It is in our creativity that we find the truth about ourselves. Research shows that there are links between reading fiction, for instance, and a better understanding of our lived experiences, our differences, but also what makes us the same regardless of race, class or gender. When we experience art through its various forms, we find ourselves in those experiences. More often than not, creativity speaks to collective humanity, our desires and naturally our fears. Yet, there are gendered specific fears that have plagued women in both historical and fictional realms.
I’m speaking of the fear of ill repute that has been used throughout history to justify the many ways by which women have been persecuted. Generally, in Portuguese history and fiction women have been relegated the status of objects, possessions, to be used as commodities through marriage; socially proscribed roles designed to maintain their value as virginal maids often left them isolated, silenced, invisible. Poor women, however, were additionally victimized, often hunted as prey.
Viewed as possessions, perhaps no one cared of their humanity? How can we so easily deem Canto IX of the Lusiads as a “reward” when the imagery reveals scenes of pillage and rape? Menina e Moça (1554) by Bernardim Ribeiro is certainly an exception; despite being written by a man, the work is unique in depicting the constant aggressions committed against women and the sadness of their suffering due to ill repute. Perhaps the most telling words in the novel as those from Lamentor who warns his daughter of the following dangers from women: “everything is suspect and nothing is secure for women, as saintly and virtuous they may be.” As the novel exposes and criticizes the attacks on women, it is no wonder that this work was forbidden by the Portuguese Inquisition.
In the many tales of the Portuguese 19th century classics, nothing has changed. Once considered of ill-repute, women are condemned to a life of prostitution, ruin, obscurity and even death. Who can forget the fate of Luiza in Cousin Bazilio and many others of Eça de Queiroz’s doomed heroines of “ill-repute”? In more recent times, women writers in particular have rescued women humanity by exposing, not the ill-reputed, but the ills of society, the double standard and the devastating consequences for women.
As our creativity often mirrors our lived experiences, I ask readers to consider if gendered fear persist even in our apparently modern and “enlighten” society? The shifts in the United States that started with the last presidency have prompted a renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, now viewed as a prophecy for current circumstances. More recent events reveal that a segment of society wishes to control women’s bodies. If women have no control over their bodies, then they become objects, commodities to be controlled. And worse yet is the assumption that women who have abortions are of ill repute. I would recommend that readers consider the abortion pastels of Paula Rego and the reasons why they continue to be relevant. Or perhaps readers could benefit from reading The Three Marias (1939) by Brazilian writer Rachel de Queiroz who, despite never uttering the word, had to nerve to expose the ill repute of a society, not of women.
I challenge readers further: to think critically of the conversations around them and how they themselves treat women in our community.
Do we attribute ill repute to men? Or do we continue to use it as a gendered-based fear designed to denigrate women and keep them in their place? If so, nothing has changed in centuries and Lamentor’s words remain: “everything is suspect and nothing is secure for women, as saintly and virtuous they may be.”