(oil on canvas)
Burned as witches, sold into slavery, forced to join monasteries, using their feminine charms to amount to something… Women… Nowadays it’s in vogue to see ourselves as perpetual victims.
I guess I was lucky. Growing up nobody told me that women used to get the short end of the stick for the better part of human history. Although I was lectured (‘prepared’ as she would call it) by my grandma on the future horrors that awaited me as a woman. One was having to go through childbirth, the other was plaguing eyebrows. Consequently I waited a long time to attempt both.
The formal education in the Soviet schools was hardly informative about the role of women in history. They were hardly mentioned unless they were steelworkers, revolutionaries, cosmonauts, partisans during the World War II who got tortured by the Nazis or all of the above.
In school we were mostly taught about the haves and have-nots. Any gender inequality issues rarely came up unless they were used as examples in support of the October Revolution. It was explained to us that historically if you weren’t a wealthy nobleman your chances of moving up in life from your socio-economic position were slim to none regardless of your gender. As a consequence, my understanding of the roles women had played in the past was shaped by what I had to discover for myself.
One of the first women I remember reading about was Cleopatra, a mighty female pharaoh of the Egyptians. I was amazed to learn she was both Julius Caesar’s as well as Mark Anthony’s lover. She played them both like a fiddle and if one forgets her tragic end it all seems pretty impressive.
I also vividly remember reading Andre Maurois’s biography of George Sand, after I gobbled up “Consuelo” and barely made it though “La Comtesse de Rudolstadt” at the tender age of nine. I was fascinated by Sand! She wore men’s clothes, was Chopin’s lover, and had numerous affairs scandalizing her contemporaries in the 19th century France. What’s not to be fascinated by, right?
As a Ukrainian child I also learned about Roxolana, a poor Ukrainian girl sold as a slave to a harem who managed to become an official wife of the sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and had an unprecedented (for a woman) influence on the politics of the Ottoman empire.
There were many other women who made me believe that women are unstoppable when they choose to be. I was inspired by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who led an army. I took pride that Anna Yaroslavna, the first queen of France to serve as the country’s regent was a Ukrainian woman. Anna was literate, a rarity in the 11th century Europe even among monarchs. Another female role model from my childhood was Lybid, a Viking woman who according to the Ukrainian legend was one of the founders of the city I grew up in.
Some of the aforementioned women were of the noble birth, others came from humble origins, but all of them were truly remarkable. …and that’s exactly the kind of woman I wanted to become growing up. I’m glad that when I was a little girl nobody told me that my gender was somehow a disadvantage. I’ve always thought of it otherwise. I can stop men in their track with one smile and I can make them listen to me with one look. If that’s not an advantage I don’t know what is.
I feel that every characteristic we are born with could be used to our advantage. Being born a female gives human beings more tools in their ‘life arsenal’ if they choose to look at it that way. We are not victims. We’re strong, we’re intelligent, we can produce children, we’re creative, we’re beautiful, we’re sexy, and we totally rock!