In the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ only the venues change. Contestants cloak themselves in a variety of robes but an element of ‘guys against gals’ has frequently been the under-card in the prize fight that seems never ending.

The latest heavy-weight brawl had Judge Brett Kavanaugh squaring off against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.  Ringing in the court of public opinion, their donnybrook is a modern-day variation of the case Adam v. Eve, otherwise known as the original ‘He said, She said’.

The fight to have justice prevail further polarized an already rocky political landscape. Many women insist they simply aren’t being heard and the problem is as old as time.

John Gray Ph.D, a 1970’s pop-psychologist, declared the communication-breakdown to be of inter-galactic proportion. In his series “Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” Dr. Gray suggests the sexes subscribe to such fundamentally different trains of thought men and women seem to have arrived on earth from different planets.

Psycho-sexual stereotypes may be biological derivatives that have trivialized women globally for centuries.  The unintended consequence has fostered a trans-cultural reliance on history limited to a chronicle of events interpreted, almost exclusively, by men. In the process of only ‘He said’ without a ‘She said’ a fuller appreciation of humanity has been embargoed.

Challenging historical hierarchy, scholars of today are looking back to find remarkable women of many cultures have for centuries found creative ways to be heard. Silenced by tradition women have woven their voices into color saturated tapestries, painted their metaphoric thoughts onto canvases and memorialized their faith with polished iconography. Others found ways to become influential by capitalizing on the upwardly mobile status granted to only the most exceptionally literate harem girls.

International researchers are decoding social commentary embedded into the crafts of women who were forbidden to speak publicly. Their virtual diaries reveal a lifestyle that includes political influences enhancing today’s version of history and are unexpectedly inspiring diplomatic conversations of goodwill.

An example of sexual detente is on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. There the United States and China are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the first major exhibition to explore the role of empresses of the Qing Dynasty, (the last of China’s dynasties). An exclusive presentation of some never-before publicly displayed arts from the Imperial Palace, known as the Forbidden City, have been organized with the collaborative scholarship of curators from Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, China’s Palace Museum and the PEM.

The Empress exhibit will be on display until February 2019. (Photo: Diane Kilgore/Peabody Museum)

Together they infer and reveal stories of women once secreted. Drawing from the Imperial Collection, galleries are filled with nearly 200 priceless artifacts made-by and for the empresses. Their opulence chronicles little-known stories of how imperial women lived cloistered in the luxury of an emperor-centirc world where the only responsibilities of consorts were to be pretty and bear a son.  In ‘She-speak’ iridescent silk clothing covered in metaphoric embroidery, romantic scroll work, and a 237 pound tower of gold crafted to memorialize a beloved mother are a few remarkable pieces that chronicle volumes about the silent world of imperial life and loves.

This nuanced collection on loan from the Palace built in the 1400’s articulates some of the complexities and inspirational lives of three particular empresses. Destined by patriarchal hierarchy to be kept out of sight, Empress Dowager Chongqing, Empress Xiaoxian and Empress Dowager Cixi represent three industrious ‘Mother’s of the State’, who found ways to influence court politics, religion and international diplomacy without getting into a ‘He-Said, She Said’ debate.


The exhibit displays the elegance of the Empress’s garments. (Photo: Diane Kilgore)


Curators Dr. Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart spent four years traveling to the Forbidden City, the world’s largest palatial complex of 7 million square feet.  They researched portraits, jewels and clothing of China’s grand imperial era, (1644-1912) to understand the role of marriage, power, lifestyle and religion on imperial families.  They found little was officially recorded of the women with whom ten patriarchal emperors lived. Dr. Wang feels “The study of women in history is exciting, timely and necessary” and the presentation at the Peabody Essex Museum “opens a silent yet colorful book about how these women helped shape the course of history.”

A treasure of the Forbidden City (Photo: Diane Kilgore/Peabody Museum)

The exhibition of collected treasures portrays an evolution of the role of women in China. The final gallery includes a gift from Empress Dowager Cixi to President Theodore Roosevelt at a time when relations between the US and China were contentious.  The 16 -foot oil portrait of Cixi was intended to express goodwill to the people of America. Although Roosevelt didn’t consider it one of his favorite gifts, the enormity of the gesture presented to his daughter Alice remains significant because it further establishes the quiet, but relevant intentions of women in diplomacy.

The hat of the Empress (Photo: Diane Kilgore/Peabody Museum)

Dr. Wang’s hope is the “exhibition not only dazzles you but also prompts broader reflection on the position of women in society and a sense of commonality and connection across time and cultures.”

Dinah Cardin, writer for PEM ‘Connections’ magazine suggests, while today’s cultural climate is “far removed from the days of these empresses, this exhibition may lead some visitors to think about the remarkable women in their own lives who may not have received the recognition they deserve. ”

The not to be missed exhibit ‘Empresses of China’s Forbidden City’ is open now through February 10th, 2019. And, FYI~ It’s To Di For!

* The Peabody Essex Museum is our Nation’s 14th largest art museum

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