For most of human history, we have followed a template that puts men in charge, presumably dating back to times when physical strength actually meant something towards our survival. In today’s world, when it comes to survival, that extra time in the gym could feasibly be trumped by a geek with a cell phone.
Age of the Geek, Baby!
So here we sit, with a patriarchal history and fear of change, and one wonders how, through the many civilizations that have ruled the Western world, we are still afraid of powerful women. The answer, it turns out, goes all the way back to the Judeo-Christian story of the creation of mankind.
Before there was Adam and Eve, there was Adam and the mythological first female known as Lilit, or Lilith. Her role in Western monotheism is not a common topic, as she has almost no ties to Christianity, but every so often, she makes an appearance in pop culture. Most recently was in the HBO show True Blood, where she fulfilled the role of the first vampire, created in the image of God. I would show a clip of her from the show, but she’s pretty much always naked and covered in blood, and I’d like to keep things relatively PG around here. All you really need to know about that particular character is that, despite the obvious fictional nature of the show, the representation of Lilit as a powerful vampire at the very beginning of her race is not a great stretch from how she is portrayed in some very old writings that were used to provide context to passages in the Hebrew Bible. These writings are called “midrash.”
If you’re a fan of the HBO show True Blood, you may remember the last few seasons that included a character named Lilith. This character is roughly based on the legendary Lilit. In the show, she represents the first vampire, created in God’s image. This is not far from the many representations of Lilit as a demon.
Midrash is an exegesis of writings that is used to “fill in the gaps” of the Tanakh (Tanakh is sort of an acronym for how the Hebrew Bible is categorized: Torah+Nevi’im+Ketuvim = TaNaK). Think of it as the Christian Old Testament, only really, really different. So I guess don’t think of it that way, but there are many books from the Old Testament also used in the Tanakh, it’s just that they’re viewed different, interpreted differently, set in a different context, and mostly have different reasons for their existence. Judaism also spends much time studying sacred texts outside of the Tanakh, as a way of reaching logical conclusions of Tanakh text or confirming an argument in a certain passage. But otherwise…sure, same thing. The specific use of midrash is not to say that the Tanakh cannot be a complete document on it’s own for the Jewish faith, but rather that there are certain ideas and events and people that post-Temple era rabbis felt needed further context. And in those writings is where we meet Lilit.
It would be unfair to say she is strictly a Jewish figure, as she does show up in the Christian Bible. Kinda. And only once.
Isaiah 34:14 (International Standard Version):
And desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and goat-demons will call out to each other. There also Liliths will settle, and find for themselves a resting place.
If you recognize this verse, you likely have never heard this version before. “Liliths” is generally translated to something along the lines of “night creature” or “night monster” or “screeching owl” in most translations. The point is, she made an appearance, but it’s difficult to read too much into the legend of a screeching owl.
Lilit is given a far more prominent position (pun intended; you’ll get it later) in the Creation story additions of Midrashim, specifically as the actual first woman, created equally by God from the earth with Adam. If you belong to any Judeo-Christian faiths, you likely have heard little more about the Creation story than “There was light, God made Adam, Adam got bored, God took Adam’s rib and made Eve.” I have no qualms if this is the story you follow and believe; none of this is about figuring out how the universe and life were created. I actually see the Creation story as more of a long parable than a historic event, and that personally makes more sense to me. Other Judeo-Christian faiths believe it was a literal account of the Creation, which perhaps makes more sense to you. Honestly, I don’t really care how you think it happened. How the universe was created carries almost no importance compared to whether it was created. You don’t have to understand the creative musical process going through the mind of Miles Davis during a solo just to appreciate his music. The important part is that he played and someone recorded him. Maybe you think Miles Davis isn’t real, but you still have to admit the music is pretty cool. Is this metaphor working for you? Cause I forgot how it started…
The story of Lilit throws quite a significant curveball into the Creation story, mostly by shifting our perspective of the supposed natural roles of male and female. Much of history has insisted on woman being subservient to man for various reasons, one of which is because she was created from man’s rib, which works quite well in the long history of men exercising control over women. It just seems natural, right? Woman was created by God because man asked for her, then she came in and got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Clearly this means that a woman can’t be put in charge of a whole nation. Or something. Men were also buoyed by the fact that, in general, we are able to more easily build muscle and carry things and kill things. That was especially useful during the days before pizza delivery and Amazon.
But consider a different narrative, where the original man, Adam, was created equally from the earth with the first woman. Not Eve, but Lilit. That’s the story anyway, according to a Midrashim of anonymous texts called The Alphabet of ben Sirach. So where and when did Eve enter the text? That would be after Lilit left the Garden of Eden (or was kicked out, depending on who is telling or translating the story…she was either kicked out for saying God’s name out loud, or she yelled his name on the way out of the garden while flipping Adam the bird). She had many qualms with Adam right from the start, all coming down to the fact that Adam wasn’t thrilled with shared power and responsibility and wanted her to submit to him. The deal-breaker came down to sexual positions. Short version is…they both wanted to be on top (get it? position? from before?).
