Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Here’s a question from a devoted NLT reader: Who’s the greatest WOMAN of the 20th century?

Discussions - 39 Comments

It's totally a toss-up between Phyllis Schlafly and Margaret Thatcher.

That's easy...Mother Theresa.

Probably a slew of people we have never heard of. But if you want political figures, Margaret Thatcher, by a wide margin, over any man or woman other than Reagan.

Anon forgets that Winston Churchill was a man of the 20th century and, much as I like both Maggie and Ronny . . . c'mon.

And, much as I like both Thatcher and Mother Theresa, I think Clementine Churchill ought--at least--to get an honorable mention.

This post made me wonder something else-- who is the strongest paraplegic? St. Clement of Alexandria is quoted as saying, "Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman." MANLINESS!

I'm agnostic as to who is the greatest woman ot the 1900s, but am intrigued as to a comparison between the greatness (rather than the importance) of Thatcher and Schlafly. For this purpose I'll judge them the same way I would judge a man. According to Mansfield's criteria, Schlafly and Thatcher are more manly than all but the tiniest fraction of men who have ever lived anyway.

Both women took on challanges that would have seemed utterly impossible at the time they were undertaken. It would take two lenthy essays to cover the obstacles each woman faced in stopping the ERA and reviving The UK's economy, world standing, and national morale. On the one hand Sclafly held no office and had to get her message out through either a hostile major media or through grass roots campaigns that were more difficult to organize in a pre internet age. On the other hand, Thatcher's challanges were even greater than Reagan's. The UK economy was in far worse shape than the US economy, and the social and political forces against market reforms were much stronger in the UK. Call it a wash.

But two things stand out about Thatcher. First her response to danger. Schlafly faced the dangers of being a controversial public figure in an era where political assasinations in the US were more common than now. Thats no joke. But Thatcher was the main target of a terrorist group and one time they almost got her. She handled physical danger and a near death experience with enormous dignity and courage.

And we also have Thatcher as a war leader. Its tough for Americans to understand how uncertain the Falkland Islands War must have been for the British. Just choosing to go to war was an act of courage. She was brave and determined of course, but what is striking about her handling of the crisis is her moderation. She never buckled but she didn't bluster either. She patiently went about war preparations but always kept diplomacy open both as a way to avoid bloodshed and to to isolate the Argentine junta. She used international institutions like the United Nations to her advantage.

So in my book I have to go with Thatcher

Peter, is your vote for O'Connor? It seems we either have to go with saint, in which case we choose either Theresa or anon's anon, or with stateswoman(or activist), in which case it's Thatcher, or with thinker, in which case O'Connor's only real competition would be Arendt...which ain't much.

Is greatness synonymous with manliness if we take the question seriously in regard to the greatest woman? Surely Schlafly exhibited greatness in American politics, but in terms of "the twentieth century" the laurel must be given to Thatcher.

That being said, I agree that Mother Theresa can be considered great too. She took the route of piety, humility, and good deeds, but nonetheless, her work received global recognition. An unarmed prophet, I guess. Are the vitues shown in her
work specifically "womanly"? If so, she surely is great as a woman--but surely piety and humility and good works can be seen as Christian virtues simply. As a woman, Mother Theresa taught everyone (male and female) a lesson, even if she was not the most "manly" (and regardless of Christopher Hitchens's vindictiveness). Malcolm Muggeridge--for whatever his opinion is worth-- surely thought so. Dorothy Day--in an American context--was surely influential in teaching piety and good works in the Catholic Worker movement, but in a more spirited manner.

Still, I'm gonna have to go with Margaret Thatcher.

"...It's totally a toss-up between Phyllis Schlafly and Margaret Thatcher..."P>

I have never read a posting by someone that was so...completely...

...Spot on.

When I saw that question, those two popped into my mind immediately.

Molly Pitcher

Thatcher or Golda Meir

Apropos to Carl's classification, I'm reminded of Pascal's "three empires": the empire of beauty, that of intelligence, and that of sanctity. (One might want to add others.) He said the definition of tyranny was to have one order (pretend to, aspire to) rule the others. There probably are incommensurables in this sort of thing (women & 'greatness'). Perhaps we should recall the French phrase and wisdom: vivre la difference!?

