Conservative Attitudes Toward Women Haven’t Evolved in 2000 Years

In 2015 CE, a cabal of powerful American conservatives gathered together to find a way to prosecute their war against Donald Trump, who had announced his intention to be the next president of the United States. They were all men – Representatives Mark Meadows, Mick Mulvaney, and Jim Jordan – and they came up with a scheme to throw Speaker John Boehner under the bus and rally the party against Planned Parenthood. Women’s access to healthcare had to go to show Trump and his supporters that these were real Republicans and to prevent a Trump victory.

In 42 BCE a cabal of powerful Roman conservatives gathered to find money to prosecute a war against the murderers of Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated two years before, and to prevent a conspirators’ victory. They were the so-called “triumvirs,” all men – Caesar’s great-nephew and heir Octavian, general and Consul Mark Antony and Master of Horse, Marcus Lepidus.

They came up with a scheme to tax wealthy women, some 1400 of them whose wealth – Roman wealth was based on property – exceeded a certain level. The triumvirs would skim the rest. Those to be taxed were only women after all. Who was going to complain, far less stop the scheme?

In point of fact, the women would.

As historian Pat Southern writes,

They were foiled by protests from a delegation led by Antony’s mother Julia, Octavian’s sister, and Hortensia, the daughter of the orator Hortensius, who jointly protested that that as women they had no political rights and therefore did not see why they should pay for a war in which they had no voice.[1]

This protest took the form of a march on the forum, the equivalent today of a march on the Capitol Mall. Soldiers gave way, civilians gathered to listen, and the women stalked to the rostra, where speakers stood to address crowds in front of the senate house.

The historian Appian in his book on the Roman civil wars, has preserved the speech of Hortensia, which resonates today:

“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, and our brothers, whom you accused of having wronged you; if you take away our property also, you reduce us to a condition unbecoming our birth, our manners, our sex. Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the state-craft, for which you contend against each other with such harmful results? ‘Because this is a time of war,’ do you say? When have there not been wars, and when have taxes ever been imposed on women, who are exempted by their sex among all mankind?”

The triumvirs were naturally not happy at women talking back to them. As Appian put it, “While Hortensia thus spoke the triumvirs were angry that women should dare to hold a public meeting when the men were silent.” Sounds a lot like the New Testament prohibition against women lecturing men. Maybe one of them, Octavian or Lepidus, lifted his finger, like Rand Paul, to shush them and say “calm down.” Not Antony. Though his wife had shown these women the door, his own mother stood on the rostra.

So these Roman men were no more happy than conservative men today when faced with women standing up to them. They wanted the women ejected from the rostra.

Yet the men, powerful masters of the Roman world though they were, were unable to silence the women because the crowd would not permit it. It has often been said that the mob ruled Rome, and well these particular Romans knew it.

Condemnation for their temerity? Not from the crowd. And Appian had nothing but praise for Hortensia:

“For by bringing back her father’s eloquence, she brought about the remission of the greater part of the tax. Quintus Hortensius lived again in the female line and breathed through his daughter’s words.”

The upshot of this early confrontation about taxation without representation was that the very next day, the triumvirs conceded the point and reduced the list from 14000 to 400.

So they were left to find their money in another way, which mostly concerned murdering people and stealing it. It was an ugly outcome and not the women’s fault.

What is astonishing is that women are being forced to fight the same battles today as these remarkable Roman women did over two thousand years ago. If women can vote now, they are hardly equal: their fates are often decided by all-male congressional committees and hearings, and if they protest, they are called “sluts” and worse.

Hortensia pointed out that women were not allowed to fight in wars, and even today American conservatives, like Roman conservatives, think they should not. They should be home, and pregnant, and not even in the workplace, let alone firing bullets at enemies.

This episode serves to illustrate how very little we have progressed down all these long centuries.
We are really not very far removed from the concerns of a group of Roman women about wars that took place before Jesus’ birth, or the actions of men who in their thirst for power and dominance differ stood to underhanded means to get their way. These actions today include faked videos about Planned Parenthood, and to prevent a woman becoming president, a faked scandal about Benghazi.

Women stood up for their rights in the Roman forum 2000 years ago, and women today are forced to do the same or they consent to male control. The truth is, conservatives seem to have not evolved at all in their attitudes towards women, or in the means employed to exercise that control, and that is a very sad and depressing state of affairs.


[1] Pat Southern. The Roman Army: A Social & Institutional History. Oxford University Press, 2006, 73.