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Knives, Choice and the Goddess of Love - An Exploration of the contemporary Women’s Rights movement

Venus as depicted by Diego Velasquez (painted between 1647 and 1651, on view in Room 30 of the National Gallery in London).

On this day in 1914, a, “deranged suffragette,” attacked Diego Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus, seen above, in the Tate art gallery in London. She sliced it angrily, using a knife, “with a long narrow blade,” making cuts in, “six or seven places, the cuts extending from the top to the bottom of the picture”. Her motives, confused as they were, were unintelligible both to the police officers who arrested her and to the Times reporter documenting the incident. It was taken as evidence of the reckless, terroristic nature that, after years of growing frustrations, the Suffragette movement had undoubtedly taken on. As such, the affair was discarded, buried deep under similar instances of feminine hysteria. I’d like to re-examine the reasons for that suffragette’s destruction of the picture in the context of our contemporary Women’s Rights movement, and consider: At the end of the day, how far have we really come?

In her statement to the Times, Mary Richardson (the suffragette) explained that she had attempted to, “destroy the most beautiful woman in mythological history (Venus, the Roman goddess of Love) as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”. The Mrs Pankhurst she is referring to is the great Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded both the Women’s Franchise League and, along with her sister Christabel, the Women’s Social and Political Union (which the Daily Mail later christened, “the Suffragettes”). It may have been she who came up with their slogan, “deeds not words”. Pankhurst had been imprisoned several times at this stage, and it was most likely these sentences that Richardson deemed, “Iscariot,” on behalf of the British government. She adored her leader and clearly felt that the government was putting Pankhurst in an early grave by repeatedly imprisoning her. In actuality, the matriarch died only 14 years later, in 1928, after much touring, hunger strikes, campaigning and imprisonment, at 69 years old.

Emmeline Pankhurst, a 1914 Venus

Mary Richardson’s frustrations are understandable in context. The vote had still not been secured at this stage and, instead of the end of the campaign being in sight, the longed-for goal seemed to be drifting further and further away. The yelling, striking and window-breaking seemed a natural peak to a movement that had existed for nearly 50 years and achieved barely anything for the majority of women (i.e. those who were poor and/or of colour, since the Suffragettes were undoubtedly a white middle-class movement). Yet, it seemed to be alienating key political allies, bringing only bad press and putting people off the whole idea of women having power in parliamentary elections. Though by 1914 Britain had a female mayor, a female magistrate and a policewoman, public opinion was still very much against equality. Nevermind that tensions in Europe were building up and would burst come August with the outbreak of World War I. Richardson was making a statement: if the government wants to tear down the women I respect, I will tear up the woman they respect. If they are against outrage and violence, against strong characters, I will be against placidity and passive beauty. To hell with your standards for women, represented by this, the goddess of Love. She was knifing the woman that represents the ideal form of all women, and hence knifing the stereotype of what women should be, as defined by the patriarchy. The motivation is nothing if not commendable. I’m sure there would be many a-woman today who would not be daunted by the idea of replicating her actions. Perhaps the bubbling incentive to do so is a little too telling of the state of contemporary feminism.

Venus as re-imagined by Mary Richardson

Over the course of the 20th century, every major power in the western world (and the Soviet Union, but not for the right reasons) secured the vote for women. Of course, they still had to be in their late twenties, own property or be married to a man who owned property (and various variations on this theme depending on the country). But eventually, they got there. So, amongst a large section of the population, there has, for the last 50 years or so, been the feeling that we’ve done it – we’ve arrived. And in some areas, that is certainly true - women can vote, own property, drive a car, work any profession they like, get an education. There is a tendency to think that in the western world, we have achieved equal rights, and all feminist thought henceforth is radical.

Leila Hussein, a psychotherapist and anti-Female Genital Mutilation activist, told me in an interview during last year’s Gender Equality Conference that women in the West often don’t realize just how trapped they are. She feels sorry for them - they do not realise the extent of the wage gap and of general prejudice, not to mention the staggering numbers of sexual assault. On top of that, the problems of women in the West are often minimised: how can we take micro-aggressions seriously if women in other countries are literally getting their genitals mutilated? Through the rose-coloured glasses of being able to vote and drive, it’s hard to reconcile yourself with the idea that all suffering is equal. In my opinion, we do realize our entrapment, it’s just not clear how exactly to go about fixing all of this.

