Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not have the same education. In following the directions of nature they must act together but they should not do the same things; their duties have a common end, but the duties themselves are different and consequently also the tastes that direct them. After having tried to form the natural man, let us also see, in order not to leave our work incomplete, how the woman is to be formed who suits this man. ( Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Emile”)

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book to prove that her sex was as intelligent as the other. Thus did feminism take its first tentative steps. Her manifesto was an achievement of real originality and was based on the apparently obvious and self-evident premise : “I wish to see women neither heroines or brutes; but reasonable creatures.” Three hundred plus years later, we are still hung up on an interpretation of the word “reasonable”….

"But what if a woman decides she doesn’t want to be beautifully passive, emotionally silly and in need of rescuing? What if she decides she doesn’t want to be as delicate as Belle tending to the Beast, or as conventionally beautiful as numerous women’s magazines suggest she should? What if she wants to express anger, creativity, and intelligence? She must actively construct an alternative identity, while still recognised as a valid member of society. Read more at Suite101: Alternative Femininity for Goths: Are Goth Women Feminists?

…All the faculties common to the two sexes are not equally divided; but taken as a whole, they offset one another. Woman is worth more as a woman and less as a man; wherever she makes her rights valued, she has the advantage; wherever she wishes to usurp ours, she remains inferior to us. One can only respond to this general truth by citing exceptions in the usual manner of the gallant partisans of the fair sex.

So much for for the equality and egalitarian principles alluded to in the French Revolution. In 1792, and later, a woman could not own property, nor keep any earned wages. All she possessed belonged to her husband, including her body. She had no recourse to divorce, but he could divorce and have custody of her children. There was was no legal or constitutional protection to safeguard her from not growing up  illiterate or beaten every day. Such was the legal and moral climate in which Mary Wollstonecraft lived.

"Feminist icon: Annie Oakley was a famous teenage Victorian sharpshooter who saved her family farm, was respected by Native Americans and (weirdly) didn't believe women should have the vote. Annie Oakley, we salute you. Except for the last bit. by Shanna Dear Annie Oakley, You were America's gun-tootin little sweetheart and a classic female American superstar. You took chances and you excelled as a woman in what is considered a man's world. You blurred the lines between what a proper Victorian lady should and shouldn't be - and you did it all with style. Love Mookychick xxx"

Mary’s voyage to first feminist on an allegorical moon, was not a straightforward and linear progression. Mary had to hold her household together and forfeited her childhood. Her father, a once prosperous weaver, squandered his inheritance and became an abusive, wife and child beating alcoholic. The experience left Mary with an everlasting gloomy streak , and was a strong factor in the making of her reformist views.

Mary conformed very little to the hateful stereotype that has been constructed about feminists. Having spent her childhood as an adult, Mary reached the age of nineteen is a state of complete joylessness. She was later to quit the role, but at that age, she wore the garb of a martyr. Her early twenties were spent in this elderly frame of mind. First she went out as companion to an old lady living at Bath, then nursed her dying mother. She started a primary school with her dearest friend, Fanny Blood, who then married, moved to Lisbon and died during childbirth. When Mary returned to the school, her flourishing little project had been run into the ground by her sisters, who stole everything they could grasp. Mary made up her mind to die. “My constitution is impaired, I hope I shan’t live long,” she wrote to a friend.

"I would like to see every woman know how to handle firearms as naturally as they know how to handle babies" ( Annie Oakley )

One positive fallout from her brief and fleeting success as a schoolmistress was the acquaintance of  Joseph Johnson, and intelligent and successful London publisher in search of new writers. Debt laden and penniless, Mary set aside her impaired constitution and wrote her first book, probably in the space of a week. Johnson bought it for ten guineas and published it under the name “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”; it went unnoticed, Mary spent the money, and compelled to find work she became a governess on the house of Lord and lady Kingsborough in the north of Ireland.

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"Vanessa Beecroft is one of those people who uses gallery spaces to challenge comfort levels. She also kind of plays off the notion of what should be expecting when they go to the gallery. Should they be entertained? Should the pieces inside the gallery be intriguing or should could they just be itself without entertaining anyone?"

Here, she worked on a novel, “Mary, a Fiction” , which was a sort of literary fantasy of a twenty-seven year old undertaking the scribbling concoctions of what a thirteen year old might secretly cook up. Mary was embarking on her adolescence, with all its daydreams, fifteen years after the usual date. The following year she lost her post and set off for London with her novel. Not only did Johnson accept it for publication, he offered her a regular job as editor and translator and helped her find a place to live.

The Toilet of Venus. Velasquez. ""The destruction wrought in the seven months of 1914 before the War excelled that of the previous year. Three Scotch castles were destroyed by fire on a single night. The Carnegie Library in Birmingham was burnt. The Rokeby Venus, falsly, as I consider, attributed to Velázquez, and purchased for the National Gallery at a cost of £45,000, was mutilated by Mary Richardson. Romney's Master Thornhill, in the Birmingham Art Gallery, was slashed by Bertha Ryland, daughter of an early Suffagist. Carlyle's portrait of Millais..."

