I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.
Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”
Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).
The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.
Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.
The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which
version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!
…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)
The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.
Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.
She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!
…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.
When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.
Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.
But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?
Yes. And no.
Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.
Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.
Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!
Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.
A couple weeks ago, E.J. and taught a class on Writing Realistic Women in Historical Settings for In Your Write Mind, a writer’s conference annually hosted by Seton Hill University. During the lecture, I touched on the idea that women of lower classes could find opportunities for power through communities of crime such as piracy and robbery
This got me thinking about how living and operating in communities that were outside and/or in direct conflict with the larger social norm, women could more easily step into roles that would have been improbable within their societies. Please note that I will be discussing these groups and concepts in a historical context, but certainly many of the forthcoming statements may or may not apply to modern day.
While these communities of crime were brutal and unforgiving, structural norms for the sake of order or blind adherence to traditional roles did not hold the level of importance it did in larger society. Organized crime was a state of flux with the strongest and most shrewd rising to power and then ultimately falling in favor someone else. Social power structures are therefore not stationary, if anything, quite the opposite. By nature, crime violates social norms through violation of law. Further, these communities tended to be focused on factors such as cunning and clear success for the basis of authority with little regard for things such as gender or class.
The history of piracy and general seafaring has many examples of women who found escape from social restraints on their gender and chose to live a life on the high seas. It is not surprising, since in many ways, a ship alone upon the ocean can be its own extremely isolated and unique society with varied power structures. Through cunning, effective leadership and delivery of victory (therefore money), individuals from many backgrounds could find themselves in positions of power. Neither class nor gender was necessarily an obstacle.
It should be no further surprise that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman. At her height of power, she commanded a fleet that numbered 70,000 pirates and 1,200 vessels. A “pirate confederation whose members outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada.” This woman, born as Shi Yang would later be infamously known as Cheng I Sao “the wife of Cheng I” or Ching Shih “widow of Zheng.” She was not high-born, in fact she was a commoner who originally worked as a prostitute in the Canton region before her meteoric rise to pirate power. Her strength and immense supremacy over not only a single ship but several fleets, justly conjures the image of a pirate queen. If not anything else, Ching Shih was exactly that, a position achieved through her unparalleled capabilities of strategy and leadership.
Her rise to power began first as an exceedingly effective union between her and the pirate Cheng I through marriage. Historians are not completely sure of the basis of the marriage, if it was motivated by love, lust, business alliance or some combination of all three. But Ching Shih put her political and strategic skills to work alongside Cheng I whose pirate status (in fact he was from a family of pirates) legitimized her own status within the pirate world. While together, they successfully unified and strengthened the pirates of the South China coast by 1804. Historian Dian Murray points out that it appears Ching Shih elevated and launched the careers of her spouses, a role reversal from larger society, that it was Ching Shih who provided the impetus and skills for success.
When Cheng I died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih maneuvered herself as sole leader of the massive fleets they had built together. She did this through identifying how to further legitimatize her claim (something already strong), created relationships with tributary pirate gang leaders and even used religious beliefs to her advantage.
But she was much more than a cunning contender to power, Ching Shih was a highly effective leader. Taking power is one thing, but consistently delivering successful operations was vital to maintaining it. She did just that, even recognizing that robbing ships alone could not sustain operations. Ching Shih took control of vital salt shipments and organized extensive networks that sold vouchers to local fishermen and other seafarers that exempted them from attack. She did all this through strict control with draconian punishments that included immediate decapitation for anyone who tried to usurp or disobey commands. She maintained an interest in the proper treatment of women that extended to female captives establishing a punishment that included death for pirates who raped women, captive or not.
Ching Shih next married the adopted son of her deceased husband. This union was as much a partnership of ambition with Ching Shih in the driver’s seat of the fleet. She created the conditions for her new husband Chang Pao to gain power within the fleet as the commander of a subset of the organization, known as the Red Flag Squadron.
What’s most interesting to me is that Ching Shih did not seem to identify herself solely as a pirate, instead she held a supreme confidence in her abilities and knew when to roll the dice and when to bow out of the game. She was flexible and took to new roles fluidly and with equal skill. Eventually she left the pirating world, obtained a position of governmental authority for her husband and set herself and her family up nicely in Canton.
Ching Shih never lived within the constraints of society and never let anyone define her. It was a remarkable outlook. When she died at the age of 69, she left behind a well-lived life where she not only refused to take “no” for an answer, but never seemed to recognize that anyone had the right to refuse her in the first place.
Featured image credit: Still from the 2003 movie, Singing Behind Screens
 Dian Murray. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 3. (1981): 3.
