Ruskin's complex attitude toward women has long been important to feminist and Victorian studies; over a quarter-century ago Kate Millett published Sexual Politics and its famous attack on Ruskin's essay "Of Queens' Gardens." She charged Ruskin with promoting a sugar-coated but perfidious system of separate spheres for men and women. Yet shortly after Ruskin produced that idealized vision of housewife-queens in 1865, he created a new ideal queen in his mythological study The Queen of the Air (1869), this time elaborated from Athena. Through his mythopoesis, Ruskin disrupts both conventional gender categories and his own implication in them. Ruskin presents a series of binary oppositions that he immediately conflates: Athena and Medusa, air and earth, bird and snake, formation and destruction, science and myth, male and female. Ruskin documents the instability of his oppositions through a bizarre "natural language" where real-life creatures such as birds and snakes serve as eternal hieroglyphs, signifying universally recognizable abstractions. That seemingly fixed signs in Athena's hieroglyphic code inevitably change is clear from Ruskin's acknowledgment of Darwin's evolutionary theory. But evolution slips into a wild image of degenerative metamorphosis, where all the divisions that Ruskin has so laboriously noted dissolve. Since Ruskin identifies Athena with each seemingly opposed animal signifier in his language of living hieroglyphs, he subverts all linguistic difference and ultimately feminizes signification itself. Through myth Ruskin creates a mutable language, one where genders as well as signs become mobile rather than fixed.
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