Women's Political Agency: Vestal Virgins, Livia, and the First Ladies of the U.S.



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Historically speaking, it is no secret that women have not held the reins to their own destinies. In the United States, it has become far more common for women to assert their own agency in all aspects of life (including politics) since the suffrage movement over a century ago. But originally, the only political role open to an American woman was that of First Lady, an honorary position of symbolic importance without actual constitutional power. Starting with the Vestal Virgins, this project has taken a comparative approach to patriarchal social structures and has used the ancient Roman state, and the women within it, as a contrast to the United States and the position of First Lady. There are two reasons for choosing Rome as a model for comparison. First, the United States quite frequently views itself as an heir to the legacy of the Roman Republic. This can be seen in everything from architecture to the way the Founding Fathers structured the government, particularly the Senate. Additionally, the role of empress of Rome and the First Lady of the United States share structural parallels that can offer insight into the symbolic position that the wives of chief executives fill. This comparative study begins with the example of the Vestal Virgins to examine Livia and then compares Liviaï¾’s creation of a symbolic but powerful role to that of three First Ladies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.