We’re taking a week off, BUT stay-tuned for the kick-off of our July theme of Women and the Ocean next Monday.
In the meantime, if you enjoy our analysis of the Ancient Greek world, I recommend taking a gander over to The History of Ancient Greece Podcast. Their latest episode is on the “Goddess of the Young” which explores the paradox of Artemis, young women and childbirth.
Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.
The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:
“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” 
This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.
Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.”  Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.
By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.”  We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.
Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.
Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.
I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!
Especially about Helen.
You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.
And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.
Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly
Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.
She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:
“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).
He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.
In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).
This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…
Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.
In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).
Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.
Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”
A truer way to say this may be…
Menelaus launched a thousand ships.
A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.
Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.
Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.
For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.
Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.
Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen
Helen was incidental in the war.
In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.
In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.
The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.
Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.
One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.
But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.
Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)
Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).
He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.
It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.
So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.
Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.
But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.
That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.
But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.
Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.
But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?
I’m a speculative fiction author, but I’m also an academic who teaches, researches, and writes about cultural issues, particularly media and literary representations of gender. Since 2013, I’ve taught introductory women’s studies courses, and one of the things I cover on the first day of class is to ask students to make a collaborative list of common stereotypes of feminists. The results are sometimes over-the-top and humorous, but even though most people in the classroom disavow believing in the stereotypes, negative conceptions of feminism still pervade our society. Whether or not you identify as a feminist, it’s useful to have a basic working understanding of the term and clarify what it actually means. What follows are five common misconceptions about feminism and some history and data to dispel them.
Misconception 1: There is one kind of feminism; if you don’t perform it “that way,” you’re doing it wrong.
The fact is, not only are there different schools of thought within feminism, the core ideology has shifted over time. In the so-called “first wave” of feminism in the nineteenth century, for example, the general focus was on voting rights. During the middle of the twentieth century, many feminists fought for equal pay, while others protested against exploitation. At the transition to the twenty-first century, the focus for several years has included digital activism and collaboration, while other feminists focus on obtaining better representation in politics or family leave in the workplace. Just because someone puts their emphasis on one area of gender-based equity doesn’t mean they’re not “doing” feminism correctly. Many textbooks on the matter pluralize the word “feminism” to emphasize its plurality of meaning.
Misconception 2: “Feminism” means trying to make women superior to men, and feminists hate men.
Many people have claimed a better term than “feminism” would be “humanism” (although technically the latter word is already claimed by an anti-theological philosophical movement), because “feminism” as a word seems to imply female superiority. In fact, very few strains of feminism aim for female superiority; most are fighting for equality and equity with men. Other than extreme outliers, in fact, most feminists don’t hate men, especially on an individual level, and one goal of feminism is often a dismantling of patriarchal gender roles that hurt men, too. By leveling the playing field and reducing cultural expectations on everyone, men, women, and gender non-conforming people can all live more freely.
Misconception 3: Feminists are all lesbians, and men can’t be feminists.
First of all, these misconceptions tend to imply negative judgment against members of LGBTQ+ groups. Certainly, some feminists are lesbians, but not all, and not all lesbians are even feminists. Most feminists—regardless of sexual orientation—are also supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. Part of the reason for this misconception stems from some radical feminist ideology of the late second wave, wherein there was some advocacy for “political lesbianism” regardless of one’s natural sexual orientation. However, it’s important to contextualize this, as even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, women in heterosexual marriages lost specific political and economic rights when they married, including their own credit history. Furthermore, with the gain of certain reproductive freedoms over time, marriage no longer has to mean the same extent of familial obligation it once did. Therefore, there is far less call to avoid heterosexual unions or marriage than there used to be, and the third wave of feminism in the 1990s advocated ever-increasing positive attitudes about women’s sexual freedom and expression, regardless of the gender of one’s partners.
In the mid-1960s, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded to help solidify women’s rights. It’s notable the preposition is “for,” not “of,” as its purpose is women’s advocacy, not to imply they are only constituted “of” women. Anyone who wants gender equality can consider themselves a feminist, whether they themselves identify as female, male, or nonbinary, whether they are cisgender or transgender, and regardless of sexual orientation. Some feminists believe it may be difficult for male-identifying people to be fully invested in feminist causes, as men are perceived to benefit from sexism, and as a result, some men choose instead to identify as “feminist allies.” Regardless, that difference is slight; if you don’t identify as female but believe in gender equality, you shouldn’t feel afraid to say you are either a feminist or a feminist ally.
Misconception 4: Feminists are white.
