Shakespeare's wife

Most of you will know Ann Hathaway, whether it be from a biography of Shakespeare, from education, popular literature or the internet. The image most people have of her is based on a few facts. When they married, for example, William was eighteen while Ann was twenty-six and several months pregnant. In his will, William left Ann his second-best bed. In the words of Germaine Greer, she “left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Wife convincingly shows how biographers have filled this void with their own ideas of what Shakespeare’s wife would have been like. In the popular imagination, she or her parents and friends forced the young Shakespeare to marry her after a roll in the hay at Shottery. A few years later, Shakespeare escaped to London and led a wild life among the brothels in Southwark. Here, for example, is a quotation from the page on Ann’s life on the website of Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare:

At 26, Anne knew the way of the world while William was still a troubled youth, unsure of his path and coping with the collapse of his father’s businesses and the uncertainty of the times. After William turned 21, there would be no more children for Anne and him. There would instead be long absences as William later toured the country and set up home amongst the theatrical community in London. There would be extramarital affairs and head-turning passions for the poet, and he would encounter much more of the world than Anne in rural Warwickshire ever could.

The great thing about Germaine Greer’s biography of Ann Hathaway is that she challenges the representations of Ann that are commonly taken for granted, even (or perhaps especially) among academics. In a podcast she says that it was her reading of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography Will in the World that made her want to write this book, but her biography includes revealing quotations from many other works besides Greenblatt’s.

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The secret history of emotion

In an earlier post I wrote about (and disagreed with) Neil Forsyth’s view of revenge as a universal human emotion. I think that, although the urge to retaliate may be found in many cultures, and reciprocity is seen as the basis of our social organization by sociobiologists like Matt Ridley, ways of thinking about revenge, the rhetoric and images of revenge, reasons for taking and ways of executing revenge are so much culturally and historically specific, that vindictiveness just cannot be seen as a universal emotion, because emotions are so culturally specific. I will write a longer post on this issue sometime, but I just found an ally in Daniel M. Gross’s The Secret History of Emotion (2006), a book in which early modern conceptions of the passions play a central role in the argument for cultural specificity rather than universality of the emotions.

The Secret History of Emotion pits itself against an essential biological (psycho-physiological) interpretation of the emotions by presenting a fascinating rhetorical history. One of Daniel Gross’s recurrent sparring partners in the book is Antonio Damasio, a neurobiologist and author of several best-selling books on emotions and the mind. His main objection to scientific analysis of the emotions is that it often reduces or neglects social phenomena in order to be able to conduct the experiment. Continue reading

Wiser: Women in Science, Education and Research

In the Netherlands women are underrepresented (to put it mildly) in the higher strata of academia. Of all full professors in my country, only 10 percent are women. No kidding.

According to this AAUP report, 24 percent of full professors in America were women in 2006. In a European context, 10 percent is also a low score.

Below is an overview of women on university boards, women occupying the position of dean, and female academic directors of research schools in 2006 (click on the link below for a pdf version of the chart).

WISER: more Women in Science, Education and Research, aims to improve matters with a positive approach during a two-day festival in Maastricht this week:

There are more than enough qualified women to take on key positions in science, education and research. If only those women and the academic and research institutions would recognise the opportunities for female talent. It is time to get WISER.

WISER is a two-day European festival for scientists, students, decision and policy makers, politicians, HR professionals and gender specialists. It aims to put female scientists in the spotlight and prime female academics to reach for the highest.

