Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers

Source of book: I own this.

This post introduces what I hope to be a new series for Women’s History Month (March). While I am a huge fan of female writers, and try to read a wide range of books each year, I have never concentrated specifically on Women’s History. Regular readers know, however, that I love strong women, despise patriarchal ideas, and hope to make the world a better place for my daughters. 

I first discovered Dorothy Sayers in either junior high or high school, through her short story, “The Inspiration of Mr. Budd.” I didn’t read any of her other books until law school, when my classmate Darren brought along a copy of Murder Must Advertise to one of our conferences. Never one to focus exclusively on study with no outside reading to break the monotony, I borrowed it, and was hooked.

While the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are her best known works, she was actually embarrassed by this fact. She had hoped that her more serious works would outlive her, not just the light mysteries. Other than the mystery series, her best known works are her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and her work on the creative process, The Mind of the Maker. (The latter is on my list of future reads.) Less well known are her theological works.

Sayers was notable for her academic achievement in an era when women were not encouraged in such pursuits. At the time she completed her time at Oxford, women were allowed to attend, but were not awarded degrees. This policy changed soon afterward, and she received her degree at that time. Although Sayers did not consider herself a feminist, she advocated for feminist ideas, some of which remain highly controversial in some theological circles even today.

This particular book is quite short, consisting of two essays, “Are Women Human,” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

I have never been so tempted in my life to simply reproduce the entire text of a book and use that as my review. Sayers’ writing is that good, and so expresses my frustration with the culture of gender essentialism that still lingers.

Sayers’ basic thesis is that while men are considered as individuals, women are considered as a class, as “women,” rather than as full human beings. While men are sometimes treated the same way, for women, it is rather a fact of life. Sayers uses a particular question she was asked as an example. “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The question presupposes that women are a homogenous class. As Sayers points out, probably most women - and most men for that matter - are not all that interested in Aristotle. But she is, and that is the key point. Likewise, the question, “What do women want?” is so common as to be a cliche. Yet it means something vastly different than, “What do men want?” Sayers points out that women are more likely to ask what their particular man wants - hence the focus on pleasing the man. Women are instead lumped into a class.

What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.

A woman, no less than a man, is human and has desires that are individual, not as a part of a class. For a gender determinist, the single most important fact about a person is their membership in a group: are they male or female. This fact trumps any further discussion of individual preferences.

What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is no good saying: "You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls"; if the answer is, "But I don't," there is no more to be said.

This is the exact heart of the disagreement. Does gender class membership trump individual preference? Is biology destiny?

One of my favorite of Sayer’s points is the one she makes at the beginning of the second essay. We carelessly use the term, “the opposite sex.” But in reality, there is nothing in existence that more closely resembles the human female as the human male. Thus, she describes them as “neighboring” sexes, not opposite. Again, this seems a bit self evident, but it is the one thing that gender essentialists refuse to grant.

In support of this idea, Sayers recounts a conversation she had regarding her writing.

A man once asked me ... how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.

This is exactly why one of my main beefs with the works of Charles Dickens is that he is incapable of writing believable female characters. He can create types, caricatures, but not real flesh and blood women. Why not? Because he isn’t able to view them as completely, fully human. They are either caricatures, or hopelessly impossible angels.

Sayers notes that she considers “women are divine creatures” to be more offensive than “women are the weaker vessel.”

I won’t quote the entire second essay, as much as I really want to, because of length (and copyright issues), but I do want to note that there is an extended discussion of the connection between dress codes for women and the view that women have different goals in picking clothing. (Sayers was greatly fond of trousers for their comfort and warmth, and bristled at all of the sexual connotations that the objections to them contained.) Men dress as they wish, but women are expected to dress for the pleasure of men. The more things change…

The other outstanding section in the second essay is an extended use of one of my very favorite devices. If you want to determine if something is sexist, say the same thing with the genders switched. The six pages in which Sayers turns popular ideas about women upside down are simply marvelous.

Just one of many examples:

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 hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain his wife’s affection...

There is one final point that I want to make. I have been feeling for quite some time that the “a woman’s place is in the home” is both a recent development in our culture, and also one that has a strong classist bent. (I hope to write a more extensive post on this in the future.) Sayers filled in one final bit of information that I hadn’t considered.

A common argument against women working in “masculine” professions is that one doesn’t see men trying to take women’s jobs.

As Sayers points out, “Of course they do not. They have done it already.”

She then goes through the list of occupations that used to be primarily female before the industrial revolution. Pretty much the entire textile industry. The brewing and distilling. Preserving, pickling, bottling. And, since many men were absent for long periods during wars or on business, women had to act as CEOs for whatever the family trade was.

These occupations have been taken away from women, and largely made the domain of men, through the factory system.

