Bloody difficult women – Reclaiming the Battleaxe

Ken Clarke’s recent description of Theresa May as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ increased her popularity ratings. Our new woman Prime Minister joins the increasing numbers of women leaders, plus we also have a female Home Secretary and a female Lord Chancellor.  So, it’s time to think about Battleaxes. What is a Battleaxe? Where does the term come from?  Can we describe these women leaders as Battleaxes? 

Theresa May and Angela Merkel

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Battleaxe’ as a ‘formidably aggressive older woman’, and gives these synonyms: harridan, dragon, crone, witch, hag, hatchet-face, ogress, gorgon, old bag, hellcat, harpy, virago, bitch, shrew, scold. Not pleasant.
     Many of the above words are commonly used to describe powerful women, or women who stick their heads above the parapet.  I don’t want this post to be an anti-men diatribe, but I can’t avoid mentioning the dislike of female power that some men exhibit, and the particularly disagreeable combination of fear, contempt and ridicule that surrounds powerful older women.
     I was in the cafe in Sainsbury’s about a week ago, leafing through the vile Daily
Mail, when my eye was caught by this, written by the even viler Quentin Letts.

    ‘When Mrs May arrived for the Cabinet
meeting this morning she put on quite a show. Normally she has herself
driven to the door of No 10 but yesterday the BMW dropped her at the
bottom of the street and she waddled up the pavement swinging her hips
as best she could. She even did a bit of a shampoo-advert pose on the
doorstep for the snappers. Hello Boys, it’s cos I’m worth it.’

      Ugh.What a truly horrible description of an older woman. Whatever you think of Mrs May, she is actually quite elegant.

      But can Battleaxes be reclaimed? Later in this post I’ve set out the characteristics which I think might define a battleaxe, but it’ll be just my opinion. In the meantime, let’s look at how the ‘Battleaxe’ stereotype came about.

Temperance and Suffrage – the birth of the Battleaxe
    Nineteenth-century American temperance campaigner Carrie Nation can be credited with popularising the ‘Battleaxe’.  Carrie was a large, formidable Christian woman, who believed she had a divine mission to promote temperance by physically destroying bars. She set about her work armed with a hatchet. In later life she came to England, lecturing in music halls as well as chapels, financing her travels by selling souvenir hatchets, and promoting her approach. Her ‘hatchetations’ were widely parodied in cartoons and on postcards – see below.

Carrie Nation, with her hatchet
Popular postcard of Carrie at work.

      Both in America and in Britain, the temperance movement had close links with the women’s suffrage movement, and both used direct action protest as a way of publicising and progressing their causes. The sight of women engaged in angry, frequently violent protests shocked and horrified society. 
      Contemporary anti-suffrage cartoons clearly show the development of stereotypical Battleaxe characteristics: suffragettes as aggressive, loud, ugly, sexless, man-hating harridans who had the temerity to speak out and demand what they saw as their rights.

The Battleaxe as Warrior/Crusader
Interestingly, in their own propaganda, the women activists of the temperance and suffrage movements portrayed themselves very differently. They appear as noble armed crusaders, fighting the good fight for justice.

     These images derive directly from portrayals of mythological warrior goddesses, such as our own Britannia.
      Leaving aside her modern imperialistic connotations, Britannia was a Romano-Celtic goddess, adopted by Roman Britain as its national symbol and closely associated with the goddess Minerva. Minerva’s Greek counterpart is Athena, and images of all three goddesses are hard to tell apart. They are tall, strong, beautiful women with flowing drapery covering their armour, wearing helmets, carrying shields, swords, spears or tridents.



Of course we can’t omit Boudicca, in her knife-wheeled chariot, another popular image of female power.