Since the political figures mentioned don't rise to the level of Churchill and company why bother? In judging a woman's greatness one should not abstract from the woman part, which is not a part but inheres in the whole of her being. I nominate the suffering women of our century, women like Nadya Nerzhin in The First Circle, or Simone Weil. Of course, every real man if he is lucky, knows the greatest woman of the Century, as do I, who hold her in my heart.

Schlafly? You guys have got to be kidding. There's nothing great about a complete hypocrite. I file Schlafly in my "evidence that men on the Right are willing to pay good money for women to tell them what they want to hear" file. Who's up for the 21st century? Ann Coulter?

mod, your view has some merit. A "A Choice, Not An Echo" is a very flawed book. In some ways it is sub Ann Coulter. But Schlafly really did show great political courage and determination in the fight against the ERA, when all the political and social forces seemed to be arrayed against her - and she won. Nothing similar can be said about Ann Coulter.

She showed the political courage to subvert the expansion of conditions that had made her public career possible, and denies her own sex the values enshrined in the Constitution, reducing women in marriage to chattel who can't possibly be raped by their own husbands. I'm pretty sure that most women would disagree with her on that, but Schlafly wasn't polling them. AS was great because he stood against human degradation, and for human dignity. I would hope that the greatest woman of the 20th century would do the same.

We classify as "great" those who exhibit a superlative capacity to act as their own causes and have (typically) done so in world-historical fashion. Obviously the ends pursued by a "great" individual matter as well...Can one classify as "great" someone like Schlafly who would deny-yes, ironically-half the human race a minimal capacity for being their own causes?

I doubt that the human soul is gendered. Nevertheless, I don't think it's necessary to deny embodiment generally in order to acknowledge that certain souls have the capacity for rising above the circumstances of their embodiment. The strong essentialism of Jeffrey and Seaton can't account for the coming into being of women like Thatcher and Meir; while Thatcher might not approach Churchill on an absolute greatness scale, she comes closer than most other male political figures of the 20th century. Although it's impossible to disaggregate the "woman part" from the rest of a human's being, it is nonetheless only a part rather than the whole. The same holds for the "man part."

I suspect the difficulty that this question poses is a phenomenon identified by the psychologist Judith Kleinfeld for one set of psychological properties: the distribution of performance (the proverbial bell curve) is for women more concentrated around the median, with fewer exceptional successes or failures. One might suppose that this could be true accross a range of endeavours.

mod, I gave you the courtesy of assuming that your objections to Schlafly were in good faith. That summary of her objections to the ERA were spin. My mistake.

Sara, if the human body is male and female, the human soul must be as well. But I don't think a woman who would achieve greatness in public life has to "rise above" her sex. And I don't have any problem accounting for it. We're the same and different, and the same and different are intermingled throughout. So why shouldn't some women excel, and choose to excel in those virtues proper to public life. It IS harder for many reasons, including infantile male vainglory. So I can see the argument for including Thatcher for getting close. Truly though, when Peter said MAN I would not have foreclosed women. But when he said woman, I did think only of woman. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Sara H; you're entitled to your views, of course, but not to the extent of ascribing positions or thoughts to me that I don't hold and haven't expressed in this blog or elsewhere. I'm a professor of philosophy, who's been around the academic block for a while, so please don't be so quick to employ and attribute your jargon ("strong essentialism" and views ( "we classify ... .") to me and my mind. Deal? Who knows? I might be a "weak essentialist"! You never know. (The immediately foregoing was a poor excuse at humor.) PS: I'm not speaking for Rob Jeffrey,he has his own mind and views.

Paul S., you're right that I was wrong to ascribe to you and R. Jeffrey a particular philosophical position based on your very brief comments, esp. one as loaded and problematically expressed as "strong essentialism." I should've either invited you to unpack your own comments or talked about the "view" without reference to you.

Your own use of the royal "we" (which is admittedly qualified w/a "perhaps") and its ubiquity on this blog in no way justifies my having recourse to it.

I am aware of your status as a philosophy prof and greatly admire your work as a translator.

I am just waiting for Dan to weight in with a list of sexy and classy brunnetes. I mean why not?