It seems that the issue often lies in the way we are brought up. Take the wage gap, for example: economically speaking, it exists not only because women (especially women of colour) are paid far less, but also because they aren’t brought up to have the self-esteem to negotiate for promotions. The values that are commonly associated with being a “good” woman - meekness, docility, kindness - aren’t exactly fit for a workplace environment. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adieche illustrates in her latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, even when you attempt to raise your child as a feminist you might not achieve the desired outcome. You encourage your daughter to play with all manner of toys, and yet the girls’ section at the store is filled only with dolls. You encourage your son to enjoy the colour pink, but he feels the backlash from his classmates. There is always another wall to push back against - where do you start? How do you change the unconscious stereotyping of all parents, the stock of all the toy shops and the clothing stores? The schools, the politics, the rude man at the drive-through, your own family… . There is almost too much bias and stigma to think about.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the word feminism (defined in every major dictionary as wanting women and men to have equal rights and opportunities) has become synonymous with misandrism (the hatred of men), with radical terrorist acts and threats to a man’s private parts. People have a tendency to associate the name of an entire movement with only its most radical and peripheral divisions. It also doesn’t help that some men feel deathly threatened by the concept of equality, simply because they don’t understand what it means. You know, they say that every day a man loses his hard-won reputation because of some sort of false allegation. It’s an all-out war on men. In actual fact, according to Channel 4 News, men are more likely to be raped themselves than to be falsely accused of rape. Furthermore, women are much less likely to get justice than you might think: 99 % of perpetrators of sexual violence will walk free (Huffington Post). It’s hard to believe, I know, but most women have no interest in condemning innocent men.

The thing about feminism is that it’s synonymous with egalitarianism - the theory that all people should be equal. Because no-one benefits from being trapped in gender roles. Freedom - of expression, of sexuality, of gender - that’s the goal. In case you were wondering, the reason it's not called egalitarianism instead is the same reason we don’t call the Black Lives Matter movement the All Lives Matter movement: yes, everyone should be equal, but there is a specific group that has been affected more than the rest and that issue needs to be addressed.

And it’s hard to find your place in a movement with a tainted name. Tainted because of what a lot of people think it means, or entails, rather, but tainted also because the insults that women receive when they speak up are often baseless and crude, quickly silencing those brave enough to talk.

Even the most mildly opinionated posts on any online platform are susceptible to death threats (or worse), but most comments that I would consider as harming the movement are less extreme. Little jokes, anecdotes. Like rape-jokes, for instance. They may well be funny to those who don’t feel affected by them, who don’t take them seriously. But with the large quota of people that have been sexually assaulted or that have been on the assaulting side, these “jokes” are likely to either trigger someone’s trauma or unintentionally reinforce the normality of such behaviour to anyone listening. Apart from anything, a dark sense of humour that flounces over the line between funny and hurtful isn’t likely to be considered attractive (in any sense of the word).

Another prevalent issue in the movement is that women continue to be antagonistic towards each other – sometimes even more so than towards men. The competition, the undermining, the judgement of every minor lifestyle choice. If we were to reclaim the image of Venus, to take her away from the male gaze, how would we paint her, that perfect woman, today? What choices would she have made? The way things stand today, she’d probably be told off no matter what she looked like. If you choose not to wear deodorant and spend your time at nudist protests, you’re clearly doing it (the being a woman thing) all wrong. You’re equally doing it wrong if you’re a stay-at-home mum, letting your husband work for you. Also, if you have long hair. Also short hair. Also, dresses. And pant suits. Pink is wrong. So is red. And black, and white.

It’s hard not to express your prejudice, of course, even harder to realize your own prejudice sometimes. As well as your own hypocrisy. We’ve all had moments of revelation when we suddenly see how unnecessary our antipathy really was, the bonds we could have formed if we had been a little more open.

