Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Musings: Are Women Human?

Are Women Human?
Are Women Human?  Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society is a book I didn't expect to like nearly as much as I did.  It's a very slim volume- only 67 pages, and that's with a 15 page introduction- but it was really wonderful to read.  I am really not sure what I think of Dorothy Sayers.  On the one hand, the novels of hers I've read featuring Lord Peter Wimsey present him as an elitist jerk who thinks he's smarter than everyone else and that he deserves all the ridiculous amounts of money that he has.  On the other hand, people seem to love the females that populate her novels, most notably Harriet Vance, and Sayers herself says all sorts of fantastically eloquent things, some of which come through in this volume.

Some time ago, I wrote a post On Marketable Skills in which I stated that I am sick of statements like, "Get a real job"or "Maybe you should major in something useful" because I don't really see the point in someone who really loves and wants to do art history somehow trying to force herself into becoming an engineer because that's where the money and jobs are.  In many ways, that whole way of thinking has led us to our current financial crisis, as all sorts of genius physics and math majors decided to become hedge fund managers and acted as though financial markets are rational and can be forced to fit models and rules, which is false.  So... if you want to be an art historian, I really don't think you should be forced into being an engineer.  (That said, it may be hard for you to be an art historian, too, but hopefully you can find a job that incorporates your love of art or history into it, if possible.)

What, you may ask, does this have to do with women and the question of their humanity?  Well, Sayers says the same thing, expect in light of women's roles.  She isn't a feminist, exactly.  She says people should be respected and lauded for their individuality and not for their ability to fit into a large, generalist group.  And so she argues that the feminist movement, applied indiscriminately to all women to behave a certain way has really hurt women.  Which I would agree with- how many women now do not want to label themselves as "feminists" because they dislike the baggage and associations that are associated with the word?  So many of us now feel guilty or wrong for wanting to stay at home and be mother or homemaker, even if that really is where our skills lie.  As Mary McDermott Shideler says in her introduction, "The stereotype, 'Woman's place is in the home,' was for a long time applied so indiscriminately that the inevitable reaction, while liberating many women from totally unsuitable employment in homes, has robbed many whose natural place is there of the dignity and joy they should have in doing the job that is right for them."

Sayers also goes into really great detail about the whole phrase "A woman's place is the home."  She points out that when the phrase was originally coined, women had a lot of work to do in the home- they did the accounts, they cooked and canned and cured, they cleaned, the managed large households, they spun and wove and dyed, distilled and brewed and dispensed.  They were midwives and horticulturalists; they knew herb lore and so much more.  So, having the designation of being in the home was really a very busy and full and impressive role to play.
Here are the women's jobs- and what has become of hem?They are all being handled by men.  It is all very well to say that woman's place is the home- but modern civilization has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organized by men at the head of large factories...The fact remains that the home contains much less of interesting activity than it used to contain...It is perfectly idiotic to take away women's traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones.
This same argument was used by Gail Collins in America's Women, and it really stuck with me, particularly the section about how (male) doctors went after midwives, and now most women give birth in the very impersonal and cold hospital environment instead of in the comfort of their own homes.  It was great to see that point reinforced here- that, originally, when women were occupied "in the home," they had far more to occupy them and were not just trophy wives to sit and do nothing.

Another scenario that Sayers mentioned really struck me in relation to Jane Austen.  Sayers said that a man once complimented her on her ability "to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves."  This struck me because Austen's critics point out that she never wrote a conversation between only men- every conversation she ever wrote had a woman present, and this is apparently a sign of inferiority as a writer because she clearly didn't know enough about men to write scenes of only them.  Sayers' response to the "compliment" was to say that she wrote men in conversation together by assuming that they were human beings and had human conversations much like women would.  And I think Austen's response to that sort of criticism would be along the same vein - why does one have to write according to your rules to be deemed a success?  And why have such gender-based rules in the first place?

Sayers' last point, and the one conveyed with real wit and humor, was that women are constantly judged according to their femininity, and all their decisions are taken because they are female, whereas men are judged and make decisions based first on the fact that they are human, and then only secondarily on the fact that they are men.  It is a very long and excellent section of the book, so I'll just share one last quote with you to give you a sense of it:
Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if he were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said or did had to be justified by reference to female approval...If from school and lecture room, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him to remember his biological function.  If he were vexed by continual advice on...how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence...His newspaper would assist him with a "Men's Corner," telling him how, by the expenditure of a good deal of money and a couple of hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain his wife's affection; and when he had succeeded in capturing a mate, his name would be taken from him, and society would present him with a special title to proclaim his achievement...
I thoroughly enjoyed these essays and the point that Sayers makes in them- if men are not constantly being evaluated as a whole based on their gender, then why are women all lumped together in that manner?  It's an excellent and very valid point to make, and I am glad that Sayers gave me that food for thought.

