In adapting the title of Men in Dark Times – Hannah Arendt’s 1973 volume of profiles which also included Rosa Luxemburg – Jacqueline Rose is throwing down a challenge.
Not for her the cosy feminism of Caitlin Moran, or the popular activism of bands such as Pussy Riot. Rose is arming for battle, for a war taking place now, and it is no accident that in her superb study she recalls the genocide of the Jews by deliberately focusing on women who were all either Jewish or had Jewish connections.
This war is waged against women’s bodies, as she argues in her chapter on “honour” killing, where simply to be born a woman is condemnation enough, and against their minds, as she demonstrates in her profile of the artist Charlotte Salomon, who painted furiously to ward off death. She considers those women who might have been looked upon traditionally as victims:
Rosa Luxemburg was murdered, Salomon died at Auschwitz, and Marilyn Monroe, whose image graces the cover, killed herself. And she reinterprets them as survivors of “dark times”, the ones who had the courage to speak out, to bare the “painful bruises on my soul”.
Many of the women in this volume are uncomfortable for feminism in some way: Luxembourg didn’t obviously state herself as a feminist, Monroe’s image is the epitome of patriarchal exploitation of women. Shafilea Ahmed, Heshu Yones, and Fadime Sahindal clog up liberals’ attitudes towards multiculturalism with their horrific deaths, and place feminism in an uncomfortable position of opposing liberalism.
Artists such as Esther Shalev-Gerz work with those feelings of discomfort to give voice to alternative stories, Rose argues. We need more of them. But will the world let them speak?
Rose finishes by mentioning the Savile investigation and the volume of women coming forward, but she doesn’t mention the backlash: the accusation of women “jumping on the bandwagon” when they speak up, of being “gold-diggers”.
The stories of abuse that the media have been relating over the last couple of years should dispel any doubts that a war has been waged on women, and it is to the uncontainable ones that we should look: Luxemburg, who “took everything just that little bit too far”; Monroe who “brings the dark with her wherever she goes”.
Those women who die at the hands of violent men shouldn’t be “swamped” by their “worst fates”, rather it is their fates that should do the swamping, spilling out into our lives every day until we take enough notice to do something.
Women in Dark Times, by Jacqueline Rose (Bloomsbury £20)Reuse content