Insights: Culture—Women Behind the Throne

Today's female politicians can learn a lot from the women of the eighteenth-century French court

Although 80 years have passed since the 19th Amendment granted voting rights to women, remarkably few women occupy top positions outside the Cabinet. We have only a handful of female senators and governors, and the ultimate prize of the White House still seems tantalizingly out of reach. It's startling that in this age of feminist activism, 16 years have passed since a woman (Geraldine Ferraro) appeared for the first and only time on a national ticket. And how depressing that, in the historical record of the two-term Clinton administration, the appointment of the first female secretary of state will be overshadowed by the stormy dramatics surrounding an ambitious first lady and an indiscreet young mistress.  

Our first female president, who may still be in diapers, will need to study all the achievements and missteps of prominent women from Hat-shep-sut and Cleopatra to Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton, all of whom have lurched from pothole to pothole on the rocky road to high office.  

A peculiarity of the Clinton years is that the most feminist first lady in American history arrived hand in glove with the most reckless presidential philanderer, a man who in aping the debonair John F. Kennedy's Don Juanism managed to screw up big. Washington, D.C., is a fishbowl thanks to today's relentless media, and Bill Clinton has never enjoyed the privileged privacy of the Duke of Edinburgh or Prince of Wales, whose amours are shrouded by an aristocratic Mafia.  

European politicians, such as the late French president François Mitterand, know how to manage the precarious balance between honored wife and official mistress, invoking a sophisticated sexual duality that has never been tolerated in the United States, with its Puritan heritage. The mistress as overt political player has a long history in France: the escapades of the ancien régime make the Clinton scandals look like chopped liver.  

By the time he died at the age of 64 in 1774, Louis XV, the indecisive, pleasure-loving successor to the great Sun King, Louis XIV, had enjoyed a fantastic array of mistresses and one-night stands. As a teenager on his wedding night, he reportedly had sex seven times with his bride, a Polish princess. He fathered 10 children by the time he was 27. When his pious, conventional wife began to refuse sexual relations, Louis relentlessly pursued extramarital adventures. Courtesans kept on call in a hostelry called the Parc aux Cerfs supplemented his first conquests, three highborn sisters.  

Near death from a fever at age 34, Louis was strong-armed by the bishops into making a public confession of his adulteries in order to win absolution. Against his wishes, his statement was printed and distributed throughout the country, where it became the subject of thundering sermons. This invasion of the king's privacy, combined with the lurid burst of titillating publicity, shocked many people in much the way the Starr report, when posted on the Internet in 1998, fascinated and repelled the world with its explicit details of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.  

Louis recovered, however, and went on to find his most celebrated mistress, a lively middle-class girl named Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who became Madame de Pompadour, a patron of intellectuals and, for two decades, the formidable arbiter of taste and style in France. An amateur actress who painted, read widely, sang and played the clavichord, Madame de Pompadour caught the king's eye on a hunt as she expertly drove her phaeton through the woods.  

The king assigned two courtiers to teach her the rituals of court life; and, since royal mistresses had to be aristocrats, he endowed her with an estate and the rank of marquise. She redesigned the hothouses of the royal gardens, acquired and redecorated 17 estates and houses, commissioned an enormous amount of first-rate art, and founded the famous china factory at Sèvres. She also starred in lavish theatricals at Versailles, where she staged 61 plays, operas and ballets.  

Though she remained his witty confidante, Pompadour was the king's mistress for only five years: she was apparently frigid and had to resort to herbal remedies to improve her sexual performance. Her extravagance made her increasingly unpopular among the citizenry, particularly when she began to interfere in political matters. She engineered appointments and urged Louis into the Austrian alliance that began the disastrous Seven Years War with Prussia, which shattered the French economy. Depressed by the troubles she had inflicted on the king, she died at 43, a year after the war ended in 1763.  

At 60, Louis was sexually depleted, but a young mistress renewed his energies, and became his sole focus and most gratifying romance. The newly minted Comtesse Du Barry had been a working-class girl with a shady past named Marie Jeanne Bécu. She had such power over the king that she was allowed to write out personal drafts on the French treasury to finance her projects or whims. Du Barry spent huge sums redecorating rooms, buying jewels and commissioning dresses from couturiers. Each month, dolls made in her image and dressed in her newest designs were sent out to major European cities.

Although she became a living symbol of French fashion at its height of elegance and glamour, her reputation remained tarnished: when a British publisher was about to release a four-volume pornographic chronicle of her life, French agents intervened and 3,000 books were burned in a lime kiln near London.  

