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Femininity at the end of XIX century

Femininity at the end of XIX century

Women have always had problems with their social condition that surely conducted them to afford with pain and difficulties life and choices. They represent the weak link of the humanity, with their sensitive nature and are always in opposition to the male sex that is the cause of restrictions, limitations and fears. A big literature was built around this “other sex”, that is considered a mystery of all times, analyzed by lots of scholars. If have to make a detailed analysis to understand why women are always regarded as a particularly important element, it is necessary to start from religion. According to the sacred text of Judaism and Christianity, the first woman ever appeared was Eve, the first feminine creature of all times, which represents the example of discord between the man and the highest figure, Lord God. The Bible tells, in the Genesis, about the creation and born of the first woman, born from Adam bones. The history relegates women, guilty of the expulsion from Paradise, in a position of inferiority and eternal damnation. The fault was that she had eaten from the forbidden fruit, falling into the trap of the Sin, embodied in a snake. Lord God condemned the two human beings saying that:

‘Then he said to the woman, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”’ [1]

The sentence seemed to be an admonition to be perpetually under man’s control. Certainly over the centuries women have always had an inferiority derived from the ideal of man as a superior being. According to popular believes, women were not able to make decisions, work, discuss. Their task was only to procreate, and do it with pain as God condemned them. Only in the Nineteenth century there was an open mind as to allow a change in the consideration of women, and was the century of new discoveries. As Anna Vertua Gentile wrote in the first part of the book “Il secolo XIX nella vita e nella cultura dei popoli” the woman was defined: ‘una creatura uguale all’uomo per quanto a lui differente’ (Gentile 1900), a creature equal to men as to him different.

This means, as always explains Vertua Gentile, that the woman begun to be independent. She began work, not only for an economic reason, but also for a personal independence becoming a human being almost at the same level to men. A step forward, that it was controversial, for the most conservative population who believed that women had to have an only role. The idea of woman as an inferior being, involves all aspects of human life. Starting from Genesis, it has seen how the woman has been charged with an absolutely disgraceful behavior resulting by the expulsion from Heaven. A woman was able to upset throughout the entire cosmos. She has subverted the rules as soon as Genesis’s stories, then it can be considered that the woman is herself a conductor of troubles. They are still intriguing objects of studies, fascinating minds too long closed in restrictive rules. The proof of this restrictions were located in religion, that Religion, is a fundamental aspect of social involvement that carried the masses to a divergent opinion of women and their approach to life. It can be considered the only reason of the general inferiority context of women, but instead, it is not completely true. Probably most of the scenes in the Bible, showed women as messenger of hate and sin, women at fault of adultery or fatal attraction. Many studies performed on the woman, up to now, demonstrate how a set of triggering factors have shown the woman under various ideological aspects of minimum thickness and consequently under a lower level. The feminine anthropology is characterized by fear, restrictions, humiliations, but there were and there are women that opposed to this convention.

Before, women have always faced their lives dominated by their men. Their lives were marriage, motherhood, matriarchy, and home. The status of women has also changed under the fashion appearance. It is important to analyze the female change under the clothing point of view. Fashions have always been a mirror of society and show how even the smallest details can make the sociological difference. George Vigarello, the French historian and sociologist, in his book “Histoire de la beauté: Le corps et l’art d’embellir de la Renaissance à nos jours”, said that human beings are still subject of change and evolution. He explored the people’s mutation through decades and costumes analyzing beauty moistures, silhouette changes, clothes evolution. Made the example of the Renaissance, it can be noticed that women’s physiology was particularly rounded. It means that the face, pale and bright, was really large and like a circle. That was the result of a geometric analysis, such as Leonardo da Vinci developed in his drawings. This particular round shape of the face meant that woman had to represent an angelic beauty.

The women, who had this physical conformation and fulfilled the perfect geometric formulas, were just women and perfect to procreate. Until the Sixties, women’s role was that one of procreate. The fertility was the most important quality that women had to have to be respectful and respected. The task to be fecund, strictly related to the image, was one of the signals of submission. A woman can be untouchable, but had to fulfill to all the obligations of wife. That image of woman can be perfectly represented by woman-angel figure, performed first by Dante Alighieri. The woman was so beautiful and magical in his eyes, that he spent time and years to write about this typology of female figure, inspired by his beloved Beatrice. Is important to report the beautiful sonnet of Alighieri, “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare”, that describes the angelic woman, the one who is so beautiful and delicate to be increased to a state of apparent superiority:

“ Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
la donna mia, quand’ella altrui saluta,
ch’ogne lingua devèn, tremando, muta,
e li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare.

Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
benignamente d’umiltà vestuta,
e par che sia una cosa venuta
da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare. 

Mostrasi sì piacente a chi la mira
che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
che ‘ntender no la può chi no la prova;

e par che de la sua labbia si mova
un spirito soave pien d’amore,
che va dicendo a l’anima: Sospira.” [2]

The image of women was only superficial: she had to gratify men with the grace and beauty. The apparent superiority, it was only a condition for which she was not to be the master of anything, but only an object in the man’s hands.

Since the Middle Ages society, the female gender reached a special status: on one side they were at a very high level, for the great gallantry in which men turned to them; but on the other side, they were only an object of bliss, because they served for the purpose to please and inspire men. The status of women always goes worse over the following years. They tried to expand the limits, but they are often human beings full of mood swings and insignificant qualities. In his chapter “The sex of beauty”, George Vigarello, wrote that also during the XVI century, women were considered weak, cold and without imperfections. The skin should be perfect, pure, white and scented. He also refers to a particular characteristic about the female body: the so-called humors. He said that: ‘The moods differ bodies. But also the beauty, making the pretty fragile than ever.’ (Vigarello 2007) Then, according to him, the human body is classified on the basis of body fluids. It is really interesting to analyze this point of view. The reasons why women are so moody and sensitive, and consequently ignored and threatened by men, it is probably a cause for everything that is provoked by their physical characteristics. If we think about that, it is simple to reach the awareness for which women are more favorable to mood swings. This awareness, during the ancient times, was so strong to also create classifications based on the type of moods.

It bore so, stereotypes of beauty that characterized women along centuries.

It is useful to research and understand how human body, and especially human female body, reacts to problems. It is right to deal the famous theory of the “four Temperaments”: the concept of Humorism. Humorism, that derives from ancient Greek studies, properly from philosophers such as Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, is a condition that four bodily fluids affect human personality, traits and behaviors. For this reasons, there are four temperaments that constitute the human body: the sanguine, the choleric, the melancholic and the phlegmatic.[3] These four characteristics result in a classification of women based on their color, and their temper. In the XVI century women were classified into three different types: the blondes, the reds and the brunettes. All the different types differ each other on the bases of humors. The brunettes which humors were strong and warm were considered suitable to procreate. The brunette had all the characteristics of the perfect woman: the warm body, maternal and sensual instincts and greater humanity. Otherwise the blondes, with pale humors, were considered weak and without bravery. Blondes, unlike the beauty standards of ancient Greece, were not considered to be very attractive: with their cold colors, it may be assumed that their body and therefore their moods were detached and weak. The last category, and in my opinion the most important, is that of Red Women. While the reds, because of the flaming humors, were considered spoiled and wicked. This color, that is the color of the fire and the passion, is considered a symbol of evil. “The red one”, is still considered a woman of ambiguous and sensual features. The popular environment continued to generate prejudice against this type of woman that is embodied, for example, by Elizabeth Siddal, muse, model and wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Returning to the main topic, during the years and especially until the Renaissance, woman occupied a lower level differently from now. But in the XIV century, however, the habits changed in a totally different way: after the Classicism, the Nineteenth century bore as nostalgia of the irrational. The romance is the divergence between rationality and emotion, between logic and imagination. Everything that was considered perfect, as the women’s beauty, was subverted in favor of passions, feelings, and another side to look at life. Women were considered such an instrument to create and enrich a lineage. They should not study, but they were constantly educated to marriage. Since their childhood, little aristocratic girls, they were sent to a monastery, where they could improve their skills to be a perfect bride and mother in the castle. Giving birth and procreation will be, for years, symbol of the weakness and limit of the female sex. But which is the reason of this constant purpose of women in years and years of evolution? Simone de Beauvoir, French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist, in her book “The Second Sex” explains the different ages and characteristics of the woman, and especially in Chapter 6, speaks of motherhood as:

‘It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her “natural” vocation, since her whole organism is directed toward the perpetuation of the species.’[4]

Things change almost radically when, in the Nineteenth century, women acquired greater importance. The biggest change was in the costumes and mainly in fashion. Responsible of these changes was the Industrial Revolution: was the economic transformation beginning in northwestern Europe in, it appears, the 18th century, accelerating in the 19th century, and spreading worldwide – with many diversions for war and socialism – in the 20th (McCloskey 2008). It was an economic evolution process and industrialization of society, that from agricultural and craft-trade system, became a modern industrial system characterized by the general use of mechanical power driven machinery and technological innovation component. The Industrial Revolution, which reached its peak in Great Britain, radically changed the trade and the production of textiles and other consumer products. The first textile industries were created, with machine that could produce lots quantities of fabrics. Boutiques disappeared and were born the very first shopping malls, where, especially women could find consumer objects. It came to be created so the first approach to mass standardization, in which most of the population could make use of the same products. It might seem unusual to analyze an issue as the trend and the changes of fashion, but in this case it is essential to capture the enormous social change.

