Nasty Women Tour of the Met Spotlights History’s Nastiest Women

by Rachel Withers

Julia Mamaea, the first official Empress of the Roman Empire

The Metropolitan Museum of Art can sometimes be a little overwhelming. With so much to see, it’s hard to know where to look, and harder still to get the full story behind a piece.

The Met can also be somewhat dude-heavy. The Met has never had a female director; meanwhile Guerilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminist activist artists, contrasts the number of women artists against the number of female nudes on display, and the numbers are depressing (and haven’t moved much since they first measured them in 1989). 

Guerrillla girls

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History too seems to be dominated by men, so even the ancient artifacts can feel like a bit of a sausagefest.

Thankfully, Shady Ladies Tours is here to bring to light the powerful, formidable, nasty women hidden amongst the Met’s treasures, with their Nasty Woman Tour.

The Shady Ladies tour company first started when Professor Andrew Lear, a leading scholar on the history of sexuality and a genuine delight (think charming, adorable history professor), was working on a tour exploring the homosexual secrets in the museum’s art. In his search, he noticed that the Met also displayed a large number of mysterious, scandalous women, and so started running the Shady Ladies Tour, revealing the background stories of the courtesans, royal mistresses, and other sex workers scattered throughout famous art.

IMG 7588Professor Lear in front of a statue of a wounded Amazon warrior

Professor Lear was already working on adding a showcase of powerful women to his tour repertoire, so in that culture-defining moment when Donald Trump labelled Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the third presidential debate, he knew he had a name for it. His newest tour spotlights exactly the kinds of feisty, take-no-bullshit women whom our misogynistic POTUS would certainly label “nasty.”

For the first part of our two-hour tour, our fabulous professor introduced us to the ancient nasty women of the Met: nasty Egyptian pharaohs, nasty Ancient Greek myths (and the sexism/male insecurities behind them) and nasty Roman empresses. He put these women in context; women in Ancient Rome, for example, were far less oppressed than their segregated sisters in Greece, about whom Pericles once said “the great glory of women is never having your name mentioned.” It felt good to hear about immensely powerful women who ruled empires and outwitted their enemies/stepsons, especially at this moment in history when our dreams of seeing a woman lead the nation have been so unfairly dashed. These women weren’t trying to be likable; they were in it to rule and rule well.

IMG 7583 1Hatsheput: the original Nasty Woman

Professor Lear led us through the 20th century America, with strong women like Georgia O’Keeffe (as artist) and Gertrude Stein (as subject), and 18th century France, with the powerful mistress to Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour (who was more or less shadow Prime Minister of France- so there’s that). His stories were those you would never get just walking around the Met by yourself, or even from reading the descriptions, including that of suffragist and artist behind a range of portraits in the Met, Mary Cassatt. Not only were Cassatt’s paintings different in the way they refused to aestheticize or idealize women, Cassatt was also a great advocate for women’s suffrage. She donated many of her works to exhibitions supporting the movement, and when her family disagreed with her politics, she changed her will and instead sold the paintings she had intended to bequeath them.

IMG 7613One of Cassatt’s famous portraits, Lady at the Tea Table (1883-85)

Professor Lear’s storytelling is hilarious, engaging, and historically detailed. Our guide even added his own feminist interpretation of the facial expressions of a husband-wife chemistry team (“Honey, what am I meant to do next?” Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier seems to be asking his indispensable but of course underrecognised wife/collaborator, Marie-Anne). I must admit, I did have slight reservations about this tour being led by a man- if the Met is already dominated by males, why would a group of women walk around listening to another? But the professor was a genuine delight and a strong feminist. And of course, you also find yourself strolling the Met with a group of feminists of all ages, many of whom have interesting points of their own to add.

IMG 7609Professor Lear in front of The Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife (Jacques-Louis David, 1788)

If you like hearing about powerful women in art, in history, in politics, the Nasty Woman Tour is absolutely for you. You can invite your Facebook friends here, or book tickets to this and other Shady Ladies Tours here.

Ticket price includes museum admission. Advanced purchase necessary. Discounts available for seniors, students, and Met members.

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