The gender of reading (3)

I wrote two posts on the gender of reading last year (1, 2). My parents, who revealed that they read my blog (hello mum and dad!), gave me the Dutch translation of Stefan Bollmann’s Frauen, die Lesen, sind Gefährlich (Women who read are dangerous, translated into English as Reading Women) as a present at my post-PhD defense party last June. It was accompanied by a hilarious presentation involving photos of me as a dangerous child perpetually engrossed in books, but I won’t go into that here…

The book is wonderful, and I learned a lot from it. I would just like to return to one of the paintings I included in an earlier post, because I know more about it now than I did before. This is Pieter Janssens Elinga’s Reading Woman (c. 1670):

I used it in that earlier post as one of the examples of Jolande Withuis’ theory that a woman who is reading is concentrated in an intimate personal sphere, and gains a view to another world. I think I saw this reading woman as empowered. Now, Bollmann’s book has revealed to me which world it is that this woman is absorbed in. Apparently, if you get close enough to the painting, you can just read the pages. She is reading a book called Een schoone historie van den Ridder Malegys, die het vervaarlyk paard Ros beyaard wan: en die veel wonderlyke en avontuerlyke dingen bedreef. It is a Middle Dutch chivalric romance about a knight called Malegys, who ‘did many wonderful and adventurous things’, a prose translation of a thirteenth-century French romance, Maugis d’Aigremont.

The reading woman in this picture is a maid. She should probably be cleaning the room she is in. Her mistress’ luxurious red shoes are still standing where she left them the evening before. Instead, this maid makes use of the penetrating sunlight to indulge in the adventures of knight Malegys. Romances, of course, were often associated with a female readership in the early modern period. Helen Hackett in her Women and Romance fiction in the Seventeenth Century describes a stereotypical example:

A chambermaid in the 1615 edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters ‘reads Greenes workes over and over [Robert Greene was one of the well-read romance authors in the period] but is so carried away with the Myrrour of Knighthood, she is many times resolv’d to run out of her selfe, and become a Ladie Errant.’

It was not unusual for Dutch maids to be able to read, although they could not write. Literacy in The Netherlands apparently was the highest in Europe in the early modern period, due to the influence of Protestantism. The book might belong to her mistress; perhaps the maid saw it lying about when she came in with the bowl of fruit that is now dangerously perched on the chair’s leather cushion.

Whereas I first saw this reading woman as empowered, because concentrated in her own world, I now read the painting differently. The historical context, and the clue in the pages of the book she is reading, point to a disapproval of the reading maid, who is wasting her time in fantasy, whereas she should be working. The two views are two sides of the same coin, however.

In an interesting article titled ‘Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers,’ James Conlon argues that any reading woman poses a threat to patriarchal culture. ‘The book takes her out of the conventional world of male dominance and places her in a textual world where pleasure and wisdom are, literally, in her own hands.’ (40) Therefore, he argues, a male painter portraying such a reading woman will always want to assert his presence, to affirm his dominion. The painter controls the sight of the female subject he portrays. Elinga’s painting could be read in this light as well: the woman is sitting with her back to us: she is unaware of us, or the painter, watching her read. Moreover, by hinting at her sloth (the shoes and the fruit), the painter controls the female lust for reading by imposing a moral judgement on it. Is it so, then, that female reading is empowering, and that this is precisely what causes the urge to control it?

Another interesting article, Stephan Schindler’s ‘Male Fantasies of Female Reading in Eighteenth-Century Germany’ agrees with this idea that a reading woman was historically perceived a threat to patriarchy. He describes how in eighteenth-century Germany, literary critics, philosophers, pedagogues and doctors were obsessed with the regulation of female reading. Central in their obsession was the notion that women’s experience of reading might be sexual in nature. Schindler provides a fascinating quotation from the Hannoverisches Magazin (1789). It illustrates how female enjoyment of the text was feared to be as ‘real’ as sexual enjoyment:

Through the powers of her imagination she creates an image with which she goes to bed at night and with which she wakes up in the morning. Is this self-produced image not as dangerous and not as harmful as the secret lover himself?

His article shows how all kinds of professionals sought to pathologize this female reading mania (Lesewut or Lesesucht in German), in order to cure these women and to eliminate the threat posed by female desire. Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s painting (1760) printed in Frauen die Lesen shows a woman who suffers from such Lesesucht: she has fallen into an ecstatic swoon while reading a novel (Boll even suggests that her other hand might be under her skirt).