Romanticism had swept all the logic and rationality of the eighteenth century: the custom, after the Great Male Renunciation[5] (Wilson, 2008), had a lot of different roles men and women. The man had given up totally to makeup and the decorated clothing, to take a sober look rude and blackberries; women instead, with the abandonment of the corset, and the liberation of the figure, became more delicate and adopted the classical style. Hairs parted in the middle, steady and sad look pale: this was the woman of the early Nineteenth century. (Wilson, 2008) Thanks to this change, there was a great divergence between female and male characteristics, both in fashion and approaches. Romantic woman of the early Nineteenth century has an aura of delicacy and melancholy that might come by the moods of which we spoke earlier. Even the posture and gait are changed: there is no more aristocratic rigidity by the corset, but the walk becomes more harmonious and supple. In spite of the delicate appearance, women showed how its role in society, was increasing more and more. But which was their way to redemption?

First of all they began to educate their selves, then the children. In XIX century, women had the same instruction as men, but they couldn’t expose it so much. Anna Vertua Gentile, showed in her book in collaboration with Mara Antelling and Scipio Sighele, how much women nature and responsibilities changed during this century. The relationship with her husband, or the children changed in terms of intimacy, familiarity. The familiar relationships became softer, there were fewer reverences, and everything was more informal. Woman of XIX century was a figure of deep wisdom and strength. In those years a lot of women fight for their rights. One of the first appearances of feminism was introduced by the suffragette’s movement. This movement, born on the sly, became official in 1869 in the United Kingdom. The suffragist ideology epicenter was to be able to activate the right to vote to female population. One of the most prominent members of those years was definitely Millicent Fawcett, who founded the movement.

Later, after a short stop, Emmeline Pankhurst fierce activist revived the suffragist feminist movement. Pankhurts, in the 1903, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union – WSPU, to with the intention to grant the right to vote to women, that before it was always just the benefit of men. At the beginning of the movement, Mary Wollstonecraft, a major exponent of these times, wrote an important contribute to the new born fight called Feminism. In the book “A Vindication of the Right of Women”[6], Wollstonecraft, explained the differences between men and women, and talk about the last one as “my fellows”. The focus of the analysis was of course the female education: according to her view, women were not educated because are not beings that could worry about this. The only role to worry about was the one with the man, the husband, in the house and with the children. This can get us back to the previous remarks, that is that the main role of the woman is only ever been to look after the family and her husband. Their education, their ideas, did not make sense for others: their purpose was not to deal with anything outside the home and their beauty. Wollstonecraft wrote a profound analysis, frank, unrestrained, about the woman. For her, men and women are equal, and both must be able to enjoy the same education. The woman seen by the eyes of Mary Wollstonecraft, and by the eyes of all the suffragette feminists, is a woman who may have the same opportunities of man. She should not only think about the makeup, the jewellery, the beautiful clothes; she must be able to look towards a future of choices made by herself and an education worthy of her intellect. Suffragette’s fight is always a something actual and part of the new concept of women. The woman who fight for her rights of normal human being. In the era of changes, women fought also with others instruments. Developed in those years, the femme fatale, and a new figure of woman who charmed men but with evil consequences. This is another side of change in the Nineteenth century: women were smart, astute, but also witch. Daniela Baroncini, in the book “Artifici del piacere: moda e seduzione femminile nella letteratura contemporanea”, explored all the typologies of women in the eras and talked about the birth of a type of woman called Femme Fatale:

“ (…) occorre annoverare la trasformazione radicale della donna da angelo, moglie e madre in seduttrice, conquistatrice, dominatrice, scandalosa, persino perversa, anche se non necessariamente prostituta: in questo senso la femme fatale, malgrado le sue contraddizioni, rappresenta certamente un passaggio determinante verso l’emancipazione.” [7]

The first appearance of the femme fatale was founded with John Keats, in the ballad “La belle dame sans merci”, in 1819, then we can find it also in others writer as Gabriele D’Annunzio, Marcel Proust and more. Femme fatale was born in the opposition to the bourgeois: these women were unscrupulous, bewitching and provocative. And this contrary nature is a perfect match to the newest girl in the city. According to Baroncini, the leitmotiv of this kind of woman is the cruel voluptuousness. The cruel charm, seducer of the new woman in the Nineteenth century masks and intoxicates the high English class. The woman was so, a pleasure object for men, but does not fall into the trap of ignorant unconsciousness.