This misconception has more factual roots than not. One valid criticism of feminism is a lack of diversity; during its first and second waves, feminism was focused on the concerns of white women. In the late 1990s, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which different identity markers work together to cause multiple forms of oppression. For example, black women are usually subject to more social disadvantage than white women, and all women may be at a greater disadvantage than white men. On the other end of the spectrum, a white woman who is able-bodied and of normative sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion may be more privileged than she realizes. Thus, many people of color who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist ideology eschew it in favor of women’s
rights issues specifically focusing away from white women. “Womanism” is a term many women of color have adopted that speaks to a black female experience and integrates elements of cultural life seen as missing in broader feminist circles. However, many other scholars and thinkers on this subject simply speak of “black feminism” or a need for inclusive or intersectional feminism. So while it is erroneous to say feminists are all white, this is indeed an area rife with opportunities for improvement.
Hopefully, this has been helpful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding feminism. For some additional reading, I recommend the books Introducing Feminism, by Caitha Jenainati and Judy Groves (Icon Books, 2007), Women’s Studies: The Basics, by Bonnie G. Smith (Routledge, 2013), and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, by bell hooks (Routledge, 1984).
When taking a deeper look into the stories of Lilith and Eve, understand that organized religion was an important part of creating order within early civilizations. When I say “civilization” I’m referring to settled towns and cities that are permanent places of human dwelling. In the prehistoric world human life was mostly nomadic in nature, with belief systems that fit into that lifestyle.
The Ancient Greeks, a significant influence on Western social ideas concerning
patriarchy (that’s a whole other article to explain), asserted that women needed to be restrained for the good of civilization. “Zeus eventually puts an end to the successive overthrowing of kings by conspiracies of wives and sons. Establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus. Zeus introduces moral order and culture…” They believed that women were more animal-like, subject to base instincts, sexually wild and would destroy civilization if not properly controlled. As my friend E.J. likes to say, “social ideal does not equal social reality,” so certainly there are plenty of examples of women in Ancient Greek society who were not at all controlled.
But the idea was there. If there is a fear that women can dismantle civilization, what role
did women play before civilization was established? As evidenced by Lilith, early civilizations like both the Ancient Greeks and the Israelites expressed concern over patriarchal order, which became synonymous with civilized order. Nomadic groups became “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” In these early groups women seemed to have had at least a place of respect, if not reverence or even dominance.
Could Lilith and Eve’s story have more to do with the fear of the ruin of civilization and a return to equality of the genders?
Many of the earliest artifacts found in and around Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East depict an array of what is known as Venus figurines dating from this prehistoric time period.
Don’t let the name mislead you, these figurines have little to do with the Roman goddess Venus. Instead these date from prehistory, the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, a time long before the Roman Republic. Most famous (and bearing the same misleading name) is the Venus of Willendorf. The depictions of women are carved from stone, antlers, bones or shaped from clay and fired.
So why am I talking about all this? You thought this was an article about rebellious women? Bear with me.
These figurines may represent something far bigger than the shape of a woman crafted into the perfect handheld icon. Certainly, the exaggerated focus breasts, hips and the pubic triangle, seem to indicate that these were for fertility,
but this not certain. It is important to note that these figurines are found throughout Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Russia to name a few. Further, they have strong connections to other symbols and figurines found in the early Mediterranean cultures like the Minoans of Crete and places like Çatalhöyük in Turkey. These connections and the wide-ranging areas they have been discovered may indicate something much bigger than reverence of fertility alone. They could represent a social ideal, a wide-spread reverence for womanhood—sacred
womanhood, socially equal, or even superior womanhood.None of this is definitive, but the sheer amount of Venus figurines point to something focused on women.
In Jewish mythology, Lilith was the first woman created by God. The earliest written form of her story appears in the early Middle Ages (between the 8th to 10th centuries), but is much older. It is no surprise however, that it was written during a time that marked significant struggles for new social orders. As Adam’s wife, Lilith refused to have sex in the missionary position saying to Adam, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” Before you get caught up in the Kama Sutra of sexual positions, realize the story has much more to do with social dominance. Lilith didn’t just have a problem with how she and Adam engaged in sex, she had a problem with the inherent idea that she was, “fit only to be in the bottom position, while I (Adam) am to be the superior one.” When Adam refused to treat her as an equal, Lilith left him with all the credit card bills and the Garden of Eden mortgage and went out to find herself in the great unknown of the world beyond.
So here we are, Lilith decided she was equal and wasn’t going to put up with Adam’s ideas of superiority. Not so demonic is that? Ok hold on to this information, you’re going to need it to put together the pieces of what the conflict was really all about.