Interestingly, James Conlon in his article also discusses paintings which in his view do not seek to control or dominate the reading woman depicted. Examples are Edward Hopper’s Interior (Model Reading) and the paintings of women reading by Mary Cassatt (one of whom reads Le Figaro rather than a novel). These paintings, in his view, do not play to male fantasies, but depict reading women as subjects in their own right.

Read more? Here are some tips:

  • James Conlon, “Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26.2 (2005) 37-58.
  • Stephan K. Schindler, “The Critic as Pornographer: Male Fantasies of Female Reading in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Life 20.3 (1996) 66-80.
  • Silke Schlichtmann, Ilze Klavina Mueller, “Did Women Really Read Differently? A Historical-Empirical Contribution to Gender-Oriented Reading Research,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, 20 (2004), pp. 198-214.
  • Edith Snook, Women, Reading, and the Cultural Politics of Early Modern England ( Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005).
  • Carol Ricker-Wilson, “Busting Textual Bodices: Gender, Reading, and the Popular Romance,” English Journal, 88:3 (1999), pp. 57-63.
  • Martin Hall, “Gender and Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Bibliothèque Universelle des Romans,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 14:3-4 (2002 Apr-July), pp. 771-89.
  • Pamela L. Caughie, “Women Reading/Reading Women: A Review of Some Recent Books on Gender and Reading,” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, 24:3 (1988 Summer), pp. 317-335.
  • Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986).
  • And: the Dutch Boekgrrls have a great online gallery of reading women in the arts.

Remaining stupid

This cartoon adorns the web page of the UvA Onderwijsconferentie – a conference on university education at the University of Amsterdam. Below the image, the words: “Surely, you wouldn’t want to remain stupid, would you?” It’s left up to your imagination to figure out how the female student is supposed to cure her stupidity. I hope you share my amazement at the fact that this cartoon is to be found on a university website – a website devoted to the relation between students and teachers at that.

I hope so, because here in The Netherlands, it does not seem to bother the persons in charge. Complaints have been filed about the sexist character of the cartoon, but the image is still online. It will remain here until Monday 16th October, the day of the conference, I guess.
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The gender of reading

In the Dutch feminist magazine Opzij, sociologist and columnist Jolande Withuis this month writes about the gender of reading.

Jolande Withuis remarks that men who are depicted with books often do not read their books, but self-consciously look at us, or stare into the distance. We often know who they are, because their books are symbols of their learnedness, pen and paper are the paraphernalia of class and status. I have privately had this little theory of gendered representations of reading for years, and whenever I visit a museum, I test it against the paintings exhibited. I found that there are some paintings of men reading. Often, they are depictions of Saint Hieronymus in his study, or of men who are in a profession that involves reading. Women with books in paintings are often anonymous, and are engaged in the act of reading, absorbed in a book or letter. Withuis sees these reading women as emancipatory: a woman who reads, gains a view of another world; she discovers other possible ways of living. Also, a reading woman who is concentrated in her intimate personal sphere of reading, whether she sits in a private environment or in a busy public space, is not engaged in household chores or cooking — a reading woman is her own.


Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-c. 1685), Reading Woman

Mary Cassatt, Young Woman Reading (1876)

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Man with Book, before 1437

Photo portrait of a man with book

This small selection of images confirms Withuis’ hypothesis, because I handpicked them from the internet. But while Googling for images of readers, I noticed something. In Google, a search for “woman reading”: renders 6170 results, while “man reading” leads to 5770 hits. There’s a slightly higher percentage of women reading marked as such on the internet. What about the ways in which these reading people are portrayed?

