I have often wondered why dictators—and dictatorships—invariably suppress women. Theoretically, dictatorship and the suppression of women are two separate inclinations. One is an uninhibited strive for power, the other an attempt to limit the scope of possibilities open to women, which may entail humiliating women. Historically, however, the two often go together: Hitler’s sexuality, the subject of extensive research, is sometimes depicted as degrading to women, and Mussolini had an insatiable appetite for sex, constantly changing partners, indifferent to their feelings. I believe it would be hard to find a counterexample. But, if we don’t settle for the very general observation that discrimination against women is one case of violation of the rights of the individual, the connection between the two remains intriguing.
Virginia Woolf (1982-1941), the great English writer, addresses this question. Three Guineas, written in 1936-1937, is a fictitious letter composed in response to a request made by an educated gentleman, asking her to join the liberal forces to prevent a war. Though touched by the spirit of the letter, she refuses, saying that in order to stop the war, the very fundamental attitude toward women must change. Three Guineas is a fascinating essay about various aspects of discrimination against women, including the association of dictatorship with belittling women.
The very elemental imagery of the dictator, argues Woolf, is that of a strong, masculine man. A determined ruler, aggressive and tough, lacking compassion, it is the epitome of masculinity. It is no coincidence that dictators are men rather than women; this derives from the roots of the concept of dictatorship. The personification of the very idea of masculinity is the dictator. Fascist regimes, she argues, allow only one single positive attribute to femininity: motherhood. This is the only aspect of feminine life that poses no threat to the aggrandizement of the male dictator. The book begins with quotations of Nazi leaders. Goering says that “the mission of women is to be pretty and bring children into this world,” and Hitler argues that “the wonderful thing about nature and providence is that no conflict between the sexes can occur as long as long as each party performs the function ascribed to it by nature.”
An important part of the fascist separation between the sexes—men protect the family and women have children—is that the man is the sole provider. Since only he brings food and shelter, only he is entitled to a proper education. Dictators never support education for women, because it stands in sharp contrast to their definitions of masculinity and femininity. They are surrounded by pretty women, who perceive themselves as vehicles of reproduction.
This, in itself, is an insightful historical observation. But Woolf also elaborates on the reasons people find this masculine imagery so captivating. To do so, she turns to middle-class Britain but, in this respect, her arguments can be applied to any society. If the image of the dictator is entirely strange to the spectators, he couldn’t have such a vast impact. There must be something in it we recognize, something connecting it to our own lives. If, for example, we look at a photograph of a dictator, we see something of ourselves in it; “we cannot dissociate ourselves from the figure but are ourselves the figure.” The spectator is not passively gazing at a photo. This “suggests we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure.” In this encounter with the image of the dictator, the spectator is taking an active part, changing the image in his mind so it resembles his own life.
And how does it resemble the spectator’s life? It touches upon the common perception of manliness. The dictator is the perfect example of virility. Woolf describes a photo of a tyrant: “It is a figure of a man; some say, others deny, that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all of the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly. His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in uniform…. He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language, Tyrant or Dictator.” Dictators are not essentially different from other men—they are simply the faultless man, envied by everyone.
But who are those spectators—men or women? Both, Woolf argues. These fundamental perceptions of manliness (and womanhood) are deeply set in western culture, and are shared by both sexes. Tyrants come into power because millions of men and women connect with the notion that they are “true men.” Until this is changes, even if one dictator is overthrown, another will emerge. An emancipation from these distorted sexual perceptions is the only realistic way to avoid conflicts generated by dictators.