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february read: the book of the courtesans

if you're following along with my monthly literary journey, you'll notice there was a slight change to february's book of the month. i did make some progress into, "the overstory," by richard powers, but towards the end of february i had gone to berlin to bring my things back to america and realized i was in the middle of several books. i had only 80 pages left in, "the book of the courtesans," by susan griffin and, because i was flying with all of my things as checked bags, every kilo counted. but also, i finished this book just in time for international women's day, and with march being women's history month (when this post will go live), it felt like a more relevant read.

i've had this book for a long time - probably 8 years. at the college i attended for my associate's degree, there was a book swap shelf, where you could take or leave a book. it also happened to be in the social sciences building, so there were a lot of really neat books, fiction and non, on topics like human behavior and social issues. i can remember filling my backpack with books from the shelf that caught me off guard, and one of those happened to be, "the book of the courtesans."

growing up, i was taught that courtesans didn't have values, and here, in my hands, was a book about their values and virtues.

it sat on my shelf and followed me around to all the cities i moved to, untouched, until i moved to berlin.

i hadn't prepared for the covid-induced lockdowns that ensued after my move (who had??). i was still new in the city, didn't know many people, and hadn't set up past times to do at home yet - i had books and a yoga mat. i decided to start reading for pleasure to pass the time, and immediately went to one of the oldest books on my shelf - the courtesans. i should have done so the second it found me; not only was it easy to read - catching and maintaining my attention, but it was insightful and smart; challenging and shedding light on a lot of concepts i had been raised on surrounding women in history.

i learned that throughout centuries of women not being allowed to be educated, own bank accounts, inherit land or other assets, or have conversations about science, politics or philosophy (or be educated in general), courtesans had and were all of these. they were the exception to the rule of what it meant to be a woman in history.

this is an incredibly important fact, but one that also faced me, upon finishing the book, with the fact that it took being a courtesan to have power as a woman in history. as the pages left in the book dwindled, i wondered if this fact actually re-solidified the modern dilemma women face of only being valid if seen through a sexual lens (women are very often acknowledged on the street with a wolf whistle), if they're mothers (modern society still sees motherhood as the peak and highlight of any woman's life - and its extremely exploited), if they're juxtaposed against a man ( how many times do we have to hear "i have so much more respect for my wife after she had our child,"), or seen as exceptional at what they do professionally (think of all of the famous women who are celebrated this month, and the grocery store workers, seamstresses, small business owners, and other hard working women who go ignored). women are worthy, regardless of their title, familial position, accomplishments or looks, and they all deserve to be celebrated every month!

when i was studying french for my associates degree, i learned of the homes of famous courtesans in france, which the french people paid for as commissioned by the kings. griffin touches on these chateaux several times throughout the book. of course true to her slant, her emphasis is on the fact that a woman was given and owned a home and land. when i learned about the houses in college french class, however, the emphasis on these homes was placed on them as beautiful cultural icons belonging to the people. it was mentioned that they were built for the kings' courtesans, but the importance of this implication was never explored. sure, it may not have been to focus of the class, but think: mention of women owning homes and property was only taught to me in french class in college. and even then, it's importance was dismissed. no history class i had taken until then had even mentioned women owning land.

another thing this book taught me was that the women i saw in nude paintings, sculptures, and other artistic works throughout history were often courtesans, as they were some of the only women willing to pose naked, which would have been seen as immodest by a woman of those historical times. this was a fact that was conveniently omitted by my teachers and the learning institutions i attended pre-college. not only are there very few artistic nude works studied in schools - potentially reaffirming the fact that the naked female form is something to be shielded from, ashamed of, and perverse in nature - but the few we did study had the fact that the women depicted were some of the most powerful at the time conveniently omitted. did my teachers think we would learn this and all strive to be courtesans ourselves?

it's not the only time teachers have shielded children from the truth about the world. christopher columbus never landed in america and benjamin franklin did not invent electricity. these are just some examples of lies children are taught in school, but shielding children from topics that may be, "complex," re-solidifies the puritan and misogynistic beliefs our society are founded on, and tells our youth that we don't actually find them capable, which will harm them well into their futures.

maybe, by not teaching them about sexually empowered women, we teach them to be ashamed of sex and their sexuality; that to be a girl and have sexuality means they are shameful, sin-steeped, and wicked (whereas boys are taught that their impulses are valid, natural, and justified - a topic extending well into the ethical dilemma of who exactly is to blame for courtesans, escorts, and prostitutes). sexuality, a natural occurrence of being human, is nothing for girls or women to be ashamed of or punished for.

i highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history or women's rights, and think its extremely important to women's history month. there are a vast amount of women who have been erased by history simply because of their gender, and its incredibly important to the future to give a voice to every woman now.

my favorite part of the literary journey that was this book was the fact that it ended with marlene dietrich, a famous entertainer and brazen woman from schöneberg, berlin, as i was closing a chapter of my life in that same area. i had heard of her while i was living in the city, but knew so little about her and because of covid, i didn't get the opportunity to visit the institutions she made famous. after finishing the book, i felt i knew another layer to berlin that connected me to the book, which made me fall in love with both even more.


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