Historically, women of various ages, cultures, and sexual orientations have faced oppression and prejudice in society; related to gender and sexuality, more specifically regarding one’s ability to menstruate and conceive.
Starting in 1889, variations on Pin-Up Illustrations have been the representation of America’s sweetheart, never too erotic, but always hourglass figured and depicting ‘the standard of societal beauty’. The Gibson Girl was the epitome for this early time; independent and sensual, she was the symbol of unattainability. Used as propaganda during WWI, the Division of Pictorial Publicity put out illustrations of women in ‘sexy’ military outfits with the caption, ‘“Gee, I Wish I Was A Man, I’d Join the Navy,” or “Be a Man and Do It.” Throughout the 1950’s, this iconography was invading pop culture as mainstream advertising. It didn’t begin to recede until Playboy magazine began its reign and photography based on the muse of pin-up illustrations began to dominate the media.
Pin-ups are a prime example of the overt sexualization of women in media and the societal pressure of women to fit a certain mold to be seen as valid or relevant. Pin-ups are focused on the construct of patriarchal ideals, such as playing on societal beauty standards, instead of celebrating women’s real contributions outside of fertility and sexuality. The influence of this type of iconography has become monumental by eventually paving the way for pornography, which has grotesquely evolved to the unrealistic form we know it as today.
For thousands of years, women’s fertility and ability to menstruate has carried a contradictory connotation of shamefulness and duty as one’s primary
contribution to society. We can see evidence of this sanctioned by religion in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus, ‘Purification After Childbirth’ and ‘Discharges That Cause Uncleanness’ (approx. 1444 B.C.). One of the more striking passages, ‘Discharges That Cause Uncleanness’, presents very specific detail on how anything that a woman touches whilst menstruating is then deemed unclean. It goes as far as to describe how long the item and/or the person will be considered unclean for. ‘When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.’ (Leviticus 15:19) Women were sent into the red tent during their monthly menstruation cycles, a form of exile from the rest of the society while they bled over a primitive hole dug into the ground.
Women’s fertility continues to be an elusive concept; our ability to sync up menstruations when living around or with other women, bleed with the moon cycle, and our ability to conceive, bear, and birth children with or without the use of medicine and medical technology. To this very day, women carry on the remnants of indignity that surround the spectacle of their reproductive functions in society. The scandalous ‘p’ word that by no means is allowed to be a valid excuse for pain. Instead of staying home with vicious period cramps, women are ‘feeling sick’.
The ‘Ideal Woman’ by patriarchal standards wakes up with perfect skin and body, never speaks out of turn, waits to have sex until marriage but is kinky enough to fit the social expectations established by porn, doesn’t menstruate, wants to be a stay at home mom and never steps out of her preset boundaries. It’s as if people ascribing to this old-fashioned ideal are completely blind to the reality of
imperfection, need for sexual freedom and expression, normal bodily functions and human rights, which include reproductive. Furthered, we see the difficulty of these standards in Sigmund Freud’s concept of psychic impotence, contemporarily known as the “Madonna Whore Complex.” It is the idea that a man can only see a woman as a “saintly Madonna or debased prostitute”. This toxic thought divides women into tainted and untainted, coupling their value to their sexuality. It also dichotomizes women’s sexuality by giving her two modes of expected sexual expression.
We see this ‘Anti-Woman’ mold versus the ‘Ideal Woman’ mold laid out in the Creation Story in the bible. During the Council of Trent, passages containing the story of Lilith, the original ‘companion’ made for Adam were omitted. She refused to be sexually dominated, wanting to have sex on top, and fled Eden becoming the mother to babies of the Angel of Death (Farrar). She was seen as the foil to Eve, a more primal and deemed less acceptable version of womanhood by exclusively male institutions of power.
As a remnant of this, an analysis of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, “The repressive hypothesis supposes that since the rise of the bourgeoisie, any expenditure of energy on purely pleasurable activities has been frowned upon. As a result, sex has been treated as a private, practical affair that only properly takes place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed.” Adding pressure to the grotesque archetype pressured by the Madonna Whore Complex, women both need to wait until marriage to have satisfied the expectation of virginity and also treat sex as a ‘practical affair’. This
furthers the ‘Whore’ portion of the complex, comparing the standard set by porn, women’s untamed sensuality that implores men’s sexual desire and interest, to women’s duty to be pure enough to be committed to. This may be one of the biggest contradictions of societal expectancy that young women face with their newfound sexuality after puberty and makes the act of marriage an extremely difficult and often traumatic transition into adulthood.
Recently, especially in western cultures, with increased globalization and communication, women have been taking back control of their sexuality and healing the wounds of the past. One of these ways is through the self-proclaimed Witch movement. Historically, the word ‘Witch’ has held a very intense and offensive implication of heresy, manipulation and wickedness. They’ve been known as devil worshipers and spirit conjurers. In reality, witchcraft typically involves the natural sciences; herbalism, medicine, midwifery and also feminist spirituality through praising of goddesses. In certain communities, the word Witch has now become synonymous with a type of feminism, and there are many forms. Women are now standing up for the injustices of the Witch Hunts.
Many of the women considered ‘witches’ that were killed were single, landowners (that the government wanted to usurp), divorced, queer, sexually active, spoke out openly against laws, or practiced medicine/ spirituality that was deemed outlandish to society. These contemporary New Age Witches are claiming the pain and suffering of their deceased ancestors and of the spirits of those in our country who have endured similar injustices through the kindling for activism. This includes women, but also immigrants, POC, and the LGBTQIA+ community now who face oppression and violence. It is a movement based on embracing female sexuality, our connection to the earth and those who inhabit it and being an ally for those who are struggling for freedom of expression, equal rights and respect.
