The female breast as a threat to public order

The seal of the state of Virginia has an image of the Roman god Virtus wearing a gown that exposes one breast. While the state legislature was debating whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, ERA supporter and performance artist Michelle Renay Sutherland attended a rally where she was dressed as Virtus and recreated the image shown on the seal, thus also exposing one breast. The difference was of course that the figure on the seal was presumed to be that of a man so his breast exposure was considered acceptable. The breast was emphasized so much in the figure that at first I thought that Virtus was a woman, which is possible, and someone who is a classicist can enlighten me. But the sight of a female breast sent the authorities into a tizzy and they arrested Sutherland.

That was bad enough but the judge then ordered Sutherland to be held without bail pending trial on March 21, a gross abuse of his discretion. Such a move is usually reserved for serious offenses or where the accused is a flight risk or a danger to others. Holding someone over this issue is not only excessive, lawyers argue that what she was doing was actually protected political speech and should not be punished at all

Kevin Martingayle, a lawyer in Virginia Beach and past president of the Virginia State Bar, said holding Sutherland without bond is unusual.

“What the woman did in reenacting the flag/seal is classic political speech entitled to the highest free speech protection known to law,” he said by email. “She should win and the denial of bond seems to be totally inappropriate. I am very surprised to see that done in a case in which she’d be unlikely to get jail time even if convicted.”

The puritanical attitudes of some people are quite astounding.


  1. says

    Now, since German cars are a threat to national security, have you considered that you could end the whole damn horror of the current legislation by driving around a few bare breasted ladies in Mercedes convertibles?

  2. suttkus says

    Virtus represented masculine (*cough*) virtues (“vir” being Latin for “male”). You know, courage, rulership, character, asserting yourself over your lessers, that kinda stuff. Stuff that would be called bossy and aggressive if women did it.

    So, yes, the figure is male, despite the way the breast is presented.

    It amuses me that a state named after a woman, and a feminine “virtue” at that, would have Virtus as a symbol.

  3. says

    No, Virtus is female. Here’s part of the official description from the Virginia statute:

    On the obverse, Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon, resting on a spear in her right hand, point downward, touching the earth; and holding in her left hand, a sheathed sword, or parazonium, pointing upward; her head erect and face upturned;

    Interestingly, last week the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Fort Collins ordinance that discriminated against exposure of the female breast. This disagrees with the 7th Circuit. When two circuits disagree like that, oftimes the US Supreme Court will take the case to remove the split.

    You can read the 10th Circuit opinion here:

  4. says

    The puritanical attitudes of some people are quite astounding.

    I doubt puritanism explains Sutherland’s arrest and pretrial detention. The figure on the ground represents tyranny, and thus the political message if Virtue is arguing for ERA passage is that passage of the ERA defeats tyranny. The implication is that those who oppose passage of the ERA support tyranny and oppose the victory of Virtue over Tyranny.

    More than anything, I think it likely that the judge is treating Sutherland as an accused murderer with a history of jury tampering because the judge doesn’t like being portrayed as a tyrant.

    Ironically his response is itself tyrannical. It reminds me of Bull Connor mouthing about how he and other Birmingham whites loved “our blacks”. Yeah… no.

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