A queer exploration of all things gender

Posts tagged ‘Patriarchy’

A fresh look at art – Women and their understated part in history

This post was written for Gender Agenda, the Cambridge University Student’s Union Women’s Campaign termly magazine. Their website (where this and many other great resources and reads for women in particular) can be found here.


Whilst over the centuries it’s a horrible, abhorrent fact that women have had to struggle to be seen and heard in virtually all professional arenas, we are very, very lucky that art can endure. We are lucky that many women (though not as many as might have) dared to push against societal pressures by training in and executing their gifts in various times and places – when it undoubtedly may have been easier (albeit unhappier) to quietly run the home and children, and little else. Likewise it seems to me a further product of patriarchal systems that many female-dominated ‘applied arts’ such as weaving, embroidery, etc. are viewed with considerably less social significance compared to the historically male dominated ‘fine arts’. Embarrassingly, many fans of fine art may find themselves unable to name more than a handful of female artists. In contemporary terms Tracy Emin and Yoko Ono spring to mind though are often callously dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘talentless’. To go back further chronologically, could I even confidently declare Frieda Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth as household names with the same confidence as Van Gogh or Michaelangelo? I sadly doubt it. The following list of artists was selected to represent a cross-section across different times, cultures, and styles – I really hope you’ll Google these women, as the effort it will have taken to produce their works only heightens their deservedness of an audience.

1. Claricia (13th Century)

One of the few positions in life which provided the freedom for artistic expression in the middle ages was in monasteries and nunneries. Claricia was thought to be a lay student at an Abbey in Augsberg in Germany where she illustrated herself into a psalter – her body swinging as the tail to an ornate capital Q.


2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

The daughter of a professional painter, Artemisia was trained in her father’s workshop. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, in Florence. The vast majority of her work displays women in positions of power relative to men. Judith from the Bible in particular, who does some pretty knarly beheading of one Holofernes. Caravaggio painted the same scene, though if you compare the two paintings it’s Gentileschi who really captures a sense of brutal determination. Caravaggio’s Judith (here she is!) lacks this to me, perhaps because Gentileschi could better empathise with and capture such a sense in a woman. Caravaggio’s Judith comes across to me as a dainty flower who isn’t quite sure how she ended up with a sword in a chap’s neck.

3. Louise ÉlisabethVigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

Another artist whose access to teaching stemmed from having an artist father, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally by her early teens, progressed to be Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter, and caused a scandal by breaking convention when she painted herself smiling showing her teeth.

4. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879)

Cameron can be regarded as a pioneer in photography, despite taking the art form up at the age of 48, when given a camera by her daughter. Some of her images are unbelievably crisp as a result of her perfectionism, given she was working in the 1860s. Cameron was neighbour and friend to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the great aunt of Virginia Woolf.

5. Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907)

Lewis managed to obtain impressive success in her lifetime as a Neoclassical sculptor despite not only gendered barriers, but the fact that she was mixed race (Haitian, African, and Ojibwe Native American). Orphaned at a young age, Lewis made money with her aunts by selling Ojibwe baskets, and was able to attend college from the financial success of her brother. Through her determination Lewis was able to take herself to study in Rome, and later achieved hugely lucrative commissions and had the President Ulysses S. Grant sit for her. Many of her sculptures contain poignant messages on race.

6. Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)

A friend of Edgar Degas and a fellow Impressionist, Cassatt, whilst attaining tuition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after a privileged education around Europe, felt rightly restricted by the attitudes towards women (for example, being forbidden from studying nudes) so left without graduating and pursued her own study. She moved to Paris and applied to study privately with masters due to women being forbidden from the École des Beaux-Arts. Many of her paintings focus on themes of motherhood, and in later life she was committed to the cause of women’s suffrage.

7. Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)

Beaten by her father who viewed her sculpture as ‘graven images’ until she sculpted a Virgin Mary which changed his mind, Savage was able to make significant money from her clay sculpture in her early life, but did not experience widespread financial success. Upon rejection in 1923 from a French art program due to being black, her civil rights activism was begun. In 1934 she opened a multiracial studio where she taught anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt.

8. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)

If the term had existed, Claude Cahun may well have accepted the label of Genderqueer. Settling with her partner (also her stepsister) in Paris before later moving to Jersey in 1937, both engaged in resistance during Nazi occupation. They would take English-to-German translations of BBC reports of Nazi atrocities, paste them into poetic formats, dress as German military officers so as to infiltrate military events and leave the poems where they would be read. Whilst arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, both survived the war.

9. Ogura Yuki (1895 – 2000)

Ogura specialised in nihonga painting, which is the utilisation of strictly traditional Japanese methods and styles. She painted much nude portraiture of friends and family throughout the 50s and 60s, in natural, familial settings. Only one other female painter (UemuraShoen) has received the Japanese Order of Culture.

10. Kay Sage (1898 – 1963)

Born in New York, Sage floated around Europe with her mother during her early childhood, exposing her to a variety of culture and also giving her an informal fluency in French and Italian. Whilst she spent 10 years married to an Italian nobleman she found this life deeply unsatisfying, and later obtained a divorce. She was exposed to surrealism in the 1930s and impressed André Breton (the founder of the movement), though he did not believe her paintings could’ve been done by a woman.