We are now finding that women were actually the first practitioners of medicine and herbalism, they created the first language and grid for what has become modern computers, they hunted with nets, brewed the first versions of beer and wine in addition to birthing, raising and educating children. We look at Marie Curie, a Polish and French physicist and chemist known for her research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize for her efforts and the only woman to win a Nobel prize two times. She also is the only person ever to win a Nobel prize for two different sciences. Grace Hopper, United States Navy rear Admiral and American computer scientist, invented one of the first compiler related tools and pioneered for machine-independent programming languages. Émilie du Châtelet, French philosopher, physicist, mathematician, and author, known for her commentary on Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia was credited with profound contribution to Newtonian Mechanics. Lise Meitner, Austrian- Swedish physicist contributed important research to our understanding of radioactivity and nuclear physics. She was one of the leading scientists of a group who discovered the nuclear fission of uranium. And yet historically and contemporarily, women have not been liberated from society’s purest ideal for all women, ‘Mother’, the pinnacle of sexuality and fertility.
“Just wait until you’re older, you’re too young.” “Are you not able to?” “She’s not a mother, she wouldn’t understand.” Why are these questions normalized in our
society? Somehow, society thinks it’s just to consider that if a woman is not a mother or does not aspire to be, that she is lacking the necessary degree of empathy or compassion. That to understand ‘motherly love’, a love seen as unconditional and selfless, one must birth a child. Through this toxic conversation, women are being pitted against women, making the value of the female sex fully realized only if engaged in motherhood. If women decide to put their career first, they are considered lonely, lacking and cold. Society’s unwillingness to modernize creates this poisonous environment by trapping women into a single vocation. Sarah Faris states, “This is in the age of overpopulation in which our liberties have been extended by birth control and enabled sex for more than the purpose of reproduction, but also social bonding.” Many of the most successful, inspiring, and loving women have not been mothers; some by choice and some not. Regardless, they still pursued and achieved impressive and important lives and careers, completely unrelated to their status as a mother. To name a few, Mother Theresa, Frida Kahlo, Oprah Winfrey and Harper Lee.
Even for those who do choose to become mothers, there is a lack of representation of the issues that they face. There are not nearly enough stories of post-partum depression or the struggles of bonding with a child that relate to a mother’s sense of self-worth. Working mothers are rarely recognized for the difficulties and stresses that come with new motherhood such as breastfeeding, separation, lack of sleep, and emotional/intellectual labor.
Emotional and intellectual labor is the act of figuring out what needs to be done in what time frame or order and then either assigning the task or completing it.
as a form of managament. This, in fact, takes as much time as one would need to actually perform the task itself. Videos go viral of dads who braid their daughter’s hair, make them breakfast or perform very general parental tasks and are heavily praised for it while mother’s for generations have been completing most of the housework, taking care of the children and in many cases, on top of a career. Often after years of parenting, when a mother is left with an empty nest, this is equated to a sense of identity loss. Turning this on its head, mother’s have a completely separate individuality and character aside from their motherhood. This mentality shows a woman as a person first and then a mother, instead of automatically attributing her motherhood, or lack thereof, to her character first.
As a kind of surrogate mother, in 17th and 18th century France, Salonniere were widowed women who acted as party hosts to the most important philosophers, artists, and writers of the time. (Mason) These women paved the way for women’s rights and egalitarianism. They defined the topics discussed and lead the discussion among the many politicians, aristocrats and influential figureheads who were present as guests. The effects of these parties were overwhelming on society and stirred up much social change through introduction of modern concepts, like democracy and equality. Something a little less known about the Salonnieres was that often the older widowed women would become a mentor to young boys of prominent families. They not only showed these young boys the ropes of society, they had sexual relationships. This would be very controversial now, but at the time, these women were past their childbearing age and it was seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. The young boys received experience in politics, literature,
culture and art before debuting into society while the women had companionship for the last part of their lives.
A strong women’s advocate was Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote an impactful publication called The Vindication of the Rights of Women, written in 1792, in which she states that ‘women are only viewed as an inferior to men, because they’ve lacked the same opportunities for education’ (Godwin). It is one of the earliest pieces of Feminist philosophy paving the way to greater and more modern writings of Feminist theory. In addition to being an English writer and philosopher she lived her message by leading a very unorthodox lifestyle (for the times) filled with tumultuous affairs and a child out of wedlock.
We take a look at women in contemporary US politics, it’s not surprising that instead of credit for development of the platform and political contribution, most of what is focused on is how the female candidate dresses, their personal lives, and any past controversy that can redirect the attention away from what is relevant to a campaign or governance. People think it’s appropriate to comment on the woman’s motherhood or lack thereof, the state of her marriage, and her bodily attributes, even when unrelated to her actions. How is it that a man who is a politician can be openly unfaithful, a sexual predator or not have children and still be considered a suitable candidate for office? This double standard is being promoted by male-dominated politics as a campaign tactic, trying to keep women out of office. These are the people running our country, creating laws & upholding them, the people we rely on to solve crises and stand up for our rights.
When a woman is strong, independent, and outspoken, she is labeled a word that begins with ‘B’ and it is not Brilliant or Bold. Women cannot be expected to be meek and agreeable by nature when they are all different humans with different personalities, experiences and paths. There are goals and missions to be completed and passions to chase, which would be made impossible if women were expected to follow a status quo like a trail of breadcrumbs like a state of submission. The conversation around women’s place in society’s pyramid, their ‘unwieldy emotions and moods’, the disgrace associated with our menstruation and our motherhood needs to be dismantled and tossed in the trash. Regardless of what societal pressure women are under to be sexually repressed for the sake of purity, sexually oppressed socially, forcefully molded into motherhood or remain seen and not heard, they have the ability every day to push back against the grain for continued progress.