If one looks closely at the change, what has happened is that all of the occupations that bring economic power and are genuinely enjoyable have been taken away from women, and given to men. It is easy to forget that when all of these important industries were done by women, those women contributed significantly to household income, and were thus indispensable. While political power didn’t come until later, there was genuine economic power.

And what have women been left within the home? A variety of fairly brainless and unrewarding tasks. I would venture that outside of a very small minority, few people find house cleaning and dishes to be much fun, and it certainly doesn’t pay. Cooking can be pleasurable, which may be why more men are moving back into the kitchen. (I love to cook, after all.) So why do the less pleasant but still necessary tasks end up as “women’s work?”

I know I am going against the grain with this one, but I agree with Sayers that the idea that child care for school aged children is only a full time job if you make it that way. The women of the past did so while engaging - of necessity - in all those other occupations. And, let’s be abundantly honest: outside of the middle to upper classes, women have always, and still do work while caring for children.

As Sayers puts it, “There has never been any question but that the women of the poor should toil alongside their men. No angry, and no compassionate, voice has been raised to say that women should not break their backs with harvest work, or soil their hands with blacking grates and peeling potatoes. The objection is only to work which is pleasant, exciting, or profitable - the work that any human being might think it worth while to do.”

She also points out that the idea that a wife didn’t need to soil her hands with work went mainstream when the middle classes tried to emulate the values of the nobility: an idle wife was the sign of a superior social status.

And what of those middle class women who might wish to find occupation?

It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being - and a human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.

Look, I am not arguing against couples making a division of labor whereby one spouse cares for the children full time. In fact, this works well for many people with infants and those who choose to homeschool their kids. (My parents used this split until we were all up and out, at which point my mom returned to school and then work.) The problem comes when we insist that this is the only way it can or should be, or - what is very much the same thing - that it is the only “godly” way it should be. Even aside from the fact that this pretty much eliminates lower income people from attaining “godliness,” thus making the privilege of wealth into a virtue; it places women in a position where they have fewer - and less fulfilling - occupations available than they had a few hundred years ago. That makes no sense.

So, when evaluating how we speak of men and women, I believe it really is important to ask, “Am I viewing women as fully human, with ordinary human desires, or am I placing them in a category of ‘women,’ without regard to their humanity?”

Sayers doesn’t stop with the idea that class membership is the wrong way to view women, she also expands the idea to the whole of society.

A difference of age is as fundamental as a difference of sex; and so is a difference of nationality. All categories, if they are insisted upon beyond the immediate purpose which they serve, breed class antagonism and disruption in the state, and that is why they are dangerous.
To oppose one class perpetually to another - young against old, manual labor against brain-worker, rich against poor, man against woman - 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 think or act 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.


  1. From all of your excellent points I am choosing to focus on the statement that Dickens could not write believable female characters ( with the possible exception of Sairy Gamp). I do so loathe Lucy Manon in A Tale of Two Cities; I loathe the book, too, but the character even more. In fact, I often told my daughters that I know of only one "good" woman in early literature who is also interesting--Elizabeth Bennett; the rest are just rubber stamp characters (well, possibly except some in some Wilkie Collins books). Becky Sharp is a fascinating woman character, but as she said, she was no saint, and I long to slap Amelia Sedley. And returning to Dickins, his women characters are cardboard cutouts of whichever type he chose to present. As my daughter says, rant over.

    1. Well, there is the question as to whether "good" characters are interesting as a general rule or not. I find "good" characters a bit nauseating myself - male or female. Any truly "human" character will have a mix of good and evil, character and flaws.

      But, as far as "good" women from earlier novels who are interesting, I would nominate the following:

      Jeanie Deans from The Heart of Midlothian (Sir Walter Scott)I have long thought she was one of Scott's finest protagonists - and she is based on a real person.

      While there are any number of well-drawn female characters in the novels of Anthony Trollope (one of my favorite authors), I particularly like Caroline Waddington from The Bertrams, Lucy Robarts from Framley Parsonage, and Nora Rowley from He Knew He Was Right. And that's before you get into the delightful secondary characters and the ones that don't qualify as "good."

      You are right that Wilkie Collins wrote good ones. I am particularly fond of Magdalen from No Name - but she is so very far from "good" in the Victorian sense.

      Both Laetitia Dale and Clara Middleton from The Egoist (George Meredith) which is a truly underrated novel. It's a good one for females to read to learn to recognize the type of man who wants a woman to reflect his glory. Both women in the book are well developed and intriguing.

      So there are a few - but they are indeed too scarce.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    2. " I do so loathe Lucy Manon in A Tale of Two Cities; I loathe the book, too, but the character even more. "

      I don't blame you; really, Lucy Manon in A Tale of Two Cities is a plot device, not a character. Her only real importance to the story is her relation to the men in her life...