11. Rachel Whiteread (1963 – )

Gaining some fame as the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, for a cast taken of an entire Victorian terraced house, Whiteread is also one of the artists to have a piece on the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square – an upside down resin cast of the plinth itself, potentially the largest ever object to be made of resin. Her work often explores ‘negative space’ – the space inside an object not actually taken up by the object itself.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

To porn or not to porn? Feminist views on pornography

So today my fine perusers, we will be discussing a particular issue relevant to Feminism – but first, a quick overview. Everyone has heard of Feminism, but there is understandable confusion sometimes about what this word actually means. A well educated friend of mine once demonstrated a serious misunderstanding when telling me why she didn’t identify as a feminist in saying “well…they’re bra-burning man-haters, aren’t they?”

“You didn’t just say that did you? Oh wait…yes…you did.”

In its most basic manifestation, feminism is quite simply the establishment and defence of equal rights and equal opportunities for women. It therefore seems to me that to disagree with this is to disagree with the idea that equal rights and opportunities between the sexes is a desirable outcome. Far more people agree with these simple principles than actively label themselves as being a ‘feminist’. There’s loads of discussion that can be had on exploring why this is, but an important thing to recognise is that many people who identify as feminists will have very different ideas about what they feel the best state of affairs should be, for both men and women*.

Of  the many possible contentions and divisions that exist between different feminist philosophies and movements, today the stance on pornography will be considered. Not only is this relevant to a large number of people (far, far more than would admit it) but the issue was of such importance that the debates that raged in the late ’70s and early ’80s actually became known as:

Not even making this up. It was also known as ‘Porn Wars’ , but I don’t love you guys enough to spend that long messing around in Microsoft Paint making two of these.

On one side of the Sex War were the anti-pornography feminists. Key members of this movement include Catharine MacKinnon, and the late Andrea Dworkin. Some of the key arguments include that the production of porn involves women being coerced – either physically , psychologically, or economically. The star of the infamous film Deep Throat‘, Linda Boreman, was publicly supported by both of these women when she publicly came out to say that she had been forced and abused by her husband into making the film.

It doesn’t take someone to be anti-pornography to say that ‘hey, forcing people to perform sex acts…is bad!‘. A criticism that has been levied is that anti-pornographers can imply that sex is something that men enjoy and enforce, but women only endure, marginalising female and feminine sexualities. There have indeed been some female porn stars, identifying as feminists, speak out in saying that their careers are their own free choices and they feel a sense of empowerment and ability to express themselves sexually in their work. One counterargument to this basically runs as ‘the Patriarchy has made you think this way, you are actually being exploited‘. 

Is it just me, or is it a deliciously appropriate state of affairs that Feminism is written right down the length of a shaft?

Now, this previous statement may have caused a small snort of derision. If it did, I’m hoping it’s because of the non-falsifiability of the argument. This response could be touted whatever anyone says – no new way is offered to actually test the idea that porn stars are repressed. Anti-pornographers may rather be shooting themselves in the feet in refusing to recognise the ability of women to choose to engage in and with pornography. I hope that you weren’t thinking the bold statement was a silly thing because of how the word ‘Patriarchy’ is set up as something big and scary. It is a real thing, and it is rather crappy. Without getting hugely sidetracked, it is fair to say that not simply from a global perspective but very much here in the UK and other  culturally similar countries, women experience lower wages for the same positions, greater risk of sexual crime, the socialisation of being the ‘weaker’ ‘delicate’ sex…go hit google, have a little explore.

Whilst it’s quite easy to find problems with some members of the pornographic industry, some ‘sex-positive’ feminists argue that blanket criminalisation (as has been called for by anti-pornographers) is a greater evil, in restricting freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It also isn’t the case that all sex-positive feminists sprung up in response to anti-pornographers – some indeed write and work under the axiom that the Patriarchy mostly holds a monopoly on how women are able to express themselves sexually, and seek to change this, through support of ethical pornography, and pornography featuring ‘strong’, ‘active’ women.

It’s clearly a tricky one. On the one hand, you’ve got people who unambiguously are harmed in the manufacture of porn. The shady, seedy view that is often socially held by those who purchase such materials makes it far less embarrassing to do so with a secretive and private air – there isn’t all that much pressure from the market for responsible, ethically aware, organic, pesticide-free porno. It would be very desirable for more people to pay more attention to how the people in what they look at and watch might really be treated. On the other hand, heavy-handed legal restriction and restriction of material because it is sexual rather than harmful (admittedly sometimes a controversial distinction to make) does no-one any favours, and buys into an old-school conservative (with a little ‘c’, but also probably many Tories as well…) anti-sex, moral absolutism. Arguments have been made that exposure to pornography can cause addiction, and make men more likely to commit sex crimes against women. On the other hand, studies exist that show things like people believe porn to have had a positive effect on their lives, and sex offenders had seen less or milder porn on average than other criminals. There seems to be lots of conflicting claims, certainly enough that I’m not going to attempt to take a clear side. However, it seems to me that abstractly, women (or men, or anyone for that matter) choosing to show off their naughty parts isn’t really the problem. People being rotten to people who are quite often women (in this context) is, which isn’t something one needs to hold the label of ‘feminist’ to have a problem with.

*Apologies that the wordings so far has implied a binary mode of thinking – not doing credit to the individuals who identify neither firmly as men or as women, and others – identities which for brevity’s sake I’ll describe with the term Genderqueer. Many (though far from all) feminist discourses don’t even acknowledge the diversity possible in gender identities, which is problematic all on its own.

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