A century on from the Suffragettes and almost half-a-century on from the second wave of feminism that proved so problematic for the brassiere industry, one would have imagined womanhood had progressed way beyond two archetypes that had long defined the female sex in the popular male imagination.
One was the Virgin Mary, revered as the ideal role model of womanhood throughout Christendom for centuries, even if she was always a tricky act for any earthbound woman to emulate, especially the whole Immaculate Conception bit. Images of Our Lord’s Old Mum as a visual mentor were as visible and potent a presence in Medieval England as images of Mao still are in China today, gazing down on the sinful with intimidating benevolence. Even when the Reformation viewed Catholic Iconography with the same bilious contempt as Johnny Rotten would have viewed a Yes LP in his 1976 Christmas stocking, and portraits of Mary herself were rebranded as Popish propaganda, that saintly, virtuous vision of pious purity with her babe-in-arms remained an idealised example of a woman’s ultimate ambition
The second archetype was the Damsel-in-Distress, stretching back to the romance of courtly love and immortalised in dozens of oral fairy-tales and nursery rhymes thereafter; she proved especially popular in Victorian literature, not to mention highly prescient due to the tightness of the bodice making real-life women prone to fainting and swooning while their unencumbered chaps maintained an unflappable upright stance. Unsurprisingly perceived as weak and feeble, the damsel was enshrined as the guilty party by the early feminists, the embodiment of the child-women dependent on a man coming to the rescue. Mind you, she had legal status too, passed on as a possession from the father to the husband, so it’s no wonder she was set in stone for so many decades.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and both women have unexpectedly resurfaced, even if they have received a secular and social makeover. The Virgin Mary is now the celebrity mother emblazoned on the front cover of ‘Hello’ or ‘OK!’ magazine, whereas the Damsel-in-Distress is now labouring under the misapprehension that she is a ‘feminist’, oblivious to the irony that her concept of feminism is essentially playing the part of the shrinking violet that enraged the Suffragette generation.
Pressure on a young woman to have children would, until fairly recently, largely emanate from her mother, but the rapid growth of mainstream (not to mention social) media has facilitated the need for faces to fill the endless hours of a medium that never sleeps, many of whom are essentially lifestyle gurus. First came the celebrity wedding; Posh & Becks have a lot to answer for. A wedding was always a big day out, but there were traditions and rituals adhered to that drew a distinct line between your average nuptials and that of the showbiz set, who tended to go a little overboard and regarded the ceremony as a mini-movie, with tacky sets and costumes to match. Since the elevation of Ordinary Joe and Ordinary Josephine to the status of the rich and famous, however, every engaged couple seem to believe they are entitled to their very own orgy of excess that mirrors whichever wedding is the toast of cyberspace this week. Churches or registry offices are no longer good enough; what about a hotel or the grounds of a stately home? Today, the event has to be planned like the staging of the Olympics, even if the bouncy castles that pass for wedding dresses render it closer to an edition of ‘Jeux Sans Frontiers’.
Next on the list is the baby. The traditional route for the child-woman is reinforced by a fresh influx of fashion-accessory brats whose yummy mummies promote with a witless pretentiousness that regards the bringing up of baby as a sacrificial duty to which the mother must be devoted as though joining an especially strict religious order. Everything else – career, friends, outside interests, even partner – are now incidental to the monumental mission that will define her for the next eighteen years. On every daytime TV chinwag, newspaper and magazine, the message radiates outwards to the women of the world: This is what you are here for. And, of course, breast is best. Woe betides the mother brandishing a bottle. Indeed, woe betides the woman who can’t have or (even worse) doesn’t actually want children. She has already lost so many friends to the baby bore’s brigade and yet the immense weight of the professional mother and child business is telling her she will never be a whole woman without the infant appendage; she will always be incomplete.
As for the Damsel-in-Distress, she has re-emerged cloaked in a bizarre interpretation of an ideology that was originally intended to render her redundant. When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792, she was mocked and reviled, labelled ‘a hyena in petticoats’ for daring to suggest that women were essentially trained to never mentally mature once they reach puberty; when militant Suffragettes suffered barbaric force-feeding in prison, they were released as physical wrecks and proceeded to engage in further lawless activities that would guarantee a return to that from which they had just staggered away. All were viewed as a gross inversion of femininity for deviating from the accepted norm and all had a cause they regarded as more important to what a woman could amount to than falling at the feet of a man who would save them.
Today, their alleged heirs start Twitter campaigns and Facebook petitions to engineer the dismissal and downfall of a public figure who has the nerve to air an opinion contrary to theirs; they react to any innocuous and well-meaning compliment on their appearance as though Peter Sutcliffe has waved his hammer at them; they elevate an unwarranted grope that could be rectified with a slap and a torrent of four-letter words so that it is on a par with rape, belittling the act of actual rape in the process. They don’t focus on the big issue or the wider picture as their predecessors did, they devote their energies to the trivial niggle and the minor gripe, but their platform is one that magnifies the trivial niggle and the minor gripe so that it takes on the appearance and gravitas of the big issue and the wider picture. Twitter is a virtual housing estate in which two housewives gossip about nothing more important than ‘her at No.7’; but Mrs Smith and Mrs Jones believe they have a right to be heard throughout the neighbourhood and are convinced their opinion is the general consensus. By overreacting to the mildly offensive with a squeal and a scream, and not concentrating on the genuinely offensive with the balls and gumption that feminism used to equate with, they are regressing back to the weak and feeble woman of old whilst desperately looking for something to vindicate the label they have pilfered and perverted. Perhaps they should consider carrying a bottle of smelling-salts in their handbags just in case a man they pass on the street smiles at them. Is this really what Emily Davison died for?
Both the new Virgin Mary and the new Damsel-in-Distress would not recognise their reincarnation; their self-portrait would be one of independent women, sisters doing it for themselves. They are oblivious to the fact that they are enacting roles as restrictive and repressive as those their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought and struggled to free themselves from, and this utter absence of self-awareness is crucial. Nothing wrong with having a baby if that’s what you want; nothing wrong with equality between the sexes; but making one’s baby one’s business and running away in tears if a stranger tells you that you look good today is not progress. It is a second and permanent childhood.