In order to avoid subjective selection, let’s consider only the first page of images of each search, selected by Google. In the “man reading” page, all twenty men are actually absorbed in reading — none of them is looking up at the photographer, painter, or sculptor. Seven of the twenty men are reading a newspaper, eight a book, two a letter, two a scroll, and one man is engrossed in a fax. Now you might object that a search for reading men will indeed render reading men, but the surprising thing is that results are different for a Google search on reading women.

In the “woman reading” page, two women are reading a letter, one woman a report and another a newspaper, while the others are reading books. Surprisingly after the search results of the men’s page, two of the twenty women are pictured with books, but are not reading. This woman on the website of Bath Spa University, for example, looks into the camera:

On another point, however, gender roles do seem to be confirmed in these images. Among the first page of reading men, only two men are reading in what is recognisable as a private environment — at a kitchen table and seated in a chair at home. The other men are all in public environments, such as a park, a café, a museum, or a hospital. Among the women reading, two are in the park, one is in a busy street, and the woman at Bath Spa University seems to be in a library. The other women are in more private places: either inside a house, in an undefined space, or in natural scenery. A sculpture of a reading woman adorns a space that is hard to qualify: is a tomb a public monument, or a most private place?

A small and utterly unrepresentative sample of reading men and women, then, renders more men actually involved in the act of reading than women. What happens if I were not to ask for images that portray people reading, but instead searched for men/women with books?

“Man with book” yields 166 results; “woman with book”, 432. Are they reading?

On the first results page of the “man with book” search, only eight out of twenty men are reading. The others are speaking from a lectern, looking at the camera or away from the book, and some have the book closed. Two of the twenty images feature neither man nor book.

On the first page of the “woman with book” search, even fewer people are reading: only five out of twenty women look into their books! I have to admit that this is partly caused by repeated appearances of Picasso’s woman with a book, who is not reading, but there are many others as well.

The results are intriguing. Are women on the internet less capable of creating a room of their own by intimate and concentrated acts of reading? Does the internet have a preference for women who look their viewers in the eye? Is this to do with a difference between the media of painting and photography (after all, Withuis speaks only of paintings)? Or are well-read women — like the student at Bath Spa University — simply conscious of their books as symbols of knowledge?

See also:

Historical gender representations

Today I met professor Nicole Pellegrin from France, who has just been inaugurated as the new “Belle van Zuylen” (or Isabelle de Charrières)-professor at Utrecht University, and who focuses in her research on representations of femininity in word and image. She showed me the website of a virtual exhibition she worked on at the University of Angers in France, which is devoted to historical representations of masculinity and femininity.

The site is in French, has been produced with fantastic attention to detail and to the possibilities of the virtual medium. It contains wonderful material on representations of Jeanne d’Arc (researched by Nicole Pellegrin), on gender and football, women in colonialist postcards, and historical women dressing like men, to name but a few subjects. The illustration I copied from the site (© BM Rouen) is from a paper doll game, in which children can dress Jeanne d’Arc either as a (feminine) shepherdess or as a (masculine) warrior.

The gender of child care

In the context of an international project on child care, the Dutch family council recently published a report in which they expressed their concern over the fact that in Dutch families, the emancipation process seems to stagger to a halt as soon as a family has children. Child care is still mainly considered the mother’s task, it concludes, and it is therefore usually the mother who holds a parttime job, rather than the father. One of the solutions offered by the council is to offer men a longer paternity leave, so that parents can share the experience of child care from the very beginning – and once men get used to it, they will want to share in the care also after their leave. Also, the government should start a TV-campaign to change the attitudes of boys and young men towards childcare, the council writes.

Now, the Dutch government is to introduce a new scheme next year, entitled the course of life scheme, in which employees can set aside parts of their gross salary in order to take longer periods of time off from work: for child care, to care for an elderly family member, or to have a sabattical year off. This would seem the perfect opportunity for young fathers to get more involved in the care for their child. Yet, the first TV-commercial I have seen about the scheme seems to confirm traditional gender roles, rather than to support the family council in their plans. Continue reading