Superwomen, too, need help

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I’ve been discussing with various friends of late the difficulty of being a modern woman. We’ve gained opportunities to develop our careers, pursue our interests, fulfill our potential in ways our predecessors only a couple of generations back did not possess. It seems a blessing and a cause for celebration. Yet the reality is not quite so rosy. Most women also want relationships, families, kids – which require a great deal of additional attention, energy, and time. Juggling professional and personal lives leaves women overwhelmed and run down. They worry about not doing enough in one or another sphere, or both. And have almost no time for themselves – to rest, exercise, read, and recharge so as to tackle their multiple obligations with vigor and satisfaction.

Something has to change – seems to be the general feeling. The more well off women hire nannies and babysitters, but feel guilty about not spending adequate time with the kids. The less prosperous cut corners and fall behind – whether in their professional development or domestic chores. Men get credit for taking time off to do things with their children. Women tend to be taken less seriously for it. Perhaps what has to change are these expectations – the attitudes toward gender roles.

In my Renaissance art class I devoted one lecture to 15th– and 16th-century women who followed their intellectual interests in a society that gave little support to such deviations from the gender norms. There were just a handful of women patrons and artists in the Renaissance, so they stand out all the more for their dreams and daring. One such woman struck me as a particularly inspiring example – for both what she achieved and how her partner helped her in the process.

Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna in 1552 to a well-established painter Prospero Fontana. She learned her father’s craft from him and was introduced into his business world. This would seem a natural course of events, but it was not very common in that era. Most women were raised to be wives and restricted to domestic sphere. It took an uncommon father to recognize, nurture, and promote the talents of a daughter. Lavinia herself supplied the drive and ambition. The few women artists who made it in the men’s world confined their output to portraits. Lavinia managed to obtain public commissions and to paint important religious and mythological subjects – though she also became the portraitist of choice for the Bolognese nobility and for men associated with the city’s renowned university.

In 1577, when she was 25, Lavinia married a wealthy fellow artist Giovanni Paolo Zappi. It was a late marriage for a woman – many girls wed when they were teenagers. More unusual still, Zappi recognized that Lavinia’s talent was superior to his own and decided to dedicate himself to helping her – by rendering backgrounds in some of her paintings (a task often left by masters to their assistants) and by taking on most of the household duties. Being good Catholics, the couple produced 11 children. Zappi did most of the childcare so that Lavinia could focus on her career.

In 1603 the family moved to Rome, where Lavinia was invited by Pope Clement VIII to become the official painter to the papal court – an unprecedented honor for a woman. In the eternal city she combined work for the pope with commissions for portraits and religious images for other high-ranking patrons. In another rare honor for a female, she was elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca, the highest professional association of artists.

Would Lavinia have achieved all this success without a father and a husband who fostered her abilities and gave her the opportunities to fully realize them? Would she have been able to concentrate on her career if Zappi had not taken care of the kids? I rather doubt it. I think in the Renaissance, as today, the way for a woman to do it all was to have a partner who took upon himself a major share of domestic duties and left her space and time to do her best where she excelled. Of course finding such a progressive and caring life companion might be as difficult as juggling it all. Or, more or less realistically, we need a shift in societal outlook. For those men out there who have already attained such enlightenment – kudos and thank you! For others, please begin.

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