The Thinking 

In the Days When Women Were Doormats

June 20, 2011

The Sense of Touch, Jan Miense Molenaer (1637)

The Sense of Touch, Jan Miense Molenaer (1637)

IN THIS ARTICLE in Commentary on recent scandals involving male politicians, Kay Hymowitz writes:

Before the 18th century and outside of Western Europe, marriage was a social and economic as well as sexual arrangement; it had little to do with love and companionship, and no one much cared about whether women were fulfilled or not.

Is that so? Where would Shakespeare have come from – how would we have Juliet, Miranda, Katherina, Bianca, Desdemona, Portia, Ophelia, Gertrude, to name a few – if there had been no concept of love in marriage for women well before the 18th century?

How would Dido and Aeneas have come to be? How could Virgil have conceived such a pair? How about Penelope, Odysseus’s loving wife who refused to marry any number of suitors? These figures were imagined outside Western Europe before the birth of Christ.

I offer this other bit of proof that Ms. Hymowitz’s historical facts are a bit sketchy. Consider the above painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Miense Molenaer. It is part of his series on the five senses and is aptly called “The Sense of Touch.” The great Dutch painters created an enormous body of work portraying marriage and domesticity in the 1600s. This is but one example. I think it suggests that women’s needs were at the very least taken into consideration before the 18th century – through the sense of touch if necessary.

The man receiving a beating above with a slipper may not be this woman’s autocratic husband. It is unclear. But do you think this woman, and the culture she came from, would have stood by while her romantic needs were neglected? I think not. Here is another Dutch painting, this one from 1622 by Frans Hals, titled “Couple in a Landscape.”



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