The imagery of women at the turn of the century, part II


Khnopff The Caress
RE: my post on the imagery of women in the 19th century. Considering the ideal was so unrealistic it’s only natural that a countermovement uprooted. This marks the first wave of feminism. Contrary to now, the bigger part of the first feminist movement believed women were asexual. Christabel Packhurst, the sufragette leader, said: “woman is physically complete without sex; she’s needed for the man, but he isn’t needed for her”. It seems ludicrous now but Packhurst believed woman would eventually rule man because of this. Luckily there were still voices of reason, though sadly in a smaller movement of feminism, who believed in complete equality. I absolutely love this quote of Olive Schreiner on this topic: “My main point is this: human development has now reached a point at which sexual difference has become a thing of altogether minor importance. We make too much of it; we are men and women in the second place, human beings in the first.”

Because of this uproar in independent women, theories began to spring to prove female inferiority. Carl Vogt proved this with a pseudo-science: Craniometry. Craniometry measured people’s intelligence with the size of their skull. Women have a smaller skull and are therefore less intelligent. It’s astounding to think how much of this myth is still alive in people’s minds. Just under a year ago I had this thrown at me in a (admittedly, drunken) discussion of female and male intelligence. Obviously, this is completely false but people in the 19th century just assumed this without questioning. The great Darwin took this as truth too and in his Descent of Man he used this as an argument to prove the infamous inferiority of women. Darwin believed women didn’t evolve as much as men from their childhood and are therefore closer to nature and consequently closer to humankind’s animal descent. Considering the influence Darwin had with his Origin of Species you can only imagine the influence of this theory. Alongside of Darwin’s misogynist pseudo-science many, many more theories began to spring until women were eventually seen as animal-like and even seen as degenerative. Women and female characteristics were soon linked with the downfall of society.

The fine arts were the most obvious in bringing forward these theories and you could soon see a rise of women as animals, women dancing madly naked in nature, women trapped in their own reflection and of course the countless Salomé’s and Judith’s who were hungry for the death of mankind. Some examples which I’ll discuss later on a little more in-depth:


Desvallières Salomé

Dicksee The Mirror