“Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
So Republican Presidential Candidate Carly Fiorina responded to Donald Trump at the Second G.O.P. Debate (Wednesday, September 16, 2015) after a moderator reminded how Trump had previously used Fiorina’s physical appearance to criticize her political aspirations.
“Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” Trump had reportedly exclaimed during a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
Trump’s defense of his words during the debate, made only after applause for Fiorina’s response finally died down, speaks even more loudly about how he regards women.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”
Clearly, Donald Trump failed to understand the nature of his offense—that it was less about disparaging a woman’s beauty and more about using a woman’s physical appearance to measure political effectiveness.
Trump, of course, is not the first to (mis)judge a woman based on her appearance.
Indeed, his comment reminds me—as a medieval historian—about another woman whose female body caused her opponent to seriously misjudge her capability.
John Mirk’s Festial, a popular collection of English sermons in the fifteenth century, relates the story of St. Margaret of Antioch—an alleged Christian martyr from the early church.
Although she committed as a teenager to follow Christ as a consecrated virgin, Margaret’s physical beauty caught the eye of a Roman governor. According to the text, “she was fair surpassing all other women.” When Margaret refused both his sexual advances and his demand for her to forsake Christianity, the Roman governor tortured her and threw her into prison. The medieval sermon records that despite the “great plenty of blood” that poured from her body, she prayed that God would give her the strength to face the “fiend” responsible for her suffering.
It is at this point when the story gets really interesting.
A dragon appeared in the corner of her cell—“a great horrible dragon.” Without much advance warning, it swallowed her in one gulp. Margaret remained calm, despite having just been eaten by a dragon. She drew on the power of Christ, making the sign of the cross, and the dragon burst messily apart.
During this brief but dramatic moment, the scene in the cell shifted—from that of a dragon towering over Margaret to Margaret standing tall above the shattered remains of the dragon. With the last of his strength, the dragon confessed his failure: “Alas, I am undone for ever, and all my might is gone, now such a young woman has overcome me; for many a big and a strong I have defeated, but now such an inferior has gotten mastery and put me under her feet.”
Clearly, St. Margaret’s dragon had misjudged his opponent. Instead of seeing a resourceful person who had the ability to defeat him, he saw only a weak woman.
I am not drawing parallels between Carly Fiorina and St. Margaret. Nor am I drawing parallels between St. Margaret’s dragon and Donald Trump.
I am simply suggesting that, to my medieval ear, Trump’s recent measuring of a woman’s capabilities based on her physical appearance is an old problem for women.
It is an old problem that is still with us. Unfortunately Trump’s comments about Fiorina is only one example of how women today continue to be particularly judged by their appearance. Jennifer Siebel Newsom provides another example, as her #AskHerMore campaign (followed by Amy Poehler’s #SmartGirlsAsk) challenges the media to ask female celebrities on the red carpet more meaningful questions than about their appearance.
But while using a woman’s appearance to measure her capability is an old problem, it is also an old mistake.
The dragon soon realized this with Margaret, as did her initial oppressor, the Roman governor Olybrius. After Margaret dispatched the dragon and survived torture, Olybrius tried twice more to kill her. Margaret arose victorious from his attempt to drown her, even managing to call forth an earthquake and receive a divine voice ordering her to remain “steadfast” because heaven was on her side. Olybrius’ second attempt to kill her, this time by beheading, succeeded—but not before Margaret managed to convert all the crowd to Christianity and had her name blessed to provide divine protection over future Christians. Remember, Olybrius had initially taken Margaret because she was young and beautiful. He soon discovered that this was not her full measure. Margaret was a strong, defiant promoter of Christianity who ultimately cost Olybrius more than he had ever expected to pay.
Olybrius and St. Margaret’s dragon, confessing with his cry, “Alas, I am undone forever…now such a young woman has overcome me…and put me under her feet,” learned the hard way that the measure of a woman is not found in her appearance.
It would be nice if Donald Trump would learn this lesson too.
Although, if he ever did, I wonder if he would emulate the dragon and admit it?