Catherine the Great

Cross Checking Higher Education Executive Leadership & The Gender Pay Gap

Women dominate the U.S. Labor force but earn 25% less than their male counterparts. Contributor BRENDA WENSIL chats with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Massie about Catherine II: why she comissioned the first college for women in 1764, how she sent women marching into the arts, sciences and education, and how the Russian Empress triggered the Age of Enlightenment.

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Catherine II of Russia


Catherine II of Russia was an unlikely ruler. After marrying into Russia’s Romanov family, she found herself part of a coup to unseat her husband and place herself on the throne. Her 34 year reign (1762-1796) marked an end to serfdom, the establishment of the first institution of higher learning for women, and the advent of the Russian Enlightenment. And while men like Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy were shaping the pre-industrial narrative of social order, Russia was lending a distinctly feminine voice to that revolution: a force that would give the empire its meteoric rise to global relevance in the 18th century and beyond.

While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, she clearly lost the electoral college — reminding us that the old boy networks still require skill, navigation and savvy. I recently spoke with Robert Massie about his seminal biography "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman."

"She was keenly aware of the political landscape and played it to her advantage," says Massie. "She expanded Russia's western boundary into the heart of central Europe which not only ensured Imperial Russia's power for the next 34 years but, more crudely, also kept her alive. It was the twilight of European Feudalism —the dominant social system in medieval Europe in which the Crown dominated land, products, services and people in exchange for military protection — and the Queen knew it. The French Revolution was starting to percolate, and peasants throughout Europe were starting to revolt. In consequence of the changing times, the Queen stoked a grand public relations campaign by single handedly orchestrating Russia's Golden Age.

At just 15 years old, she came to power the old fashioned way — she married into it! But her accession to the throne was no less Machiavellian than the campaign trail of today. An 18 year marriage, a bloodless coup, and the assassination of her husband Peter III delivered the crown. But navigating a scheming mother-in-law, determined nobles and disgruntled subjects required skill and diplomacy. At not quite 33 years old, the young queen would learn that acquiring power, and subsequently exercising power, would require different playbooks.

Power is where power goes
Catherine II of Russia

Catherine played a masterful game of politics. Her ability to marshall support and stay abreast of formal and informal information networks enabled her to continue and expand the process of Westernisation started by Peter III.

She was an enthusiastic patron of literature, art, and education. She built new hospitals and schools, introduced a new legal code, and supported religious tolerance. She requested the construction of many academic buildings, and the first public library was made by her command (now called the Russian National Library). In these and other ways she nudged the medieval world into modernity.

In fact, Catherine the Great was an intrinsically modern role model and woman. She had three children. She was married more than once, and is notorious for having more than a few lovers. She was a prolific writer, spent herself in worthy causes for Russia, and served as mediator for the major European countries. She didn’t look to the past for models of perfection. She played her hand to the future; staying true to her priorities, vision and principles.

The Russian Enlightenment transformed Russia's culture. The first university was founded. A library commissioned. A theatre built. A public museum was erected. And an independent press became the first beacon of truth and transparency in the modern age. Like other enlightened despots, Born an obscure princess with little wealth, Catherine the Great believed that history would measure her power and influence in the manifest destiny of her people.


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