Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bearded Women Santos

Since childhood, I have been fascinated with the traveling circus. My grandmother, an artist, used to do etchings of circus scenes, and when I discovered painting as a hobby I found myself deeply connected to portraying myself as a jester. In college I took several feminist studies courses and was required to write a thesis on an area of interest. I wanted to study women's role in early traveling freak shows (a topic I hope to explore more in depth later in life). I narrowed focus to Venus Hottentot, an amazing woman stolen from Africa to be in a circus act. Today, I still collect books, vintage circus posters, and scour antique stores for circus items like clown barrels or performers' trading cards.

Last night, in Tijeras, New Mexico, population 474 at the 2000 census, I enjoyed seeing a proud bearded woman at a bar, Molly's. Side note, sign above the door at Molly's reads, "
The Greatest People On Earth Walk Through This Doorway." Wearing relaxed jeans with torn holes on the knees, a broad rimmed hat, and loose fitting shirt, she sat back and enjoyed a few beers with friends while listening to the band. Her beard, perhaps a badge of feminist pride, tumbled in shades of grey at least ten inches from her chin (note: Guinness World Record holder is Vivian Wheeler; in 2000, her beard was 11 inches long). I, an outsider in this towny bar, appreciated in the back mountains of Albuquerque, she had a home where she was appreciated.

The experience sparked curiosity as to the role of bearded women in culture. Within merely a half hour of scouring the Internet, the prevalence of references to mystical or saintly roles of bearded women impressed me.

July 20 or January 20 tend to be Saint days that celebrate bearded women:
  • July 20: Santa Librada/St. Liberata Patron of liberated women because she grew a beard, she is revered in New Mexico as a Penitente saint, as she was crucified by her father for disobeying his wishes. Source.
  • The festival of Saint Paula the Bearded is still celebrated every January 20th.
  • July 20th is the Feast of St. Wilgefortis, she was the daughter of the King of Portugal and another rumored Bearded Lady.
  • 14th century Spanish nun - and bearded woman - was sainted.
  • St. Uncumber [or Wilgefortis] July 20th ORC, a bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders). She was often represented as a bearded women on a cross. Source.

Literature and arts from previous centuries portray bearded women often with special powers:
  • In the chapters 40 and 41 of the second part of Don Quixote, the Dueña Dolorida and other ladies wear fake beards. They tell Don Quixote that the beards are the result of an evil charmer, and the knight has to ride Clavileño to undo the charm. Source: Wikipedia.
  • In the fifth century B.C.E. Hippocrates himself documented a bearded priestess named Athena. It was believed that her beard empowered the priestess with special clairvoyant abilities.
  • A famous painting in Toledo, Spain at Hospital de Tavera features Ribera's unusual portrait of a bearded woman. Source.
Beyond religious and arts references, feminists have entire schools of thought dedicated towards the role of body hair and women. They contend there is no biological or hygienic reason for women to remove body hair, yet most women do with harsh chemicals, sharp blades, and expensive removal treatments. Women's body hair has political implications - shaving legs / not, how hair is styled, armpit hair, pubic hair... Emma Chaplin wrote an interesting blog entry on this topic that is worth browsing.

On a final note, I enjoyed a YouTube video of a woman with a beard who thoughtfully encourages everyone to, "just be yourself."