The Cultural Construction of ‘Woman’ throughout history in Western Art & Literature

chasityIn her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined. Is ‘woman’ a construct? Beauvoir most certainly argued yes and I have to agree, at least in the sense that the literature and art of Western civilization provides much to support her allegation.

For example, in her essay Poses and Passions, Zirka Filipczak reminds us that the poses adopted by men and women in the artwork of the English Renaissance are strategically quite different – whilst men are represented as active (holding a sword, perhaps) and intelligent (hands on a stack of books, for example), women either sit modestly silent, their empty hands crossed demurely across their girdles or, in exceptional circumstances, they hold a bible. Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

For example, during the English Renaissance chastity was the most important virtue in women. Certainly one legitimate reason for this was that men needed to be certain that the sons borne by their wives were actually their rightful heirs. But another important reason was as demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s comedy, Volpone, with the character Corvino – society rains shame upon a man who is cuckolded and hence a man must take every precaution to ensure such a disaster does not happen.

In her novel, Orlando, Virginia Woolf underlines the social determinations of virtues such as chastity when Orlando, her hero turned heroine remembers how ‘as a young man’ she had ‘insisted’ that women should not only be ‘obedient’, ‘scented’, and ‘exquisitely appareled’ but also ‘chaste’. Orlando reflects that this means that now he is a she – I shall now have to ‘pay’ in my ‘own person’ for such desires for certainly now she realises that women by nature are none of these things. But as T.S. Eliot makes clear in his poem The Waste Land, at least in the early 20th century things had not changed much when in the section, ‘The Fire Sermon’, the ‘bored and tired’ typist who casually has sex with ‘her young man carbuncular’ is, through allusion to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, compared to an 18th century woman, who has likewise ‘stooped to folly’. But the 18th century hides her ‘shame’ fro ‘ev’ry eye’ instead of having audacity, as does the 20th century woman, to ‘pace about her room’ and ‘put a record on the gramophone’.

Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them. They did not have to reach any further than the Bible for support of this position. As Woolf made clear in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that when resurrecting ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, one had to look past ‘Milton’s bogey’ and his colourful depiction of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden all because of one woman named Eve. As with the portrait poses, these myths (if one should choose, as I might, to see the Bible as such) force stereotyped roles upon women and if the women fail to conform to these culturally ‘accepted’ standards then all will be lost.

This is amply demonstrated in Kyd’s Renaissance drama, The Spanish Tragedy, when Bel-Imperia dared to love Antonio and not Belthazar as mandated by her brother and father, all hell broke loose; everyone (except her father – no doubt because he was the king) died as the result. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s play of the same name provides another example – not only did the duchess (now a widow) marry of her own choosing but she also neglected to preserve her chastity in the eyes of society (she was commonly known as a ‘strumpet’). This gave her brother, Ferdinand, added ammunition when he determined to proceed with her murder.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft very capably argued that the problem with women was not that they were by nature irrational and emotional but that they were educated to be thus. Educate women properly, she argued, and they will stop acting like children and instead like adults. Unfortunately for Wollstonecraft, like the Duchess of Malfi she neglected to look after her own chastity and thus provided her detractors enough ammunition to successfully ‘shoot down’ her otherwise legitimate claims. Even by the mid-Victorian times, education for women remained a significant issue as demonstrated by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre – one can only imagine how dismal her future would have been had she not escaped from her nasty aunt, Mrs Reed, and (although at some personal expense) received a decent education at Lowood.

Even that however did not ensure her longer-term success as the only paid positions available to her afterwards was as a teacher or governess. As the story of Jane Eyre made clear, even being (or at least demonstrating) oneself to be the intellectual or moral equal/moral superior of a man did not ensure she was thus treated. Lucky for Jane that her Mr Rochester was more a Gothic than Victorian hero. Until the early 20th century such inequality was more than apparent as Virginia Woolf made clear in her novel, To The Lighthouse – whilst Mr Ramsay strutted about thinking great thoughts, his wife Mrs Ramsay sat and knitted stockings for needy children.

Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior. As Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ivy Wife, written in the late 19th century about a woman who successfully competes with a man, makes clear such folly will be the ruination of them both.

