responsibility?

Three: And why couldn't Bowers have her baby and an academic career?

"I came to see this wasn't just my problem," says Bowers, now a professor of English at Penn. "It was a cultural issue. I wondered where did we get this idea that a mother chooses between having a public voice or motherhood--or chooses being a bad mother."


Bowers found her answers in the period surrounding England's so-called Glorious Revolution, when Anne's father, James II, abdicated the throne and the monarch's role as parent to the nation no longer made sense. And she demonstrated how English literature of the 17th and 18th century expresses the paradigms that still underpin the way we think of motherhood. She also shows how they underpin our legal definition for rape. (Be patient, dear reader, and read on.)

"My reading suggested that prior to Anne, Elizabeth represented the possibility of combining maternal self-representation and a public political voice," Bowers says. "But by Anne's time, the possibility no longer exists of a virtuous, exemplary mother who is also deeply committed to having a public voice."

Bowers took on the myth that good mothers didn't work by writing about it. "To write a book on that subject allowed me to combine having a public voice and maternal personhood," she says of her recently published book,"The Politics of Motherhood" (Cambridge University Press).

In her follow-up book-in-progress, "Force or Fraud: Resistance and Complicity in Early Eighteenth-Century British Seduction Narratives," she returns to the literature and writings of the same period to see how the language and assumptions used to interpret the fall of King James II in 1688 paralleled the language and assumptions used, beginning at the same time, to distinguish rape and seduction.

James' political opponents said that the king had abdicated the throne. But his supporters claimed that this throne had been unlawfully and forcibly usurped.

Similarly, 18th century fiction is often unclear about whether fallen women chose--or were forced to choose--their own demise.

"After King James was overthrown, the story of seduced maidens becomes a powerful story," says Bowers. "I think the unprecedented obsession with stories of seduction and betrayal is the way Augustan culture could safely discuss the problem of the fallen king's 'consent.'

"Consent emerges as a litmus test for rape at the same time as consent of the governed becomes a huge issue," says Bowers. The litmus test of consent remains part of our modern American legal standard for whether a rape has occurred.

Bowers argues that the notion of consent is inadequate to describe interpersonal relationships, because these rarely take place between equals.

"We have to stop pretending that people are equal," Bowers says. She cites the William Kennedy Smith trial and the debate over Anita Hill's testimony as examples in which the notion of consent, based on the fiction of equality, muddied the waters.

"The dichotomy [between seduction and rape] avoids the real problem," Bowers says."Human relations are built on dominance and subordination, and that is the problem."

Originally published on March 4, 1997