Boudicca – on Westminster Bridge, London

Ancient Battleaxe archetypes
     We think of actual battleaxes as sharp, savage weapons of war, frequently
wielded to deadly effect by archetypal enemies such as Vikings, or
Visigoths, but many feminist writers portrayed axes as symbols of the female divine, or Mother Earth Goddess, in early matriarchal cultures.
       In the Cretan Minoan civilisation, which reached its peak around 2000 BCE, the ‘labrys’ or double-headed axe was used as a farming implement. It is depicted on many vases, seals and in statues where it accompanies, or is held by, a  goddess or high priestess.

Labrys images from ancient Crete.

     The labrys was adopted by the feminist and ‘goddess’ movements of the 1970s and 80s, and many women wore double axe labrys jewellery, or had labrys tattoos to symbolise female power.
      Back then, Battleaxe wore her own silver labrys pendant – here it is – somewhat tarnished now.

Battleaxe as witch, crone, Hecate
      In mythology, the crone is the third, and most powerful, phase of a woman’s life, following maiden and mother. The crone is the archetypal wise woman, associated with magic, the supernatural, darkness and the underworld. She is associated with the Greek goddess Hecate.

      The fear of witches and wise women is deep-set. Accounts of  the terrible persecution of women in the past are too common to need much discussion here , but it is interesting to remember that the last woman prosecuted and imprisoned for witchcraft in Britain was Scotswoman Helen Duncan – as recently as 1944.
      The last English Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1951.

Helen Duncan

      Sadly, today, in some North African and Middle Eastern cultures,
women and girls are still tortured and killed because they are believed
to be sorceresses, capable of afflicting others with the ‘evil eye’. 

Battleaxes in popular culture
As so often with things that are potentially scary, battleaxes have long been portrayed as figures of fun. There are countless examples: Hattie Jacques as Matron, Nora Batty, Ena Sharples, Mrs Slocombe, Sybil Fawlty.  Some battleaxes weren’t even women – see Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough as Cissie and Ada.

Ooh Matron
Ena Sharples

Nora Batty

Real Battleaxes?

A recent article by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian lamented the decline of the traditional working-class battleaxe matriarch, scourge of the family and the neighbourhood. These formidable – and fearless – older women thrived in stable communities and extended families. The decline of these social structures led to the decline of the battleaxe.

    So are there other sorts of battleaxes? What are they like?  If they exist, battleaxes are, indeed, bloody difficult women.Their personalities won’t necessarily make them popular, or make them good people.
    I’d describe battleaxes as firstly, plain tough. They are fearless and resilient. They don’t appease others with a smiling face, or with humour. They are forthright, outspoken and speak the truth as they see it. They deal in absolute right and wrong, are convinced that they know what is best for others, and are not backward in telling others what to do. They believe in getting on with the job – fine words butter no parsnips. They press on regardless of what others think of them. Battleaxes are survivors.
     They also believe that achievement should be on merit alone, and that women should not need any special help, or have any concessions made to them.

     A good example here is the current publicity about babies/breastfeeding in the House of Commons, now suggested as a move ‘to make parliament more welcoming to women’ but originally and robustly banned as inappropriate and undignified by Speaker Betty Boothroyd in 2001. Betty would count as one of the few genuine Labour battleaxes, along with Barbara Castle and Mo Mowlem. Why don’t battleaxes do better in the Labour Party? Although she is brave, Angela Eagle has sadly fallen by the wayside.

     Say what you like about these women’s politics, but Margaret Thatcher was a battleaxe, so is Theresa May. Amber Rudd could well be a battleaxe in waiting. Andrea Leadsom is no battleaxe – that rictus appeasing smile, her inability to stand up to media pressure….
     Angela Merkel is a battleaxe. Nicola Sturgeon is battleaxe material. Caroline Lucas? Not sure yet.

     I sincerely hope Hillary Clinton gets elected as US President, but she is not a battleaxe. No true battleaxe would tolerate marriage to Bill….  
     So, finally, is Hastings Battleaxe a genuine battleaxe?  I don’t think it is for her to say……


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