In summary, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘woman’ is a construct at least in the sense that what it means to be a woman is culturally determined. I would have to agree that she has a valid point as there is much evidence throughout the history of Western art and literature to support it. For example, there have been centuries of such works reminding women that ‘chastity’ is their most important virtue and that along with being subservient and inferior to men, if they fail to ensure their behaviour remains within the culturally accepted boundaries all hell will break loose both for them and their households. Such ‘womanly’ concerns were reinforced by their education and attempts by reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft to improve education for women were ‘shot down’ with allegations of her own indifference to chastity. Such concerns have persisted well into the 20th century as has been well documented by male and female writers such as Woolf, Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

1 Comment

  1. Chastity / abstinence was the only form of effective contraception and STD prevention until just a few generations ago.

    Whether you like it or not, for all of human history women were heavily dependent on men to survive (and successfully reproduce) because the majority of paid work AND the majority of work full stop required loads of back breaking manual labour. Even housework was manual labour by today’s standards, and in many communities the only PAID work available outside the home was farm labouring, mining, fishing, shipbuilding, construction and so on.

    So as a basic survival strategy women generally needed to find a dutiful, hard working, loyal man and marry him at a young age. In other words, get him to sign a contract legally obligating himself to provide resources to her for life. Given that young women were in competition to secure the best, most loyal, most chivalrous, most hard working, traditional patriarchal men as husbands, it is hardly surprising they competed in making themselves the most attractive to men.

    Likewise, given that men were required to sign a contract agreeing to support a woman for life before being allowed to even have sex with her, he would naturally be keen for her to (a) not be pregnant by another man (b) not already have children by another man (c) not be riddled with STD’s that might make her infertile, and make his wiener turn green.

    And so this why women promoted their virginity (truthful or not) to prospective husbands.

    Also if a young unmarried woman slept around she would almost certainly end up pregnant, and probably full of critters too. This would make her a massive burden on her family and extended community. A single mother and baby are resource black holes, and her family/ community might already struggle to survive through the winter anyway – even without the extra mouths to feed. The last thing they needed was a promiscuous daughter getting knocked up and demanding ‘welfare’ for the next five years. Plus, she would instantly become undesirable to men, and only able to attract some low life man for a husband – the kind of man rejected by other women for being a drunkard or a wife beater. After all, why would any decent, hard working, virtuous man choose to marry and support a promiscuous woman with another man’s child when he can do so much better for himself?

    Therefore a girl’s family and extended community all had a HUGE incentive to stop her sleeping around, but how could they effectively deter her from succumbing to the raging hormones in her young horny body and shagging all the local farm hands and travelling salesmen? The answer was to tell her that promiscuity, and indeed any sex before marriage was IMMORAL which meant you got treated like a slut and sent to hell!!! And so here we have the historical origins of slut shaming, as a way to protect young women from themselves (from their urges) as well as protect her family and community too. Slut shaming is rational and sensible, and in the girl’s best interests, which is of course why feminist hate it. Feminists prefer for young women to make terrible mistakes, and then blame men for it, and then come running to feminism. But I digress.

    It’s not that anybody really believed female sexuality or young girls having sex was immoral. The concept of immorality and shame (social ostracism) was simply used as a PRACTICAL way to encourage abstinence – as the only form of ‘contraception’ and sexual health available at the time.

    Now that we have birth control and sexual health and abortion clinics we tend to view the historically ‘immoral’ associations connected to female sex at face value, and wrongly assume the issue was an issue of morality. It wasn’t. Morality/ social ostracism was just how primitive people deterred their young and impulsive daughters from engaging in destructive and disastrous behaviour.

    Judging sex before marriage as immoral came AT LEAST as much from the women (mothers, aunts etc) as it did from the men. And so it is not – as feminists claim – an example of male oppression or male’s disgust or disapproval of women’s sexuality. Men LOVE women’s sexuality and they are always trying to get young women to agree to have sex! The feminist claim that men looked down on female sexuality is laughable. Female abstinence was encouraged mostly for the benefit of the young women themselves, and for her family and community.

    > Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined.

