Women and Power in Western History
The Femme Fatale and the Liberated Woman
In one weekend, I was given a fast-forward fictional portrayal of the femme fatale in Saint Saens’s Opera Samson et Delila and a film version of the beginnings of the modern liberated woman in the movie, Colette
The film was based on brilliant writer who eventually broke away from a patriarchal husband who used her writing talents, under his name, to gain personal fame.
Colette reaches a tipping point when she discovers that her husband sold the rights to novels she essentially wrote.
It is her moment of truth when she storms into his office and confronts him with the tragic reality of what he has done to her: completely sold her artistic identity to someone else— the final and unforgivable transgression, in her mind.
On her arduous journey of independence, she discovers she no longer needs her husband’s name and power to succeed as a writer. Her talent is enough.
Seduction as Power, the Adulterous Lover, the Fleshless Saint
With some glowing exceptions (Queens Elizabeth and Victoria), it seems to me the only power women in the West have been allowed to have is the power of seduction.
Innocence, sanctity, maternity, and mediation found in the cult of the Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages reduced women to fleshless creatures of domesticity, quiet piety, and silent submission to God’s will (at least that’s the orthodox Christian version).
The courtly love tradition portrayed women as moaning lovers writing love letters hinting at a poetically inspired sexual tryst when a lover returned home from war or a military obligation (Granted the courtly love tradition may have been more myth than reality).
The women as seductress, however, seems to have been a constant in Western mythology, especially in the Old Testament. That role appealed to men because it obviously gave the male the innocent-victim status.
“The devil made me do it,” as an old tv comic character used to say. And the sexual devil was always in the form of a woman—- Salome, Bathsheba, Delilah, Jezebel
So, women it seems were given power in Christian myths as seducers (whores, most likely) or as adulterous, but bloodless lovers by mutual consent in the courtly love tradition.
On the dry side, women were permitted to have some iconic status as saints or martyrs, but, as we’ve seen with the cult of Mary, only as fleshless domestic servants of God.
Women and the Arts
On the other hand, in the arts, women really had no power. Their roles were to reproduce, to cook, and to clean. Or to help with the farming.
What we think of as their nurturing role may have been non-existent given all their harsh duties, not to mention how many births they had to have just to make sure that a few of their children would survive.
In any event, prior to very modern times, most women didn’t have time to compose an oratorio, to write a a play, or to paint, especially for a living.
Even if they married into wealth, they were prohibited, by tradition, from either exposing their talents (unless to “perform” as a vocalist or pianist in a salon setting) or establishing an independent career in the arts.
Colette certainly broke that tradition as an independent writer.
Thanks to her, thousands of women have been inspired to find their unique power in the arts as fiction writers.