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Domini Clark's tattoo of a Western redcedar [one word].Domini Clark/Handout

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Domini Clark is an editor at The Globe and Mail.

Legend has it that Jennie Spencer-Churchill – aka Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston – had an ouroboros, or a snake eating its own tail, inked onto one of her wrists in 1894. The tattoo was a permanent souvenir of a round-the-world trip, inspired by the markings of a ship’s deckhand. Or so the story goes. While the anecdote was printed in the San Francisco Call and other papers, no image or official account of the tattoo has ever been found.

Still the tale is not as shocking as it sounds – and would actually have been one of the least scandalous actions performed by a woman who loved a get-rich-quick scheme, had a rumoured 200 lovers and wrote a tell-all book about Edwardian aristocratic life.

She would also not be the first nor the last woman to mark a key moment in her life with a tattoo.

I myself got inked for the first time at age 31 – the phrase “It’s just another day,” etched onto my wrist forever. The words were lyrics from Nothing in My Way, a song by U.K. band Keane that I had been playing non-stop after my long-term relationship crumbled. The tattoo would serve as a reminder that some days are bad and some days are good, but ultimately life starts afresh every morning.

What I didn’t fully appreciate then was that I was following a surprisingly feminist history of tattooing.

We know women have been getting inked for at least 5,000 years: The oldest surviving example dates back to ancient Egypt. Tattoos found on female mummies from 3,000 years ago include cross patterns, a baboon, an eye and other hieroglyphic-like elements; scholars have hypothesized the art identifies the women as healers or priestesses.

It was not until tattoos hit the Western world in the 1800s – introduced by returning sailors – that the sight of them on women became divisive. While it was de rigueur for upper-crust ladies of Victorian society (such as Lady Churchill) to get small designs in discreet, easy-to-hide places, more obvious tattoos on lower-income women were considered a sign of indecency and loose morals.

Tattoos violated the assumption that “women should be pure, that their bodies should be concealed and controlled, and that ladies should not express their own desire,” Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo told The Atlantic.

Sadly, it could be argued that such views persisted well into this millennium: Let us not forget that in the 2000s, women with lower-back tattoos were ridiculed for their “tramp stamps.”

Recent years, however, have seen a surge in female tattoo popularity – and pride.

Breast-cancer survivors turn mastectomy scars into beautiful works of art. Similarly, women who used to self-harm can erase signs of the past. In some cases a tattoo is literally a political statement: In 2017, Time reported a trend in “Nevertheless, she persisted” ink to honour Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Far from being marks of shame, these tattoos are intrinsically tied to a woman’s identity and self-worth.

“Tattooing behaviour can augment self-esteem,” write the authors of a 2019 study looking at young women and tattoos. “The experience of being tattooed with a self-made, visible, decorative identifier can reinforce a sense of agency and control through the active manifestation of an otherwise passive experience.”

Perhaps the most palpable example of this is found among the Indigenous communities whose tattoo traditions were erased by colonization. Many women from these cultures are now reclaiming these rites, imbuing them with fresh meaning while honouring their heritage. In North America, examples include the chin tattoos of Gwich’in women, the kakiniit body art of the Inuit and the face tattoos of the Cree. In the South Pacific – the region most strongly associated with tattooing customs – the ta moko work of New Zealand’s Maori is experiencing a resurgence; likewise the hajichi art of Okinawa, Japan.

In 2016, New Zealand’s Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of parliament to wear a traditional female chin tattoo.

“There were a number of milestones in my life, and it felt right to mark them in a way that is a positive statement about my identity,” she told Broadly of her moko kauae.

That’s how I feel about my tattoos. Since the song lyrics, I’ve added a Scottish thistle on my back, to celebrate my first solo long-distance hike; a Western redcedar on my left wrist, to commemorate a trip to Tofino; and the phrase “Mind the gap” written down my left rib cage in the iconic London Underground font, the U.K. capital being my favourite city.

Together, they tell a story of my life, are part of my personal myth-making.

I am curious, as we navigate this period of renewed threats to female rights and body autonomy, whether more women will turn to tattoos to assert control over their bodies and their identities.

As Mifflin writes: Tattoos appeal to women “as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why.”

What else we’re thinking about:

As if the story of four female rowers setting a record by rowing across the Pacific in 34 days wasn’t enough – the fact that not one of them had experience rowing in the ocean screams, “Make this into a Netflix series!” Libby Costello, Sophia Denison-Johnston, Brooke Downes and Adrienne Smith trained for the 4,500-kilometre race to Hawaii from San Francisco by weightlifting, learning life-preserving skills and taking personality quizzes to help them understand how they would work together, The Los Angeles Times reports. And while the women sometimes questioned just what they had gotten themselves into, “being in the company of the girls made it possible to keep going,” Smith said. “At times we would just start laughing, just cracking up at the hilarity of it all.”

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