A united front, then, is what we (the feminists) really lack, in my opinion. First, because we can’t all agree on what exactly we stand for. Do we like men? Do we hate them? Are we neutral? Does physical strength have anything to do with it (spoiler alert, it doesn’t, men are biologically stronger than women but why on earth, in 21st century society, would that have anything to do with socio-economic rights and opportunities)? Second because we are subject to unpolished abuse that we all cope with very differently, sometimes choosing to abandon the fight and pretend that the hurtful comments bounce off us like water off a duck’s back as we laugh along with our oppressors. It’s hard to condemn that weakness, but also to accept it. And finally, because we have trouble accepting each other as we are, a serious problem considering that that’s precisely what we’re asking the men to do. How can we possibly redefine the representation of Venus if we can’t come to any consensus as to her appearance?

Maybe that’s what Mary Richardson (above) was getting at - don’t imprison a woman just because she doesn’t fit your ideal image of a female.

Part of the acceptance of each other, of course, is accepting that we all make different lifestyle choices. But it’s also accepting that we need to move on from the image that has represented us in the past. The feminists of the 1960s and 70s were so fed up with subjugation that they rejected all classically feminine values, all associations with “pretty” and “nice”. There are plenty of all-female post-punk bands from that period, like The Slits, that are testimony to that fact. This aspect of the movement was very difficult to digest for the women who did not enjoy burning their bras in public. It is an image of feminism that has stayed in the minds of Eastern cultures years after it has been relegated to a peripheral corner of the movement. It has also been the basis for a lot of detrimental prejudice. The classic image of the feminist - sweatstains, hairy armpits, screaming about sticking it to the man - doesn’t exactly inspire admiration from most people, inaccurate a representation of the majority of women’s rights activists today as it is. And though we must give credit where credit is due, since those women did manage to achieve sweeping changes in the stereotypical perceptions of the gender, the contemporary movement has come too far to fall back into that trap. It feels hypocritical to expect men to appreciate our femininity if we don’t appreciate it ourselves, discarding it in favor of so-called freedom from female gender boundaries (in actual fact merely an assimilation with the male gender boundaries).To view classically feminine traits in the same negative light as they have been viewed for centuries, surely, would be the political equivalent of stabbing ourselves in the back with a, “long narrow,” knife.

When we throw away feminine values, we depict the goal of feminism as women becoming more masculine. No longer being relegated to the role of the wife becomes assuming the role of the husband. That, in my opinion, is the antithesis of the movement. We need classically feminine values to be equally respected as classically masculine values. We need the categories themselves to dissipate, rather than squeezing all of us into the male one. Gender could be a playful thing - there’s no need to define it.

So how far have we really come? Are we being taken seriously yet? Do we truly have the same rights and opportunities as our fellow gender? That’s up to you to decide. Personally, I think we still have a long way to go, what with abortion bans and lack of maternity leave. Glass ceilings. Wage gaps. Under-representation. Lack of confidence. The goddess of Love sighs and rubs her temples - we still can’t decide what she looks like.

Venus as re-imagined by artist Barron Clairborne

But it would be a mistake to land on just one representation. The key is choice; despite the need for reclaiming and respecting feminine values, the concept of choice remains of the essence. When we get bogged down with trying to decide who represents the contemporary Women’s Rights movement the best - white middle-class women (i.e. the original Suffragettes), poor black women, people from the LGBT community, etc - we are stabbing ourselves in the back with the longest, narrowest knife of all. Venus, true to her nature as a goddess, takes on many forms. Perhaps, in some parts of the world, it might be beneficial to represent feminism a certain way for the sake of political sacrifice. Unless, of course, we just want to leave a blank space in the place of a representative (but that might be too white).

Maybe this is all changing with Gen Z-ers, maybe, in a couple years’ time, this article will be redundant. Maybe. All I know is that the second we let our guard down, that pesky patriarchy will creep up on us again like it did in Russia after the First World War (another story). But if we keep fighting - voting for the people who will actually represent us, hint hint - I think we could end up in a very good, equal place. There might be no need to knife the representations of Venus that don’t suit our perception of femininity. Hopefully.


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