However the inequality manifested, it didn’t end well. Adam had no intention of being equal, and Lilit had no intention of submitting, and in fact seemed to want Adam to submit, so Lilit gave him the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and left the Garden forever. God told Adam to sleep it off, took out one of his ribs and created Eve, the perfect unopinionated servant wife who only made one individual decision, which screwed up humanity’s relationship with God for the next few millennia. Booyah!
Lilit, on the other hand, went to the Red Sea, where she told God’s angels, and I mean told God’s angels, that she could take a baby’s life whenever she wants, up to a male child’s 8th day or a female child’s 12th day.
And thus, man was able to sustain his status as the dominant gender through the most powerful historical means of preventing another group from gaining any semblance of power: Propaganda. Lilit became the Mother of Lost Souls, Mother of Monsters, Mother of Demons, Succubus Demon, and any other nasty name you can think of for the screeching owl witch that wouldn’t submit. She was to blame for every miscarriage and stillbirth. She was the evil succubus that made men ejaculate in their sleep, so that she could take their semen and produce hundreds of demon babies (part of her deal with God for letting her leave was that 100 of her demons babies would die every day, so she had to make up ground somehow). Women feared her; men despised her. She was the entity standing in the way of our ability to be fruitful and multiply, all because of her own selfishness to not allow herself to be owned by Adam.
By the 13th c. the evil portrayal of Lilit wasn’t quite enough. She was already a baby-killing demon, so making her worse would be quite a task. At that point in history, when propaganda through text becomes no longer viable, the next step is art.
Lilit, portrayed as the Serpent with a snake tail, tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God
Lilit was no longer a demon; she was the
demon. This first woman, the woman with the gall to claim equality with man, could only be the Biblical Serpent that tempted Eve, then Adam, and convinced them to disobey God. Every cartoon you saw on it as a kid probably showed the “forbidden fruit” as an apple. Maybe a peach. But there are different interpretations, and the nature of the Lilit legend often comes with a subtle or not-so-subtle hint that Lilit tempted Eve and Adam sexually. In some cases, it is also suggested that she had both male and female parts, because obviously we can’t have gays in the Garden.
While it seems like an interesting interpretation, it’s important to gain a perspective of this carving and the many examples of Lilit as the Serpent in the proper context, especially when examining it in relation to modern events. When you look at this picture, there is a deeper significance in which we interpret the scene, whether or not we even realize we’re doing it. According to this picture, we are being told that giving a woman power can only lead to humanity straying from God, unleashing temptations that we cannot resist, and breaking up the delicate nature of the male-dominated marriage. Lilit was the chance for all women to have a voice, and she used it for evil, and our society continues to evolve based on that.
**In case you’re wondering, Lilith on Cheers and Frasier (Frasier’s wife/ex-wife) was not named after the Biblical Lilit, though it’s difficult to gloss over how well she fits the role of Lilit that we imagine**
How does this apply to Hillary Clinton and the strong possibility of the first female President? Quite simply, the stronger Hillary gets, and the louder her voice, the more she is painted as a modern-day Lilit. She isn’t seen as strong; she’s seen as a bitch. She represents the biggest threat to date of a male-dominated culture.
**Please note that none of this post is an endorsement of any Presidential candidate. I have yet to make my decision in the Democratic primaries. I see many positive qualities in both Clinton and Bernie Sanders. On the national level, campaign finance and foreign policy are my two biggest issues…Bernie wins on campaign finance, Hillary wins on foreign policy. Regardless, my decision still will not come until next Spring. I don’t put up Christmas decorations until the day after Thanksgiving and I don’t pick a President until the ground thaws**
The idea of a female President is not a new precedent. As far back as 1884, there was a woman on an official Presidential ballot, and in 1920, Laura Clay became the first woman to be considered for nomination by a major political party. You would think that would have put us on a more progressive path with advancing women’s rights, but these women unfortunately turned out to be pioneers well ahead of their time. Clay was considered for nomination in 1920, which coincidentally was the year that the states ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, meaning Clay could run for President, but couldn’t vote. ‘Merica.
Many women have carved out powerful roles in government over the last few decades. Frances Perkins was the first female appointed to the President’s Cabinet as Secretary of Labor in 1933. Since that time, women continued to hold various powerful Cabinet positions (albeit at a disturbingly low rate), and in 1997, Madeleine Albright was confirmed for the most powerful Cabinet position as Secretary of State. This led to a surge, of sorts, of women holding this particular position; three of the last five going back to Albright (Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, split by Colin Powell and succeeded by John Kerry). Did we suddenly realize that women are actually good at this job and perhaps the idea of being represented to the world in diplomacy by a woman was a good idea? Perhaps, but you better believe those three women were climbing a steeper ladder than others and they still came out ahead. Albright was absolutely brilliant, and Clinton, after stretching the position of First Lady to the height of its power, then serving a term in the U.S. Senate, may have been the most effective Secretary of State in our history.