Doing a contraposition between the chastity of the perfect woman of this century and the bravery of the femme fatale, we can say that the first, obviously were human beings appreciated by popular support but incapable of their independence; while the other, were reputed vile, but strong enough not to be subjugated.

The femme fatale, can be considered a first approach to the emancipation, but without the instrument to become something to fight for. As said before, the one of the most important man who talked about femme fatale, and also of women as the major object of desire was Gabriele D’Annunzio. He is famous for his numerous flirt and his fetishistic approach to relationship with women. In his writings he showed the way he was dominating by them. His love for the female characters, it is shown to be as it caters to them, and how the compares. His fetish reaches its peak when, in “La cronachetta delle pellicce”, compares the sensual skin of the Roman matrons to warm and soft fur that becomes a habit for every woman. One of the most important expressions of femme fatale for D’Annunzio was the main character of his novel “Il Piacere”: Elena Muti. According to the website “Female World”[8], D’Annunzio was totally conditioned from the woman he created so:

‘The portrait of Elena Muti – Elena Muti today represents the figure of the emancipated woman, seductress, devoid of religion and modesty, enchantress of men and a symbol of ruin. (…) Opposed to the pure and spiritual Maria Ferres, the voluptuous character of the woman is put to the test on the other female type, educated and smart, family and religiosity lover.’

By the way the first emancipation of women was properly to subjugate men through their beauty and sensuality. Precisely transpose all the qualities that they have always been recognized for something to rebel against. The enormous changing of women during this century was the first step for the complete liberation and emancipation.

The anthropological evolution begun with the Nineteenth century, first with the disappear of the rigidity of the corset, and then with the education and participation of women in the society. In all the senses. Below, a number of women writers and women who somehow made the difference in the change and emancipation piece are analyzed.

  1. Gen. 3:16, New Living Translation, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+3&version=NLT
  2. Dante Alighieri, “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare”, 1290, translation by Italian Language Blog (http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/tanto-gentile-e-tanto-onesta-pare/)Translation: ‘So gentle and so dignified appears | my lady when she greets others,| that every trembling tongue becomes dumb, | and their eyes do not dare look upon her. | She walks on, hearing herself praised, | benignly clothed in humility; | and seems to be something arrived | from Heaven as a miracle on Earth.| She appears so pleasant to those who looks upon her, | and through her eyes a sweetness touches the heart, | which cannot be understood by those who feel it not: | and it seems that from her lips emanates a delicate spirit full of love, | that speaks to the soul: Sigh.’
  3. Alchimia Moderna: Un nuovo umanesimo per la surmodernità, http://www.alchimiamoderna.it/la-teoria-umorale-ippocrate-e-i-quattro-temperamenti-per-quattro-elementi/
  4. Simone de Beauvoir, “The second sex”. New York: Vintage Ebooks, 2011. ‘It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her “natural” vocation, since her whole organism is directed toward the perpetuation of the species .’ pp 597
  5. The Great Male Renunciation is the historical phenomenon at the end of the 18th century for menswear to stop using brilliant or refined forms, which were left to women’s clothing. It is considered a major turning point in the history of clothing in which the men relinquish their claim to adornment and beauty. Elizabeth Wilson in her book “Adorned in dreams”, explained that with the Great Male Renunciation, only women continued to use clothing as a form of exhibition.
  6. Mary Wollstonecraft, “Sui diritti delle donne”. Milano: I classici del pensiero libero, Corriere della Sera, RCS, 2010.
  7. Daniela Baroncini, “Artifici del piacere: moda e seduzione femminile nella letteratura contemporanea”. Carocci Editore, 2011, p.52.
  8. Susanna Panarese, Female World, “Il piacere di D’Annunzio:il ritratto di Elena Muti, femme fatale”, 2013, http://www.femaleworld.it/il-piacere-di-dannunzio-il-ritratto-di-elena-muti-femme-fatale/