After the king died, Du Barry lost all of her power and was frozen out by Marie Antoinette, the wife of the new monarch, Louis XVI. All three would share the same fate--death by guillotine during the French revolution. When an angry mob attacked her chateau, Du Barry had a terrible shock: her lover, the Duc de Brissac, was dismembered and his head was tossed through her window by rebellious citizens. When the head landed at her feet, she fainted. Put on trial for treason, she was denounced as a "Messalina" whose offenses were "debauchery" and "luxury."  

Though she was queen, Marie Antoinette inherited the unpopularity of the royal mistresses. She was an alien, a native of Austria, which had been a longtime enemy of France. A child bride, she had been sent away at 14 for a political marriage that wasn't consummated for at least four years. Louis XVI was sexually ignorant and may have suffered from phimosis, a foreskin retraction problem. Bored by her fat, clumsy, slow-witted husband, Marie Antoinette began to don disguises and frequent Parisian theaters, gaming houses and masquerades. A superb horsewoman, she sometimes rode astride in male costume. She ran up huge debts from all-night gambling parties and expensive jewelry and clothing, buying 170 new dresses a year when the country was in the midst of a food shortage.  

Resentment against her intensified when she bestowed property and pensions on three female favorites and their families, and rumors of lesbianism spread. Impatient with the stodgy formality of the French court, she unwisely isolated herself in the Petit Trianon, the Versailles retreat built for Pompadour that had been transformed into a garden paradise with temples, gazebos and pagodas. Across the lake, the queen kept a working farm, the Hamlet, where she may or may not have played milkmaid while dressed in silks.  

Like Pompadour and Du Barry, Marie Antoinette was hounded by anonymous posters and pamphlets, the tabloid press of the day. She was denounced as an "arch-tigress," a nymphomaniac who had Sèvres teacups shaped to her breasts. She was contemptuously called "l'Autrichienne" (the Austrian), with the final syllable emphasized (chienne is French for bitch). Her friend Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun painted portraits of her in casual dress with her children in an attempt to soften her image much as media consultants do for politicians and their wives today.  

It's probably untrue that Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake" when she heard the people had no bread. But she was justly called "Madame Deficit" for frivolously draining the treasury; she also became a massive power behind the throne because of her mediocre husband's administrative incompetence. As the revolution loomed, she conferred with ministers, was briefed on state matters and finagled appointments.  

She opposed the American Revolution (in which French troops, led by the Marquis de Lafayette, fought) and tried to keep France an absolute monarchy so that her son, the Dauphin, could inherit the throne. She made many political misjudgments, such as when she prevented the king from consenting to a bicameral constitution in the English style. Her stubborn insistence on the status quo brought ruin on herself and her family and ended the monarchy.  

The mobs that broke into Versailles were out to get Marie Antoinette ("Fry her liver!" was one cry). In Paris, her dearest friend, Marie Thérèse de Lamballe, was torn to pieces by marauders, who stuck her head and genitalia on pikes and waved them before the queen's window. When the queen was put on trial, the indictment called her "a scourge and bloodsucker," and even charged her with having incestuous relations with her own son. She won admiration, however, for her dignified behavior in prison and on the scaffold, to which she was carried through the streets in an open rubbish cart.  

The unstable mix of sex and politics in the French monarchy has left us many lessons. In our imperial presidency, federal boondoggles are now favors to be dispensed to a corrupt court of big donors or partisan activists, while computerized missiles are wastefully launched overseas to divert attention from domestic problems. And the top job brings many temptations: "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," the nerdy Henry Kissinger once said. While Americans seem to be moving toward a European-style tolerance for sexual peccadilloes in politicians, the line between public and private must not be blurred--as happened in the Lewinsky affair, when the Oval Office became a modern-day Versailles.  

The juvenile, airheaded Lewinsky was no Pompadour or Du Barry, but Hillary Clinton's checkered history in Washington has sometimes evoked Marie Antoinette. Fairly or unfairly, Hillary has been similarly accused of coldness, isolation, meddling, manipulation, stonewalling, frivolously consorting with celebrities, hiding in limousines and being a bitch or (falsely, I think) a lesbian.  

If they are ever to be leaders of nations, women must stop using men as the path to power and prestige. Pillow talk--the language of the boudoir--is no longer enough. The reactionary personae of queen or courtesan should be jettisoned. The new woman of the Twenty-first century will master the political system on her own.    

Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a columnist for