How ironic that in times when women themselves never operated in legal systems and did not have access to institutional resources, justice itself was, more often than not, embodied in female figures. Create a mental image of justice, and you will no doubt imagine a woman dressed in flowing robes, a blindfold over her eyes and a scale and a sword in hand. That’s what we see in three iterations at the building housing our Supreme Court. And that’s also how the Greeks and Romans envisioned Justice in her various incarnations at Themis, Dyke, Prudentia, and so on.
How can we explain why female figures adorn buildings housing the seats of authority and prestige? Is the presence of women at the portals of power driven by the need to soften patriarchal authority through maternal images to negate the coercive features of social institutions? Marina Warner tells us that “we are living now among female forms who have adapted the allegorical language of the past, but are not reproducing it in stone or plaster or copper, but enacting it live.” In other words, those monuments, strategically placed where power resides, are unconsciously shaping women’s behavior today,
But since women were so often excluded from the judicial arena in times past, they slipped into another role, making appearances as goddesses of vengeance, retribution, and implacable justice. Remember Orestes and the Erinyes? Alekto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, representing anger, rage, and destruction, hounded Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra. And then there is Nemesis, who carries a sword and a whip, out to get us all for any of our lapses and missteps. And if you want to get truly scared straight, just take a look at Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys the forces of evil. Incidentally, her stuck-our tongue inspired the tongue and lips logo used by the Rolling Stones. And the first issue of Ms. magazine featured an image of Kali, her many arms representing the multi-tasking demanded of women.
Here are my questions: Is our newfound commitment to social justice driven by the increasing representation of women in the labor force, in other words, the social and economic empowerment of women? Are women now doing precisely what Marina Warner suggests, enacting the roles found in the statuary that adorns our legal institutions? And will the legal system find ways to address the current extra-judicial means used by women (for example, the #MeToo movement) to secure justice, not just by disavowing public accusations but hearing them in a judicial setting. Or are shaming and arraigning destined to remain separate and distinct forms of securing justice?
[edited July 19, 2021]