25 comments:

  1. I also loved her point about writing dialogue, so much <3 And I really believe that yes, individuality says much more about who we are as people than gender identity ever could, but the reason why I do call myself a feminist and devote so much of my attention to gender studies is because I believe that gender *is* a useful category of analysis in the world as it is today. Women are not all the same and don't necessarily have the same needs or benefit equally from the same social and political initiatives, but for as long as the world makes so much of gender and uses it as an excuse to subtly or overtly enforce discrimination, a political movement that uses gender as a point of departure will remain relevant. IMHO :P

    I'm really glad you enjoyed these essays. I still think you might like the Harriet Vane novels, but I know better than to argue with you re: the wonderful Lord Peter :P

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    1. Yes, I definitely call myself a feminist as well, but I can see why so many people are leery of the term, which makes me sad, too. I certainly see your point- we are not yet past gender biases (or race or religious or other ones), so we can't make decisions on people as "human beings" until we get to that point. What was more interesting to me in this particular essay was that Sayers points out that MEN are not judged based solely on their gender, but on their humanity. I have never considered it this way, but it was a really enlightening point to make.

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    2. And I admit these essays *do* make me consider again just skipping the rest of the Peter books and going straight to the ones with Harriet in them...

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  2. A wonderful post, Aarti. Much food for thought indeed. I am ordering the book at once!

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    1. I hope you share your thoughts!

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  3. This books sounds so interesting. And I'm already a fan of Sayers' mysteries and love Harriet Vane. When reading her books, I always feel she's torn between trying to make Harriet so independant and strong and yet being unable to put aside by her feelings for Peter. They did say Sayers was in love with her own creation...

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    1. Yes, they do say that, though in my opinion, Lord Peter is not that great a person. Sounds like Harriet really is, though!

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  4. I think the idea of criticizing the traditional women's role is not that it is illegitimate per se, but that at least some women think that's what they want because they were socialized to think that's what they want, which is a really important distinction. And of course it is a different argument than that they have no choice, although it argues that their "choice" is actually a product of a steady diet of male-originated advertising, images, articles, etc.

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    1. Yes, this. There's a fine balance between acknowledging that choices don't take place in a vacuum and nevertheless respecting the agency of individual women in a way that doesn't patronise them by assuming everything they are and want is not valid because "the patriarchy made them do it". I struggle a lot with this balance myself, and also with finding it in the feminist sources I read. But like Jill says, it's a useful distinction to keep in mind.

      Sorry to jump in, but hey, Jill did say "join the discussion" on Twitter ;)

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    2. Of course you can jump in here, Ana! You both add so much to discussions.

      Jill, you bring up an interesting point. But how can someone distinguish between wanting to do something because "society made them want it" and her wanting to do it because that is really what interests her? I think, in many ways, this is why flexibility in the workplace is so integral for future generations to succeed. I know many men who enjoy cooking and want the time to be home to make a great meal, and I know many women who can't wait to go back to work after maternity leave- it's unfair to assume that both genders don't want the same things when really, I think what both want is the ability to do many things that bring them happiness and satisfaction.

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    3. Ana, I agree with your point, too- a lot of feminists seem to dislike women who stay home. And I often get frustrated with female friends, too. I know so many women who get their MBAs or become physicians and spend so much time and effort getting great jobs at which they excel and do well, and then they say something like, "Well, I'm going to move to a different city/quit my job/try to find something else in a few years, because really, once we have kids, my husband is going to be the breadwinner." And it BOTHERS me because clearly these women are ambitious, but why spend so much time and money getting advanced degrees and then only using them for a few years or choosing a certain type of job solely because of considerations of lifestyle years out in the future?

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    4. I think that the only way you can figure out if you have been "co-opted" so to speak, is to read books that explain the development of gender roles from a feminist point of view. So many women aren't aware of the part that concern for control over inheritance, for example, played in the development of marital roles (i.e., since before DNA, figuring out who was the father was never as easy as figuring out who was the mother, so men needed to come up with conventions that assured their hegemony in the relationship), or they might not be aware of how much they are affected by advertising images of sex and thinness selling products (but which also have the latent effect of encouraging stereotypical behaviors). Once you have seen both sides, then you have much more information to examine your own likes and dislikes, and dreams and aspirations and if you're lucky you can separate out what has been inculcated from what would bring you the most self-actualization.

