There’s a quote that floats around the interwebs and bumper stickers that’s been attributed to the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe and, probably most correctly, to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Whoever said the quote, its truth reigns supreme. There is a fascination with women who don’t “play by the rules” — whatever those socially constructed rules might be.
It’s those misbehaving women who are at the center of the University of Colorado Art Museum’s exhibit Bawdy Bodies: Satires of Unruly Women, showing through June 24. The show explores a variety of English caricatures that span roughly 1780 to 1810. Their content varies from mocking famous individuals to broad social comments, analyzing how women should conduct themselves — the amount of education they should or shouldn’t have, how they should or shouldn’t look. Affairs, divorce, fashion, aging, class — it’s all up for grabs.
The idea for Bawdy Bodies started a few years ago when CU curator Hope Saska was working with caricature of the 18th century and started noticing a pattern.
“We were seeing things like grotesque humor that was being applied to women who maybe were not politically active and not really shaping the way the government was moving but were socially visible,” Saska says. “And [the caricatures were] a way of policing their activities and intellectual pursuits by critiquing their bodies in this sort of physical and grotesque way.”
In one caricature, James Gillray goes for the royal family. Gillray pulls imagery from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to illustrate the conflict between Prime Minister William Pitt, Lord Thurlow and Queen Charlotte. In the drawing, Pitt is represented as Death, Thurlow as the Devil and the queen as Sin. With Medusa-like hair and shriveled breasts, the queen kneels between the men, placing her hand on the groin of the naked prime minister.
Another picture calls out the Bluestocking Club, a group of women who met for discussion at Lady Elizabeth Montagu’s salons. The term “bluestocking” went on to encapsulate intellectual and literary women of the time. In “Breaking up of the Bluestocking Club,” one artist imagines what goes on at these meetings: a brawl of catfight proportions.
“If you look closer you can see that these women have these bulging arms. They are very brawny, and their faces are aggressively filled out. They have big strong jaws, and furrowed eyebrows,” Saska says. “They’re given these masculine features that I liken to the Incredible Hulk when he’s angry, and they’re attacking one another.”
The pieces also mock ambitious women. In “An Actress at her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht,” artist John Collet depicts Margaret Kennedy, an actress who frequently took on male roles. In the image, Kennedy stands in her dressing room in a pair of masculine breeches, while the tops of her breasts are exposed, and the text on a nearby playbill reads, “To be seen a most surprising hermaphrodite.”
To give context for the time period, Saska also included some books from CU’s archives. Erasmus Darwin’s book A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools is opened to the table of contents with chapter titles like “Fortitude,” “Temperance,” “Exercise with Dumbbells,” “Care of the Shape,” “Dress,” “Earrings,” “Powder,” “Stammering,” and “Squinting.”
“These are all sort of behaviors that you should educate yourself to correct,” Saska says. “This, in a way, is going toward this ideal woman who is reticent — smart but not so smart that she eclipses the intelligence of those around her, including the men in her life, modest in all manners of dress and behavior. That’s the ideal.”
But as the satires point out, many women defied these restrictions, like the Duchess of Devonshire, who shows up in multiple prints in the exhibit. She was educated, writing music, poetry and books. She was also a trendsetter who popularized fashions like feathered headdresses. While she was critiqued for all that, her real faux pas was an interest in politics.
“She extended herself into the world of politics and campaigned,” Saska says. “In so many ways she ticks the boxes of proper female education, but her fault was going on beyond that and stepping a toe into a male-dominated world.”
In the prints, the duchess is seen ignoring social structures, canoodling with the lower class and neglecting her motherly duties all in favor of the campaign trail.
While the focus of the exhibit is how women were treated, Saska says a majority of the satires at the time revolved around men. But appearing in a satire highlighted a double standard of the time.
“For men, the visibility in a satirical image would increase your social cache and make you more interesting,” she says. “If you were a woman depicted in one of these images, you didn’t have a lot of recourse. There wasn’t much you could say. You just have to live an exemplary life, that would be your best defense.”
It’s clear to notice the parallels between today and yesteryear. From Kim Kardashian to Hillary Clinton, women from across the spectrum are critiqued for doing too much or too little of this or of that. Societal norms continue to dictate how women should carry themselves, and while there’s clearly more freedom today, the similarities seem far too familiar.
“A lot of the way that we interface with contemporary society would have been somewhat understandable to the 18th century,” Saska says with a laugh. “Certainly with politics and celebrity and clothing. We haven’t really discovered anything in terms of culture. We’re sort of reliving a lot of things that were set into play at [that] time.”
While the pieces in Bawdy Bodies were meant to degrade, there’s a sense of empowerment in these women who dared to challenge the status quo in spite of being deemed unruly. The satires are critiquing the women but are in turn just showing women claiming space at the table.
“This is one area where I think satire is often seen as speaking the truth to power,” Saska says. “It’s actually being used for very social conservative reasons, but what it does show is these people were having these conversations, and the women were sort of exploring boundaries of their social roles. In ways that didn’t stop, women kept on pushing, despite all of this negative press they were getting.”
Walking through the exhibit, there’s a haunting feeling that 250 years ago isn’t so long ago. These small steps may seem far less radical today, but they serve as a touchstone for how far women have come — whether you focus on the achievements or the journey still ahead.
On the Bill: Bawdy Bodies: Satires of Unruly Women. CU Art Museum, 1085 18th St., Boulder, 303-492-8300. Through June 24.