The Ideal Woman – Who Sez?
By Michal Strutin
March 7, 2023

The topic for this month’s blogs is “The Ideal Woman.” What? Ideal? What ideal? If you have the same reaction, we’re good to go.

A devout Sumerian woman, 2900-2350 BCE

I did boatloads of research for Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus, my first historical fiction. Some findings on the role of women were predictable. Men led tribes, clans, and families and controlled overarching issues. Women, according to their rank, led the women. Their rank depended on their husband’s rank. This sort of ranking—and “ideal” making—occurred throughout history.

Since everyone lived close to the bone in biblical times, ideal head women needed to be hard headed. Head women kept the other women in their proper lanes. Love matches? Ha! Marriages were power negotiations: “We’ll marry our tribes: my son to your daughter. Then our tribes will be stronger!” Those sorts of power or financial marriages occurred throughout history; for example, the Hapsburg monarchies.  

In Judging Noa, the daughters of Zelophechad (Numbers 27:1-12) were outliers. Knowing they could be sold into slavery because they had no brothers to protect them and women could not inherit, Noa pursues women’s rights of inheritance. She had to plead their case before ever higher ranks of judges. Her pursuit was enough of an outlier that she was accused of witchery.  That’s what happened to women who ventured outside their lanes.

Bedouin women in more recent times at a loom that hasn’t changed much since biblical times. The ideal biblical woman did a lot of weaving.

Side note: most women did not start receiving rights of inheritance until the mid-1800s, starting with western European countries and America. Some countries still do not afford women those rights. 

Judging Noa research also revealed something fascinating. Carol Meyers, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University, wrote extensively on women of biblical times. Physical evidence shows that, in desperate times, sexually dimorphic behavior gets tossed. When it’s “all hands on deck” or starve, women ploughed, planted, and hauled water alongside the men. Starvation is a great equalizer.  

Now I’m working on a mystery trilogy set in the 16th century. A mismatched pair of sleuths sail to ports around the eastern Mediterranean—Venice, Istanbul, and Spalato—selling woolens and pursuing perpetrators. One from Cairo, one from Seville, doing things neither would have done had they stayed as models of their separate societies. Not only do they have to solve mysteries, they have to solve the rubs in their relationship. That may not be comfortable for them, but it makes their lives and insights interesting for us readers.

Some of the women my sleuths encounter fit the model mold. Some definitely do not. Ideals for a woman in the 16th century, as in most centuries, depended on her place in society. The standard for peasants and working-class women: make lots of healthy babies, cook, sew, wash, tend vegetable gardens, help at harvest time, and lug stuff around. If you had goods to trade—and there were women who sold the silks and spices their husbands brought back from the Far East—you had better know how to bargain hard.  

Top: 16th century Turkish women wearing nalins. Bottom: Ferrando Bertelli’s flip-up print of a Venetian courtesan showing off her high heels in 1563.

In Book 1 of my trilogy, Signora Calimani, the “ideal” wife of a wealthy husband, stayed in her lane in the Venice ghetto. She ruled the home, reigned over evening salons, and made sure each of her daughters learned how to be an ideal wife to a future mate. They learned to draw, embroider, sing, and such. They were demure, except at masquerade balls, when eligible young women displayed snowy mounds of powdered breast to eligible young men. And the men, well, they displayed codpieces, sometimes artificially bulging.   

Book 2 in the trilogy takes place in Istanbul and I discovered that when “ideal” upper-class women in both Venice and Istanbul ventured out in public, they had to be veiled, covered up, and accompanied. Istanbul and Venetian women wore similar tall clogs, called chopines in Venice. So tall that accompaniment was necessary just to keep chopine-wearers upright. Wealthy women wore them to keep their gowns from dragging in the filthy streets. Wikipedia says, “Turkish sources claim the origin of the ornate Venetian chopines were nalins developed for Turkish baths.” Hmmm: chopines, nalins, Chinese lotus shoes, today’s spike heels. A pattern?

The Portrait of a Noblewomen, above, provides many hints of this woman’s ideal stature. She has a prim, high-collared dress, but the fabric and style tell the viewer that she is wealthy. The small lap dog also yips wealth, as it’s no use for hunting. She is careful of Italy’s sumptuary laws: women were allowed to wear multiple necklaces only if one hosted a cross. And a bejeweled martin head hangs from her belt, just over her womb, a symbol of fertility and childbearing. In most every age, the ideal woman bore children. It was her greatest asset.

But, really, as writers or readers do we want to focus on the static ideal? No! We want action, change, character development. We want to see characters on an arc: overcoming obstacles, becoming something more or different. Jump out of that “ideal” lane! Our main characters are more outlier than ideal. And that’s how we like ‘em.



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Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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