I might as well nominate J.K. Rowling because I like her fiction. I would make my own list of sexy and classy women but such women generally intimidate me. In fact I might rather play poker against a solid pro who I know is superior to me, than against a woman who uses her assets to good effect. The first sharpens my wits the second dulls them.

I like the fictional Juno, albeit if I was the husband of the familly that was supposed to adopt, I would be quite pleased with the wife.

All of this is pedestrian, and quite likely opposed to greatness, but I don't know many men who want greatness in a woman. In point of fact most men lie incredibly about greatness in the first place, and its persuit often seems to breed unhealthy discontent.

A good enough woman is more than most should desire, and to be content with what one has while not obliterating greatness is perhaps quite a challenge, but should one have to choose I suppose that one should forget the ideal greatness, especially one that wears poorly.

I am not saying that the above comments aren't good, or that Margaret Thatcher isn't great, but supposing I could pick between her as a better half and a random number out of a phone book the choice isn't exactly clear.

Which really means that there is a gap between what is great and what one would want to achieve. If there exists a gap between greatness and what we want to achieve then we shouldn't be quite as quick off the gun about mediocricy, because praising a woman should require a sort of striving.

What happens theoretically if one takes the side of the democratic man in Toqueville, as a counter to thymotic-imballance?

In other words what if sanity requires some pedestrian grounding, while wealth and status are tied up in elegant trappings, is it a mistake that some of the wealthiest men to include the likes of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet aren't particularily grandiose, and Henry Ford did not collect European Art but simply regular americana, like coke merchandise and old school slot machines?

Everyone has forgotten, my Mother.

My mother has 5 sons and a daughter, six children in all. She was a missionary in Africa for 14 years, she used to go up and down the Zaire river showing the Jesus film. She experienced several failed coups d'etats in Zaire when Mobutu was around and in Togo with Eyadema. She could at one point speak 5 languages. In the U.S. she taught has taught spanish, french and mathmatics at 5 different schools, makes good spaggetti and pizza and has always mannaged to work on a very tight budget...while getting my brothers and I out to the top wrestling and football camps.

I consider my mother to be fairly great, but I can already hear the liberal/feminists getting irrate about lack of democratiness about male greatness vis a vis female greatness. Altough technically there is nothing "democratic" about saying that Margaret Thatcher is great.

I had no idea what the question meant when I asked it. But now it's clear that Thatcher etc. were chosen on the terms of men. And so not surprisingly they turned out to be less than the best of men. Mansfield says, in effect, that Thatcher was real, real manly for a woman. But the best of women provides realistic correctives to manly exaggerations. They realistically show, for example, that human happiness depends on subordinating pride to love. So I'm prepared to say at least this: The greatest woman from my state of Georgia in the 20th century was Flannery O'Connor. My favorite answer above is, of course, George's (24).

Sara, your response was so gracious it made me feel like a cad. I was piggybacking on Carl's post, in which he proposed/classified candidates in various domains of human endeavor and excellence. I like that pluralism; it prompted one of my French author-thoughts. I certainly would put both men and women within each category (beauty; intelligence; holiness). That's what I had in mind when I talked about 'incommersurables.' I'm not one to restrict 'greatness' to political endeavors and achievements, although it was one of the other areas I had in mind beyond what Pascal stated (he was pretty anti-political, as you might know). I even think -- in a perverse Christian vein -- that someone could be great as a domestic. Peter Lawler has even written of the inner greatness (and misery) of "the guy in the jogging suit."

Greatness as a domestic probably would have to be in the specifically Pascalisn sense. But there is greatness, I think, in caregiving. I'll add, for the heck of it, that doubting that the soul is gendered is probably succumbing to an unempirical dualism. The distinction between body and soul is analytical, but the reality is the whole human being or person.

Paul S., No worries...and thanks for the clarification.

For what it's worth, I don't think the gendered soul follows necessarily from the existence of male/female bodies. Aristotle's arguments in De anima re: the necessity (for the purpose of thinking all things) of a separable and unmixed intellect are at least worth considering. It seems that a separable and unmixed intellect would of necessity be neither male nor female. Ok, so intellect is only one capacity of soul, but it is nevertheless the highest capacity.

