Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall.

There are times when it is apparent that I have lived a rather cossetted life; when I realize I have been coddled in one gender, and misunderstood the other; when what I assumed was ‘common-sense’, was actually ‘male-sense’ -and not even widely shared, at that. But, I suppose that what we learn from the dark side of the curtain is bound to be muffled. Error-prone, or perhaps prejudiced. Interpretation is often required.

I know that only a few of us speak with the same voice, and even fewer properly represent a like-minded majority, so why do I find myself surprised that there have been so many anti-feminist women? Have I misunderstood the movement? Was I so gullible as to assume that Feminism merely sought equal treatment and opportunities between women and men? Elimination of discrimination? Cultural relevance? Political equivalence?

Perhaps I have misjudged the threat that would be felt by men if we were held in similar bondage, and what the societal and social schism in reforming it might entail. Perhaps, too, there are advantages when you know which rules you can get away with breaking; when you’ve lived there so long they no longer seem like constraints. If something is woven so tightly into the weft of your life, it becomes part of the pattern maybe, and in its absence there may not be anything comforting to take its place. I can understand that, I suppose… But I am still surprised; still uncomfortable with the concession.

I was therefore drawn to an article that was written by Paula Keller, at the time a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She wondered what the history of Art might reveal about the rise of anti-feminist women:

She points out that ‘some of the most vocal resistance to votes for women in the early 20th century, against the expansion of women’s rights in later decades, and against the continued struggle to combat gender oppression today, comes from women… Perhaps some white, middle-class women – the predominant demographic of the anti-suffrage campaign – are driven by self-interest, looking to preserve their life of relative privilege… Alternatively, perhaps some women are alienated by feminists and their popular image. ‘Right-wing women fear lesbians,’ Dworkin [US feminist Andrea Dworkin] wrote of the hostility she encountered at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.’ Or, of course, less conspicuously, ‘maybe some women have simply been fortunate or sheltered enough not to experience extreme gender oppression.’

Art, though, may help to resolve the disparate views and help to explain why not everybody sees the world the same way: ‘Just like an artist can completely influence a spectator’s experience of a painting, so social contexts can determine experiences of oppression.’

Keller decides to illustrate the point using the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Unless your knowledge of the history of Art is far superior to mine, you may want to look at the pictures in the article I have linked. ‘It is a popular motif of Renaissance paintings. Susanna, taking a quiet outdoor bath, is interrupted by two male onlookers, scheming to rape her. As Susanna cries out for help, the two men threaten to tell the authorities that she – not them – behaved inappropriately… Tintoretto’s rendition of this story shows Susanna undisturbed, gazing at her naked body in a mirror.’ But, there are two spying Elders. ‘Tintoretto’s depiction invites the male gaze, secretly observing a beautiful woman. The viewer is complicit in the Elder’s crime – or is it really a crime?’ Don’t forget, this was painted in the middle of the 16th century.

Another example is an early 17th century painting by Ludovico Carracci who ‘shows the Elders as they start harassing Susanna. She displays some resistance, holding on to her robe as one Elder tries to pull it away from her. Yet, she looks at him from below, not shocked, but almost seductively. Perhaps this is the Renaissance version of ‘her no is really a yes’?’

But then Keller describes the scene painted by an artist about whom I have some (admittedly modest) knowledge, Artemisia Gentileschi who depicts, almost at the same time in the early 17th century, ‘a naked Susanna in the foreground who has just noticed the observers behind her. The Elders are clearly visible… Her head is turned away, unwilling to face the violence she knows will come. She lifts her arms in a gesture more of disgust and resignation than of defence.’

As Keller sees it, Susanna ‘seems to stand for women generally. First, she is a mere beautiful object; next, she can’t decide between resistance and seduction; last, she understands her powerlessness and expects violence… Perhaps our encounters with oppressive real-world events can differ from one another just as much as these paintings. Just as artists invite different interpretations of women, so the real world invites different interpretations of real events.’

I find that analogy particularly compelling. ‘An artist cues an interpretation using artistic devices such as light, composition or colour… In the real world, others tell us their interpretations of events, some interpretations become established as truisms in certain contexts, and so we are prompted to adopt them. Cuing can also be more subtle, more closely resembling the elegant, non-obvious cuing of artistic devices: using specific terms over others to describe parts of the world suffices to cue anti-feminist interpretations… Referring to the family home as a ‘nest’ licenses the inference that the home is cozy, safe, nurturing and comfortable – that it needs protection and preservation. Describing some women’s lifestyle as ‘homemaking’ licenses the inference that it is a valued, active task with autonomy and responsibility… These terms can shape behaviour around one’s home, one’s emotional relation to one’s home, one’s assessment of other homes and, importantly, one’s interpretation of oppressive events in the home, such as the gendered division of labour or experiences of sexual abuse. The message is that sexual abuse that takes place in a safe, nurturing environment cannot be abuse. It must be an accident, a misunderstanding.’

You get the message: one person’s oppression is another’s misunderstanding -socially cued, perhaps. Still, according to Keller, ‘In the paintings of Susanna and the Elders, characterisations were merely cued – but in real life they’re also enforced.’ And yet, in a painting, one interprets as much by experience as by cues of lighting and expression; I suspect it is much the same in real, lived-life. And although I find myself decidedly on Keller’s side, I wonder how valid it is to engage in historical revisionism -especially in Artistic expression. I find much to disagree with in those historical times, and yet, if I lived in that era and had no societal clues to better inform me, how fair would it be to judge me on my ignorance?

In this day and age, there is no excuse for ignorance, however; our eyes can see, and our ears can hear. We’re certainly far from perfect, and yet if we can even detect the difference from the way things used to be there is hope. I think that is why I have been drawn to much of Gentileschi’s work: she saw something, too.

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