Adam complained to God, “the woman you have given me has run away.” Note the concept here that Adam has ownership over Lilith as seemed sanctioned by God. So Lilith ran away and God seemed compelled to “give” Adam another wife.
Then came Eve.
Lilith isn’t in the Bible, but Eve is and unlike Lilith, Eve is rather cooperative with Adam. She doesn’t spend much time fighting with him and seems to accept her relative lower position. However, Eve is ultimately tempted and finally eats the forbidden fruit. When she does this, she was not transgressing Adam, instead she was transgressing God by accessing the Tree of Knowledge he has forbidden. God in these stories is the ultimate male power who has exerted order and established a great place to live (i.e. civilization). Eden has inadvertently rejected the social ideal of her subservience, by not only disobeying God, but also through the desire and obtainment of knowledge. Because of Eve’s disobedience (and of course Adam too) they are cast out of Eden.
Oh no! A woman has caused destruction of civilization that the Ancient Greeks feared.
The mythological Lilith became a demonic power after leaving Adam. There are many forms her legend has taken over the ages – the cause of sickness in infants, an evil spirit, a lamia, a spirit that brings death and destruction, a succubus and a hyper-sexualized temptress that brings ruin to men who can’t help but desire her. Sometimes all or some of these ideas are wrapped together. These concepts of Lilith go all the way back to Sumer, indicating that Lilith was a shared cultural idea, as the prehistoric Venus figurines were a shared cultural idea.
The metamorphosis and focus on Lilith’s refusal to adhere to the social order set out before her, indicates a strong patriarchal reaction to (at the very least) a much more egalitarian value system between genders. With the establishment of civilization and increasing successful births rates due to settled lifestyles, the importance of woman waned before the need for a definitive social order in the face of the increased population centers. With the increase of things to own and wealth to accumulate (things difficult to do in a nomadic culture), a system of inheritance rose up. No longer could possessions be passed communally since communities were much too large in this structure. Familial relations over community relations become more important for the purpose of passing on goods and property. In order to determine familial relations, a formal system of mating (marriage) had to be established as well. In a patriarchal structure this amounted to essentially ownership over their spouse(s) as well as their offspring.
Lilith is what happens when a woman refuses to accept a lower position.
Eve is what happens when a woman desires knowledge.
A whole lot of blame. (Really Adam you couldn’t just be bottom sometimes?)
Ultimately, Lilith isn’t quite the demon she is made out to be. Eve isn’t quite the betrayer she is made out to be. Instead they represent some of the earliest fears of female agency.
Arguments we continue to hear today when women’s rights are discussed, argued over and… well, are also demonized.
 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) 2.
 “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.” “Pandora: Hesoid, Works and Days.” Theoi Greek Mythology, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Pandora.html
True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”
In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.
To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.
But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.
This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.
The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.
So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.
What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.
There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:
I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.
With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,
I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,
‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought
The handiwork of justice : he is dead,
My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1
By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.
The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.
Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?
(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)
Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”
In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.
However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?
And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.
In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…
Poison is frequently referred to as “a woman’s weapon” because it allows murder to be committed from a distance and often requires subterfuge to deploy, which is probably why it doesn’t come as a surprise that women were at the heart of the so-called Affair of the Poisons that plagued Louis XIV’s court from 1677 to 1682.  Both men and women of the court sought out supernatural means to win Louis’s favor. The king’s longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, was accused of resorting to love spells to keep his affection after childbirth had changed her figure.
The unravelling began with the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was charged with poisoning her father and brothers in order to inherit their estates. She and her accomplice, the Chevalier de Sainte Croix, were alleged to have used Aqua Tofana, a poison that originated in Italy and was sold primarily to women who desired to be rid of their husbands, although other sources point to arsenic being the poison of choice.  de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.
It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.”  Deaths of courtiers that previously seemed unfortunate but not suspicious were now looked at from a new perspective, jumpstarting an inquiry that would last for years and end in the execution of over thirty people.
The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is loosely based on this time period and straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. The story is narrated by Genevieve Pasquiers, who later becomes the famed (and fictitious) Marquise de Morville. She describes herself as “an ugly girl who can’t walk right” . Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.
Genevieve’s mother is based on the infamous Madame de Brinvilliers. It was purported that de Brinvilliers and her lover, de Sainte Croix, tested their poisons for the thrill of it, and much like them, Madame de Pasquiers is depicted as poisoning under the guise of charity. de Pasquiers and the woman she’s based upon are arguably psychopaths, as they need little encouragement to take a life beyond the prospect of their own pleasure.