This might be unempirical, but it is not radically so--empirical investigation directs us to the theoretical necessity of inferring the existence of such an intellect.

Apropos to the possibility of a great 'domestic,' I seem to remember C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, presenting some-such figure (Sally?), a worldly unknown being feted Above, because of her great fidelity, charity, and radiance (within her then-small, now-larger, circle).

Another angle we might take up: what does the phenomenon of admiration [of greatness] indicate? What's its place and role in the psychic economy? In a well-ordered society & culture? Again, a Frenchman comes to my mind: Montesquieu was aghast at "how far the capacity to admire had declined" in his time. How 'bout ours?

Lots of folks on this blog know a great deal more about Aristotle than I...hopefully this interpretation is not wholly implausible.

Sara H.--that's probably what Aristotle says and you know plenty. Still, we have no experience of the separate and unmixed intellect. And I doubt that "pure intellect" could really be open to the truth about all things. Would pure intellect--the big, giant head of Third Rock from the Sun--be moved, be erotic? Aristotle's God doesn't seem to know--or want to know--anything outside of him- (its-) self.

In order for the capacity to admire to remain vigorous, it must be exercised, i.e. there must be that which is worthy of admiration. Another Frenchman (Tville) suggests why democratic peoples will have fewer occasions for exercising this capacity--democracy systematically disadvantages the "great" outliers...not that the US has not found ways to accommodate individuality, etc.

Mansfield offers that "we have lost the idea but not the practice of admiration"; nevertheless, his own analysis (in Manliness) seems to suggest that the future of the practice might indeed be endangered.

I'll beg out of the philosophy questions, deferring to the wisdom of Justice Potter Stewart:with greatness, "I know it when I see it". My nominees:

1. Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese oposition leader)
2. Margaret Thatcher
3. Mother Theresa
4. Harriet Tubman (I'm counting her because she died in the 20th century)
5. Helen Keller
6. Laxmi Sehgal

I know...distinctively lacking in artists and scientists, but I'm a more politically minded guy. And no, I don't think these women embody "manly" greatness -- just greatness.

So the greatness of JWC is ungendered? I'm most persuaded that Mother Teresa and Helen Keller are great WOMEN (because it's so difficult to imagine comparable men). But if the ungendered list of women excludes artists, scientists, and philosophers, then the list of great men shouldn't include Strauss (not to mention Einstein etc.). I'm actually OK with that, even if it seems to be true that men have more of a tendency than women to be unrealistically political. And it might be truer to say that we've lost the idea but not the practice of admiration. Admiration seems so spontaneous that it doesn't have to be taught, although it can certainly be refined and enlarged. There's always plenty to admire, even or especially in ordinary life. But in our democratic, envious times, as Tocqueville says, theorists always prefer the most impersonal of explanations.

The greatest woman of the 20th century is Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged will be read centuries from now.

Following Peter's comment in #32, not only do we not experience ourselves as pure intellect, but neither as ungendered. Even in Aristotle's account in De Anima, there's ambiguity about the ultimate relation between mind and body so that the compartmentalization of pure intellect from its embodiment is a methodological abstraction, like his account of the separability of number in the physics.

So if the question is who is the greatest WOMAN, meaning the woman who most excellently displays the greatness peculiar to women, I'm going with Mother Theresa versus M Thatcher.

I think that Mother Theresa exemplifies the greatness peculiar to a Christian/religious personage rather than the greatness peculiar to women. While no man really competes w/Mother Theresa for this particular laurel, it's not for want of existence of the type, e.g. abbe pierre en france might be a male homologue for mother theresa, obviously on a lesser scale.

In Edith Stein's Essays on Woman, she doesn't exactly say that women have a soul that is different from men's souls, but rather that the relationships of bodies to souls is different in women and in men (women being more concrete, grounded, relational, etc., by and large). I think this is a nice distinction insofar as it refrains from speaking about whether or not the soul is gendered, but acknowledges that not only the physical body, but also the whole person is different in men and women.

Stein also suggests that our callings act on us at three levels--as human beings, as women, and as individual persons. None of these three levels can be ignored.

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