Appreciating the Past: Theodora

I’ve found that feminism is very much about reflecting upon and trying to improve a system – our society – that has many flaws and inequalities; there are so many things in our culture that upsets women of all races, classes, ages, sexual orientations, religions, etc. Although feminism requires us to focus on the here and now in terms of how to change the future, we must never lose sight of what has been in terms of what other women have been through and succeeded with in order to make certain aspects of life more favorable for us. In the spirit of appreciating the past, I’ve found a woman who have made feminists proud and who has opened my eyes to the true power that resides in women: Theodora.

Theodora, the Byzantine empress, was born on an island of the coast of Greece in 497. During her youth, her father worked as a bear keeper at a stadium in Constantinople (where chariot races, circuses, and plays were held) and when he died, Theodora began to work there as an actress. During this time period, actresses were referred to as prostitutes and were known for their nude entertainment on stage and their wild parties off stage. Theodora soon left this lifestyle and converted to Monophysitism, a form of Christianity. Working as a wool-spinner, she met Justinian, heir of the emperor, and the two wed in 525.

When Justinian gained control of the empire in 527, he and Theodora “ruled unofficially as joint monarchs,” both assuming responsibility of the empire and working together on decision making. Her husband not only saw her as a wife but as an “intellectual partner” and treated her as an equal. In January 532, when two political Byzantium groups started a riot and declared a new emperor, circumstances seemed grim for Justinian. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and many of his advisors thought it best to leave the empire at once but Theodora adamantly disagreed. She thought it was “better to die as a ruler than to live as nothing” and convinced them to stay and fight. The generals consented and successfully took down the rioters and Theodora secured a name for herself as the heroine of the Byzantium Empire.

Theodora is also remembered as one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women and she is greatly revered because she was able to create laws supporting them as well. Theodora created several laws and reforms which allowed women to get a divorce, offered them the right to own their own property, granted mothers some rights over their children, and banned the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She also closed brothels and created convents where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.

I feel like Theodora is not only a prominent figure in women’s history but a symbol to women worldwide that women have so much talent, courage, and capability. She’s also a symbol to men that women aren’t just sex, beauty, and fashion; they aren’t housekeepers or “ho’s”; they too are intellectual beings and are nothing less than equals. Theodora attests to that.

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