When Genevieve’s mother poisons her husband and mother-in-law, Genevieve’s uncle assaults her in an effort to take her inheritance. Genevieve vows to avenge herself and her father, runs away, and crosses paths with La Voisin, a historical figure and, supposedly, a witch. La Voisin promises Genevieve, who can truly see the future by looking in an orb of water, to make her “strong enough to destroy” her uncle and transforms her into the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortune teller.  Fortune-telling allows Genevieve to support herself as well as repay La Voisin for the education. Although Genevieve focuses on fortune-telling and leaves the poisoning to La Voisin, she’s also determined to get revenge on her uncle, and she can’t escape getting caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.
As a doctor treats Genevieve for a broken arm, he correctly guesses she’d been injured by a man and says, “If it had been one of your witches, now, you wouldn’t have lived out the week, and there wouldn’t be a mark to show.”  The implication is that patience, thought to be one of women’s primary virtues, can also aid in immorality, for women are patient enough to wait for an opportune time to slip poison into a drink, to wait for a note covered in poison to be delivered, to wait for poison to take effect.
The Oracle Glass presents a variety of women who murder for a variety of reasons—for personal pleasure, for societal advancement, for money, for revenge. In real life, these women intrigue us because they’re statistically less likely to commit murder than men. Fiction allows us to explore the motivations behind such crimes and offers a means of coping with the fact that, in real life, there are often no easy answers.
 Duramy, Benedetta F. “Catherine La Voison: Poisons and Magic at the Royal Court of Louis XIV.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Academic Press, London, UK. 2017. 135-140.
 Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.
For Jason, she betrays her father, kills her own brother, and abandons her home of Colchis. In Corinth, she murders her sons as vengeance against Jason and then escapes in a serpent-drawn chariot sent by the sun-god Helios. King Aegeus of Athens grants her sanctuary. But when she nearly tricks Aegeus into poisoning his own son, Theseus, she flees again. In this final flight, Medea breaks free of Greek mythology, unconquered to the last.
It is a unique fate for a woman who murders her sons. Greek mythology is not so kind to
its heroes. They do not die peacefully with past glories dancing in their head. Wine had soured in Jason’s mouth when a rotted spar from his ship Argos strikes him, the unfaithful husband, dead. King Aegeus throws himself from the high acropolis of Athens, believing Theseus defeated. Theseus lives long enough to see his beloved wife and son into their graves. Hercules burns himself on his own funeral pyre, accidently poisoned by his wife, before Zeus allows him into the stars. Odysseus’s son murders him; Oedipus is blinded; and Antigone, hounded into insanity.
Medea is no heroine, but neither is she a Minotaur to be vanquished. Instead, she is elemental – a wind that drives demi-gods to victory or to the bottom of the sea. What element she signifies is revealed by the men around her, the men who use Medea. When she enters the stage, Medea is ruled by her heart from the first. Jason wields that love to achieve his goal: stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father. Without Medea’s power, Jason will not succeed. She tells him how to defeat each of her father’s traps, and when the lovers escape Colchis, it is Medea who dismembers her brother to prevent the King from following.
And Jason uses Medea as much as he can. He marries Medea and asks that she regenerate his aging father into a full vibrant life. Medea gives Jason healthy sons. Having borne him two legitimate heirs, though, Jason considers Medea a spent force to be cavalierly disposed once she is no longer useful. He throws Medea over for the daughter of the King of Corinth. The King of Corinth, at least, has the sense to banish Medea; Jason never considers that the power he used to capture the golden fleece and his future might take it from him.
Medea laments the position of a wife, forced aside, but she is not powerless. She strikes a deal with King Aegeus to save herself: She will give him sons. Aegeus sees Medea as the power through which he can ensure his dynasty continues. Medea fulfills her end of the bargain, a bargain Aegeus revokes when his own long-lost son, Theseus, arrives. Like Jason, though, Aegeus cannot end Medea – she escapes with their son.
While Medea is “passion” and an “anti-mother,” this simplifies her. She is the power of progeneration. She promises a future. Her fire protects Jason and regenerates his father to good health. She grants Jason two male heirs, a precious gift when children were not certain to survive to adulthood. She gives the same to King Aegeus. When Medea seeks to destroy, she cuts off that same future, beginning in Colchis. Medea kills her brother, her father’s heir. She kills Jason’s sons. She kills the King of Corinth’s daughter. She tries to destroy Theseus as well, so that her children with Aegeus are the future.
And here lies the genesis of her immortality. As dangerous as she may be, without Medea – without the power to progenerate – there is no future for kings or paupers. Jason and Aegeus used Medea to advance their cause, conscious that same power could destroy it. The power itself, though, one might try and tame the wind.