Portrait of feminists who embraced femininity

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Portrait of feminists who embraced femininity

According to many women’s magazines, the trick to attracting and keeping a man is to look forever young and beautiful, which is why many hype up the latest facial creams, Botox injections and plastic surgery.
And yet Hollywood is littered with stunning women being dumped by unfaithful partners. If they can’t get their men to stay, then who can?
In her book “Seductress,” Manhattan College professor Betsy Prioleau manages to find quite a few in history who were able to get and keep the men they wanted, using their charm, wit and lust for life. Many of them would have been laughed off the stage if they tried to enter a beauty pageant.
For example, in looks, Cleopatra was nothing like Elizabeth Taylor: “a low, beetling brow, large, hooked nose, prognathic jaw, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth.” But the queen’s intelligence, political savvy and goddess-like pageantry attracted two of the greatest leaders of the time.
Ms. Prioleau traces the seductress persona to the goddess archetype in prehistoric times. It’s a theme she returns to many times after breathless descriptions of a number of larger-than-life women, who fall into six categories: the non-beauties (such as Wallis Simpson), seniors (Mae West), intellectuals (Martha Gellhorn), artists (Josephine Baker), governmental leaders (Cleopatra) and adventuresses (Beryl Markham).
These earliest feminists had a few things in common: They broke all the rules governing female behavior during their time, doing what they wanted and ended up getting what they wanted for the most part, even while being reviled by both men and women. Cleopatra didn’t live happily ever after, but she was indisputably in charge while she was alive.
These supercharged superwomen seemed to leap from one man to the next in a single bound with no regrets. It’s not every woman’s idea of love, but most of the women profiled in the book viewed marriage to one man as a prison. Then again, perhaps during their time, that was the case.
Seductresses may be seen as man-eaters, but they are far from man-haters. In fact, Ms. Prioleau writes, they know how to make real men: “As the reincarnation of man’s first, sacred love object, she fulfills men’s deepest heart songs and restores the primal, mythic bases of masculine identity.”
The brief biographies are entertaining and colorful, but Ms. Prioleau glosses over the women’s tribulations, making them seem less real and more like goddesses. As if to hammer that point home, she often refers to Inanna, the Sumerian sex goddess, throughout the book to explain these women’s allure.
Yet the author insists that women today can tap into their sexual power, citing examples such as pianist Helen Mercier, artist Cecily Brown, Cher and Elizabeth Taylor.
Ms. Prioleau makes no promises, saying, “Seduction won’t wave a wand and transport us to Hallmark Heaven with Herr Perfect and happiness eternal.” But as she points out, it’s a lot more fun than getting treated badly by men.

By Betsy Prioleau
Viking Books
$16.97 on Amazon.com

by Sei Chong
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