      But then, you have to do the cost/benefit analysis thing: e.g., if you reject the way society tells you that you must look and act to get a man, are you willing to take the consequences?

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    5. Do you have any books that you suggest, Jill? I didn't know anything about inheritance laws and their effect on gender roles- in fact, I think I am *still* confused. Can you elucidate further?

      I recently saw the movie Miss Representation, which goes into great detail about how women are affected not just by advertising but by every other portrayal of women they encounter- on TV, in movies, video games and books, the way they are spoken about in the news (particularly women in power, such as Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, etc.) It was a very good movie but so overwhelming because there's such a huge battle to be fought that most people seem completely unaware of.

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    6. I refer you to Ana for feminist book recommendations. She's so much more up-to-date than I on stuff, as she has just studied it! The legal issue stuff is made up of a bunch of stuff, but I'll just mention a few. Men have always been concerned about controlling property. During colonial times, you had coverture, which defined the legal status of woman following marriage. Under the doctrine of coverture, the husband and wife became a single unit for property purposes, with the husband having complete control over all the property of either person. All property a woman brought into marriage, including real estate, clothing, furniture, or money, became the property of her husband. There were all kinds of statutes making sure that the status of children inherited the status of the father. But then you had a glitch with slavery. These laws caused a problem, because of all the white men who fathered children by slaves. Part of the incentive was to increase the number of slaves, but if the status of the child followed the father, that wouldn't work. Thus, new statutes were passed to the effect that the status of the child would be the same as the mother's. Therefore, white men became "free" to father black slaves, but of course they wanted to make sure that black men didn't have any children by white women. There's always something! So it became in the best interest of white men to spread fear about black men as potential rapists and out to deflower the white southern bell, etc. And segregation became a key component too of making sure black men were kept away from white women so that their progeny would not inherit the white man's property. Women were always pawns in all of this. But the slavery thing is a digression. Once women once more had a hand in property, you had to make sure they didn't actually WANT it. Thus you had to make sure they not only were kept in subservient domestic positions, but WANTED to be in those positions. etc etc blah blah blah :--)

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    7. Sorry for butting in on this conversation, but would like to contribute.

      There is this book on choices that I'm reading, that discusses how a person may perceive not to have a choice, when there are some, like in case of women trapped in abusive marriages. Also how there may be the perception of having a choice when there actually might not be one- like in a Robinson-Crusoe-like situation. There may be the extremes with other things in between.
      http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Choosing-Sheena-Iyengar/dp/B004Y6MY7S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332987642&sr=8-1

      Also, check this out - a wonderful book that speaks of the perpetuation of gender stereotyping in our children and the long term effects. My review.
      http://arightowrite.blogspot.in/2012/03/book-review-cinderella-ate-my-daughter.html

      There is one book written by a social historian that gives a perspective on how laws made changes to gender roles in colonial India. How this has had a profound effect on the practices of dowry and female infanticide. Written lucidly for the lay reader- Dowry Murder. My review.
      http://arightowrite.blogspot.in/2011/10/violence-against-women-some-more-books.html

      Hope I'm not hijacking the conversation here.:)

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    8. Thanks so much, Sandhya! I'll be sure to look into those.

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  5. I loved this review Aarti, and I think you articulated your feelings on the amazing aspects of this book very well. I agree with your assessment on some of these issues, and would love to read this book and see what I take away from it. It's crazy to think that all women are meant to fit into the same mold, or that we all want the same things. Why is it so acceptable for men to be different and want different things, but not women? A very persuasive review today. I am off to see if I can grab this one!

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    1. I completely agree. I just wish some books on this topic were written by and read by men. It frustrates me that they never pick up books of this sort.

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  6. I have never read Sayers before. Maybe I should start with this one. I really enjoyed reading your review!

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    1. Thank you- I really enjoyed reading the book.

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  7. Fantastic review, Aarti. I actually like Sayers' mysteries, but didn't realize she'd written non-fiction essays. I love works on the history of feminist thought, so I'm going to seek this out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. Of course! It's a really short book, so will not require a huge time commitment on your part, either, but will provide a lot of food for thought.

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  8. This sounds really interesting and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I hope to read this one day. Also great discussion in comments!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  9. Yeah, not for me ;) But at least I read your thoughts on it and that was interesting

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