As Secretary of State, Clinton was heavily involved in an historic diplomacy deal to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I fully realize that she was not in that position when it was made, but her fingerprints are all over that deal, much to the delight of Republicans that don’t like the deal and think they can use it to show her as weak. Add on the lifting of the trade embargo with Cuba, which she also steered heavily towards before stepping down, and she appears to have been an awfully powerful member of Obama’s State Department. Even on the day she left office, she managed to toss in a conversation with Obama about ending the embargo. In other words, she “matter-of-factly” suggested it was time to end the Cold War. That’s two major, MAJOR diplomatic achievements, something the rest of the world perhaps thought the U.S. was incapable of after a decade of war and machismo.
I’m tempted to draw a line between the male and female perspective to show the effectiveness of having a woman leading debates on foreign policy. As many times as I’ve heard that women are naturally “too emotional” to hold such a high or higher office, or they won’t be able to handle the pressure of diplomacy, or a train moving too fast might make their uterus fly out (wait, what?), it turns out that men are at least equally too emotional but in different ways, instinctively seeking revenge and holding long grudges. Both Iran and Cuba have said and done some nasty things to the U.S. in our sordid and confusing history, but Hillary Clinton was able to see past the grudge match and comprehend the opportunity to make America better by reaching out a hand to our so-called “enemies.” Considering all this, everyone should at least be intrigued by the possibility of her as President.
How does the legend of Lilit come into play? Because the treatment of Lilit and her legend over the centuries offers some insight into our apparent fear to put nuclear launch codes into the hands of a woman. No one comes right out and says Hillary is an evil succubus that kills babies…well, okay, most people don’t come right out and say it.
The legend of Lilit came through perfectly in the portrayal of Secretary Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I normally wouldn’t bother quoting Rush Limbaugh, because man he went so far off the deep end so long ago, but he paints this picture beautifully, allowing us to see perfectly how to propagandize the Clinton-Lewinsky affair with maximum efficiency by portraying Hillary (the only one not involved in the affair, by the way) as the evil, power-hungry Serpent.
After Clinton got what he wanted, after he got his jollies, after he got his consensual whatevers, then it was time to destroy her — along with every other woman that popped up, not just Monica Lewinsky — and it was Hillary right in there.
So there it is. Forgive me for reading too much into it, but just look at how Rush corrupts this story, and then look at how many people listen to him every day. The real story is that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had an affair, and Hillary stayed with him to work through it. Or they have an open marriage or something, and she didn’t care; that’s really none of our business. But In Rush’s version, and the perspective implanted into the minds of the masses, Bill is just being a regular guy, getting “his jollies” like we do. And it was consensual, so big deal, right? Monica is the innocent girl that is tempted and doesn’t know any better and she follows directions when they get caught, so she’s forgiven. Plus she’s young and pretty, making it easier to present a narrative that presents her however he media wants to present her. She could be young and innocent, or a pretty mean girl. For all political purposes, it doesn’t matter which is the truth, or if either are the truth. What matters is how you’re led to see her, and the resulting opinion you then have of Hillary, the demon that somehow managed to become the antagonist because her husband cheated on her.
Perhaps it sounds like I’m stretching to make the analogy work, but I challenge you to look throughout history and see this scene played out over and over. Wherever there is power, and wherever a woman might have a claim or ability to wield that power, you will see Lilit being cast out of the Garden. In offices all across the country and world, you will see a man and woman do or say the exact same thing, only to hear the man described as “assertive” and the woman described as “bossy.” You’ll see young men being taught to be leaders and young women being taught to be secretaries. Even look at some Facebook comments of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, where Hillary is chastised for not being able to “satisfy” Bill. She’s been a U.S. Senator and a Secretary of State, and somehow she’s still reduced to a sexual object, because in that guy’s mind, that’s the only reason we have women around…to satisfy our sexual desires.
We’ve gotten better at hiding our biases over the last 50 years, sometimes to a point where we don’t even consciously know they exist. But it’s there. Deep down, when a guy feels emasculated by a female boss or his wife being more successful, he’s basing it on a belief that certain words and actions are viewed as strong and indicate power and virility, while others are weak and indicate a delicate and dainty disposition. This comes from a lifetime of being told to look for Eve; gentle, submissive, Eve. Eve always listens, so she can be controlled, which is historically the only way men feel safe around women. We just don’t get women. Seriously, in our brains, you’re all weird. So the idea of one at the head of the most powerful country in the world is terrifying. But guys, we’ve had over 200 years, and while we’ve produced some great Presidents, we’ve also produced some really lousy Presidents. We don’t exactly have solid ground to stand on in saying that a woman can’t be President, cause plenty of dudes really sucked at it. Let your mind embrace the chaos of a future that you can’t predict, because even if it’s not Hillary in 2016, it won’t be long before we have a female President. And to many people, it will be scary.
To the rest of us, ready to see a world that enforces and honors equality, it will be exhilarating.