Finally, at age twenty-eight, Mary put aside her doleful persona as the martyred, set-upon elder sister. She finally discovered the sweetness of financial independence earned by interesting work. She had her own apartment. She was often invited to Mr. Johnson’s dinner parties, usually as the only female guest among all the most interesting men in London: Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, Henry Fuseli, William Blake, William Godwin; all of them up and comers bound together by left-wing political views.  …

Sarah Lucas. "...In the context of Lucas’ oeuvre melon breasts appear as an extremely literal translation of the tabloid newspaper verbal pun ‘she’s got tits like melons’ and the final deconstruction of gender offered by the bristly bottle brush curled up over underpants. In Bunny Gets Snookered,1997, a mock snooker hall is populated by Lucas’ signature ‘nudes’ modeled cleverly on Picasso’s post-cubist distortions of the female figure but also punning upon the ‘master’s’ ability to create representations out of ordinary materials (the famous bull’s head constructed out of bicycle seat and handlebars)."

Women, for their part, are always complaining that we raise them only to be vain and coquettish, that we keep them amused with trifles so that we may more easily remain their masters; they blame us for the faults we attribute to them. What stupidity! And since when is it men who concern themselves with the education of girls? Who is preventing the mothers from raising them as they please? There are no schools for girls—what a tragedy! Would God, there were none for boys! They would be raised more sensibly and more straightforwardly. Is anyone forcing your daughters to waste their time on foolish trifles? Are they forced against their will to spend half their lives on their appearance, following your example? Are you prevented from instructing them, or having them instructed according to your wishes? Is it our fault if they please us when they are beautiful, if their airs and graces seduce us, if the art they learn from you attracts and flatters us, if we like to see them tastefully attired, if we let them display at leisure the weapons with which they subjugate us? Well then, decide to raise them like men; the men will gladly agree; the more women want to resemble them, the less women will govern them, and then men will truly be the masters.( Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Emile”)

"The potency behind what might appear at first sight to be pure playfulness is evident in her colour photograph of a filthy toilet with ‘is suicide genetic?’ neatly printed in brown letters on the inner bowl. Following Lucas’ obsession with sexual punning one can read the toilet bowl as a vulva and vagina, a filthy dirty one leading to decay rather than to new life. This reference is reinforced by another photograph in which she sits naked on a toilet holding a black plastic toilet cistern. In this photograph the woman becomes one with the toilet. Associations between sexuality and filth do not end with Lucas they are widespread. But scatology not only involves repulsion it also embraces a fascination with filth and putrescence. From a psychoanalytical point of view, at the level of a regressive polymorphous perversity the repulsive becomes attractive, the inside of the body becomes at one with the outside. Is Suicide Genetic also plays on the related theme of death which has a similar attractive-repulsive fascination..."

…Moreover, Mary was successful in her own writing as well as in editorial work. Her “Original Stories for Children” went into three editions and was illustrated by Blake. Still, lest anyone imagine an elegantly dressed Mary presiding flirtatiously around Johnson’s dinner table… her social accomplishments were rather behind her professional ones. Johnson’s circle looked upon her as one of the boys. One of her later detractors reported that she was at this time a “philosophic sloven,” in a dreadful old dress and beaver hat, “with her hair hanging lank about her shoulders.”

Mary had yet to arrive at her final incarnation, but the new identity was imminent, if achieved by an odd route. Edmund Burke had recently published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, and the book had enraged Mary. The statesman who so readily supported the quest for liberty in the American colonies had his doubts about events in France.

Mary’s reply to Burke, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men”, astounded London, partly because she was hitherto unknown, partly because it was good. Mary proved to be an excellent polemicist, and she had written in anger. She accused Burke, the erstwhile champion of liberty, of being ” the champion of property.” “Man preys on man,” said she, “and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer.”

The book sold well. Mary moved into a better apartment and bought some pretty dresses; no farthingales of course, but some of the revolutionary new “classical” gowns. She put her auburn hair up in a loose knot. Her days as a philosophic sloven were over….

“In order to understand our present economy and change it for the better we need a new perspective, which spans the distance between epistemology and activism, the market and gender. The hypothesis of this paper is that such a perspective may be founded on the practice of gift-giving and receiving, viewed as an extension of mothering. Gift-giving has been hidden by patriarchy and the market, both of which are social constructions based channeling hidden gifts towards themselves. This paper attempts to sketch the ways in which gift giving forms the basis of communication, especially verbal communication, and it looks at the market as distorted material communication. Not just the market but exchange itself is identified as deeply problematic. In order to facilitate social transformation, gift giving rather than exchange must be brought forward as the mode of the human. An attempt is made to look at exchange as deriving from naming transferred back from the verbal to the material plane to mediate between the not-gifts of private property. This ‘incarnation’ of naming has a decided effect on our ways of interpreting the world, causing us to validate categorization and substitution while devaluing nurturing and its values. In our semiotic, philosophical and economic investigations we need to correct for this distortion in our perspectives. Restoring the value of gift giving for the interpretation of the world, signs, and the market is a first step in a re-visioning which will allow us to achieve another possible world.

Global Patriarchal Capitalism is not just a sui generis economic fact. It is a perverse self-perpetuating system of values and (mis)conceptions which is made up of institutions and of individual human beings who are thinking and acting individually and collectively to carry out artificial agendas based on the social construction of gender.” Feminist Semiotics for Social Change: the Mother or the Market
by Genevieve Vaughan
First published in “Mimesis,” 2004.

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