An Alphabet of Femininism #1: A is for Amazon
New week, new poster… and a change of tone. Meet Hodge, folks, and the first letter in her fully illustrated Alphabet series, where we do a bit of dictionary-delving, art history and culture-vulturing from A to Z.
Welcome to Hodge’s ALPHABET OF FEMINISM, inaugural entry, number one: pull up a chair, gather your hot beverages round.
The more specific aims of this series of posts will, it is hoped, become clearer through practice, as it works from A-Z.
But put simply, the idea is to address (with reasonable neutrality), the make-up of the English mother-tongue, to consider how the language has evolved over the centuries, and in the process to prompt some questions about how gender issues are woven into the fabric of the language we use everyday.
Incidentally, when I refer to ‘the dictionary’, I am referring to the Oxford English Dictionary.
“This. I Have No Use For This. Remove It.”
For those readers who never owned the Greek alphabet on a tea-towel, the ‘maz’ sound mid-Amazon is the same ‘maz’ you find in ‘mastectomy’ and its (mostly medical) cognates. This is because the Amazons in question – a race of female warriors alleged to have lived in ancient Scythia, and the first definition for the first word of the Alphabet of Femininism (hoorah!) – were said to have been rather expert in just this procedure. Or, as the dictionary puts it, rather dryly – and, indeed, euphemistically – ‘they destroyed their right breast to avoid interfering with the use of the bow’.
In so self-mastectomising, this army of women obviously lay themselves open to the extended (and more explicitly gender-specific) meaning that amazon took on around the mid-eighteenth century. Here, an amazon is ‘a very strong, tall, or masculine woman’, unsurprising since they are, etymologically, removers of those most vexed of female glands in favour of ease in brandishing weaponry (more generally considered A Man’s Job).
This all said, the original Amazons do not appear to have been either an (exclusively) lesbian tribe, or even an anti-maternal one: Strabo, the Greek geographer, would have it that they periodically had a baby-breeding field trip to a neighbouring male tribe (the Gargareans). The resultant boy-children were exposed or sent back to their fathers; the girls kept and trained up In The Amazon Way, a rare gender upending for the olden days.
Alas! My Girdle!
But perhaps the most famous of these dedicated Amazons is Hippolyte-slash-Hippolyta, the owner of a magical ‘girdle’, which Hercules stole in one of his less catchy labours (bit pathetic altogether, isn’t it? It’s got a bit of a spotty thirteen year old boy feel to it, in fact. ‘Hey Hercules! See that woman? I dare you to steal her girdle! Yeeah, dude, you rock!’ – That said, I’ve never been completely sure what a ‘girdle’ means in Ancient Scythia: I can’t really imagine an army of one-breasted women in the habit of frequent ‘bow handling’ being particularly concerned about how cinched their waists are. My childhood book of Greek Myths And Legends depicts it as a sort of extra snazzy belt, so that’s what I’m going with).
Ahem. Post-Hercules, Hippolyta appears in every battered school copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the future wife of Theseus, who ‘wooed her with his sword’ (oh Theseus, you charmer), and ex-flame of Oberon, King of The Fairies. Shakespeare, whose use of language is so influential that you can expect to bump into him frequently in these dark and twisted lexical corridors, isn’t otherwise a great user of the word amazon, although he does make it into the dictionary’s quotations for the word’s extended, more generic sense, as ‘a female warrior’, which is the first in a pair that ends in the aforementioned ‘very strong, tall, or masculine woman’, unsurprisingly considered ‘forbidding to men’ by the author of Sermons To Young Women in the eighteenth century.
One contemporary application this more general sense has had, curiously enough, is in the modelling world, where the ‘freakish’ aesthetic of catwalk models (and presumably also their exoticism) makes the designation ‘amazon’ / ‘amazonian’ in its sense as a ‘very strong, tall, or masculine woman’ surprisingly true to its lexical origin (annoyingly, if fittingly, for the inaugural post of an alphabet, the prominence of a particular shopping site ‘everything from A-Z’, and the tendencies of said supermodels to write their autobiographies, obscures any such instances of the word on Google, so you’ll have to take my nonspecific memory for it).
Moving on, I particularly like the further sense amazon acquired sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century – now, alas, obsolete – as ‘the queen in chess’, who I always thought of as quiet sort of feminist icon, maintaining, as Francis Beale asserts, ‘alwayes…her owne colour’, and zipping around the board with an alacrity denied to her technically more important consort.
To the men an Amazon never fails to be forbidding.
JAMES FORDYCE, Sermons To Young Women (published 1767)
The Queen, or Amazon, is placed in the fourth house from the corner of the field by the side of her King, and alwayes in her owne colour.
FRANCIS BEALE, Biochimo’s Royall Game of Chesse-play (translated 1656)
Yes, But How Many People Does She Shag?
As will become tediously common during these gynocentric word-journeys, it seems virtually impossible to think of a ‘strong, masculine woman’ without at some point branching into her sexuality; thus, the final meaning of amazon (unsurprisingly, the Victorians’ contribution) as in opposition to a ‘vestal’ (another group of women bound together tribal-style, although for an altogether different purpose). As in, ‘Oh man, that girl’s no vestal; she’s an amazon.‘
NEXT WEEK: B is for Bitch