    That is completely retarded. Femininity/ masculinity is expressed in similar ways across the animal kingdom. For millions of years young women (like many other species) risked starvation and death if they got pregnant without first securing a loyal and dutiful mate to provide her with resources and care when she was unable to do so during this most vulnerable time. Femininity is intimately linked to female biology (not least reproduction), just as masculinity is intimately linked to male biology. Like duh.

    > Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

    Well obviously. Men were expected to be active, independent, confident and full of agency because they were expected to mine the coal, plough the fields, fish the seas, trade between nations, build the infrastructure, split the firewood, bring home food every day and go and fight all the wars.

    Women were portrayed as passive, precious, receptive, maternal receivers of men’s resources and men’s seed because women are the natural limiting factor in human reproduction and thus survival of the species. And women are physically weaker than men. Their role was to stay at home and perform the tasks men did not have time for (because they were toiling the fields or fighting wars) as well as to reproduce.

    Again, these roles are simply biology expressing itself in an age when survival was a precarious thing. It was the harsh environment / lack of technology (rather than an evil conspiracy of men) which oppressed everyone and determined traditional gender roles. Only a feminist could imply women had the short end of the stick by being expected to stay behind in the relative comfort and safety of the home, while the men were sent off to war. Only a feminist could view a sword as a trophy or as a trinket that she coverts …… rather than a one way ticket to violence, trauma and an early grave which is what being a soldier actually meant (and still does to this day).

    > Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them.

    This is not a myth, it is a fact. For women to NOT be dependent on men they would have to have mined their own coal, felled their own trees, built their own ships and traded food across continents, farmed their own land, and built their own houses and done all of this without the aid of tractors, electricity, plastics, modern chemicals, power tools or fabrics.

    > Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior.

    In an age when manual labour was required for most tasks (ie all of human history) men WERE superior to women, because men are physically stronger and more durable than women. Wherever manual labour is required ‘gender equality’ is unfair to women, which is presumably why women only started to demand ‘gender equality’ AFTER modern technology started to create workplace environments that did NOT require manual labour (ie the modern centrally heated, electrically lit office or mechanised factory).

    It was women who for millennia raised males to think of themselves as ‘superior’ and full of agency so that they would happily go off and break their backs building and maintaining civilisation and bringing home food at the end of a long day – believing themselves to be free and privileged to do so! Had women raised men to feel equal to women, then men might have started to question why they were expected to perform tasks that women were allowed to opt out of.

    Whenever technology is primitive, and living is harsh, it PAYS to be treated as a second class citizen (basically like a child). Women themselves defined themselves as second class citizens as a survival strategy and because it was simply preferable to do so….. then as modern technology started to appear women have gradually re-defined themselves in other ways that are more preferable, given the changing circumstances and new opportunities that this new technology has created. The common denominator is women defining themselves in ways that are the most preferable – under the circumstances. If a meteorite struck Earth tomorrow and sent us back to the middle ages women (especially feminists) would no longer demand gender equality. They would once again define men as ‘superior’ which means men get to do all the grunt work, while the ‘inferior’ women get to stay at home.

    For millennia men were raised to define their masculinity in terms of their ability – and their moral DUTY – to provide for and protect women. So it is natural that over the last century or two men felt, at times, threatened as women started to flood the (now rather comfortable and appealing) workplace. These women were literally undermining men’s core identity… and identity instilled into men BY WOMEN for centuries.

    As the old generations died off, the next generation of men grew accustomed to women in the workplace and within just a few short generations men today could not imagine a world any other way. The point being…. there is no systematic male oppression of women. The history of society is just a history of harsh environments and lack of technology oppressing men, women, children and animals. Feminists focus only on the suffering of women and the benefits that men enjoyed.

    If you point out that women got to opt out of manual labour, war, responsibility of care for the family, legal obligations to support wives even after divorce etc etc etc and they will look at you with a glazed expression. They literally cannot conceive of men as human beings with vulnerabilities and hardships of their own.

    The very concept of historical male oppression of women (patriarchy theory) is an admission that you cannot see men as human beings in their own right, and can only see them in terms of how they affect women. That is called ‘dehumanisation’ … or simply ‘feminism’.

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