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Friday, February 18, 2005

Are Women Human?

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) writes with a feistiness, wit and good commonsense that makes her essay of the above title a little gem of a contribution to discussions of feminism at a time when some of its most strident representatives appear like angry ideologues whom most women can't even identify or empathise with.

Interestingly, it was her desire to disassociate herself from the somewhat aggressive feminism of her day (which she views as completely different from feminism "in the old-fashioned sense of the word" which she could accept and even espouse) that earned her the invitation to "explain" herself before a Women's Society. I, for one, am glad that things so transpired between her and the Secretary of the society such that we have this short essay today, which is the address given to that Women's Society in 1938.

Sayers' main thesis is that men and women are first of all, and fundamentally, human beings. By virtue of that, they are much more alike than different, and any meaningful, constructive proposal for improving society must begin from that recognition and respect of a shared humanity--not from the platform of gender. Are there issues specific to women? Of course there are, but the best way to approach them may not be the aggressive feminism of today (and of her day's) that reinforces the stereotyping of what women are or should be. This kind of thinking ironically stifles individual women as they are told and believed to like or dislike certain things simply because they are women. No wonder so many women, myself included, are at times upset with some of today's feminists who presume to speak and fight for us.

There is much bandied about silly questions about "what women want" and "what a woman's view" of a matter is. Again, there is no denying that there are sometimes situations and issues where these are perhaps more relevant. To think largely or primarily in these gendered terms, however, is seriously misguided. We cannot know what women as a group want; we can only ask individual women what they want, as individuals that they are. Do women as a group want the right to study Aristotle at college, and will they benefit from it? "The answer is NOT that all women would be better for knowing Aristotle... but simply: 'What women as a class want is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle... and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which prevent my knowing about him." Way to go, Dorothy! There are Marys and there are Marthas: let her who would listen and learn from the Teacher sit at His feet and do so. It was Martha who at that time chose the worse option in busying herself with so-called women's work. "[T]he Lord answered and said to her, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42)

And as to what a woman's view of the matter is, it all depends on what the matter is to see if the question is silly or not. One would have thought this commonsense. In some areas where women generally as a class differ from men--such as in their ability to bear children--it might be sometimes useful to ask for the woman's opinion. For in such areas she (generally) has special knowledge and experience. And in a time and society where women spend most of their day managing the home and taking care of the children, it might also make sense to ask for the woman's view on home management, for here, again, she has special knowledge borne out of her experiences. To ask, on the other hand, what the woman's view on detective fiction is deserves the answer that Sayers suggests be given: "Go away and don't be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle." Maybe, just maybe, you will find in your research that while there may not be a standard, homogenous woman's viewpoint on literature, for example, that there are nonetheless a set of responses that are consistently distinct in some ways from those given by their male counterparts. I don't think that's very likely though, and especially when we consider more 'objective' fields like that of economics or medical science.

"What," men have asked distractedly from the beginning of time, "what on earth do women want?" I do not know that women, as women, want anything in particular, but as human beings they want, my good men, exactly what you want yourselves: interesting occupation, reasonable freedom for their pleasures, and a sufficient emotional outlet. What form the occupation, the pleasures and the emotion may take, depends entirely upon the individual. You know that this is so with yourselves--why will you not believe that it is so with us?"
There are too many differences in temperaments, talents, interests, proclivities, and other such things that distinguish the human race and most of these cut across categories of age, race, nationality, and gender. While there are fundamental commonalities between myself and any of my female schoolmates than any of us have with my husband, I wouldn't be surprised if my husband and I shared more fundamental interests and opinions on a variety of issues than those I share with any one of my female friends.

I shall conclude this post with the words Sayers closed her essay, for she is undoubtedly far superior in felicity of expression. (May I add that her literary gift and brilliance of mind surely played a fair part in her enduring friendship with C. S. Lewis, and which gained her also his respect and admiration as a fellow human being and colleague)

It used to be said that women had no esprit de corps; we have proved that we have--do not let us run into the opposite error of insisting that there is an aggressively feminist "point of view" about everything. To oppose one class perpetually against another--young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man--is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base
it--not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as a member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill--in fact, upon you and me.


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