Why are Justice and Revenge Represented as Women?

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma.jpg


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]

3 thoughts on “Why are Justice and Revenge Represented as Women?

  1. Dear Maria,

    I’ve been a fan of your work for some time, starting with your article, “What Is a Fairy Tale?” in Teaching Fairy Tales. So, it’s an honor to be able to write to you. I hope my response is of some interest to you.

    Firstly, I think Marina Warner tried to answer the question in your title in her book, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form.

    Secondly, our commitment to social justice isn’t newfound and predates women’s mass participation in the labor force. Case in point: Natalie Haynes argued at QED 2015 that the story of Orestes shows a change from personal vengeance to societal justice.

    Thirdly, I would hope that we don’t accommodate these extra-judicial tactics women use since it could (and has) devolve into unforgiving mobs that tarnish reputations, destroy livelihoods, and further societal disunity. That’s part of the reason why progressives like Margaret Atwood signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine.


  2. Thank you, Diego, for those thoughtful observations. Yes, Marina Warner’s book is deeply informative and useful for thinking through the gender issues. Not sure I agree with you about Haynes but, like you, I am against mob rule. Still, we need to improve our current judicial system, which gave us non-disclosure agreements that enriched lawyers and clients but failed to secure justice and which also brought us mass incarceration. There is no way to roll back the power of social media, which means that we also need to find ways to ensure some forms of protection against abuse of that kind of power. All best, Maria

  3. Hello Maria,

    Thank you for answering my initial post! I agree with everything you said, minus our takes on Haynes. There’s also a point I want to make about justice and gender.

    No meaningful reform can occur without acknowledging how sexism contributes to mass incarceration. As law professor Sonja Starr noted in “Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases” (2012), it is males – especially poor and minority males – who are likeliest to be imprisoned. And this phenomenon can’t be explained by men’s crime rates alone.

    I think this factor gets overlooked because of a mix between conservative and feminist attitudes. The former enforce a masculine standard that denigrates vulnerability in men while the latter frame men as a privileged, oppressor class. Both beliefs provide motive to ignore male victimization or remove gender from the equation. Adam Jones, an associate professor of political science, made similar arguments in his essay, “Of Rights and Men” (2002).

    As before, I hope my response is of some interest to you.

    All best,

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