Book of the Week: Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers
Book 19: Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers
Sometimes, when I have a doctor's appointment or some other similar errand that might involve waiting, I scan my bookshelf and grab a book I've never opened, thinking that I will use the wait to thumb through the book and see what its all about. Last week, when I was taking my car in for some routine maintenance, I snagged my wife's copy of Are Women Human? and took it along. I had to hide the cover in the waiting room because I was mortified that someone would see it and assume I needed help answering the question.
This book is comprised of two short essays by Sayers. The first, "Are Women Human?", was a lecture given to a women's society in England in 1938. Here, it is presented with an essay titled "The Human-Not-Quite-Human." Both essays appeared together in the 1947 publication of a collection of Sayers' essays titled, Unpopular Opinions.
Are Women Human?
Sayers certainly would not have called herself a feminist. What she appears to be against is a type of liberal feminism that seeks equality in all things for the sake of equality. She focuses instead on the question of whether or not someone “is a woman” is a helpful question? In most instances, she argues, the use of certain class distinctions (in this case, male/female) are to be employed to answer very specific questions. So, for example, it is reasonable to say that women (as a class) tend to have smaller bones than men (as a class). But it is unreasonable to assume that these classes necessarily limit ones possible tastes, interests, and abilities. In this regard, she avoids association with the feminists of her day because she worried that the feminist movement had reduced itself to the slogan "a woman is just as good as a man". Instead, she tends to focus on the co-humanity of woman and man, allowing that each case in question is individual. The particular talents, tastes, and interests of particular women and men ought to be the only question in consideration. Each individual must be free to make decisions as individuals and must not be impeded from fulfilling their vocation in accordance with their talents and abilities.
The problem is that industrial society tends to deny women a vocation. The slogan "a woman's place is the home" forgets the fact that before the industrial revolution, the home was the place where spinning, weaving, and dying fabrics took place, where clothes were made, where beer was brewed, foods were pickled and preserved, and so on. The jobs were taken out of the home and the women were forced to remain in the home, leaving them virtually vocation-less. In this regard, women are not allowed to fulfill their very human need for a vocation. Women are not allowed to be human!
Sayers' second essay begins at precisely this point, where women are somehow viewed as subhuman. When it comes to gender distinction, woman is always thought of as woman in distinction from man while man is able to be considered as man in particular and humanity in general. This tends to obscure the basic humanity of woman as such. An example: "Man dresses as he chooses, and Woman to please him; and if Woman says she ever does otherwise, he knows better, for she is not human, and may not give evidence on her own behalf." Thus, Sayers tries to describe "mansplaining" before the term existed.
She then returns to her critique of the Industrial Age. She points out that many people rail against the ills of the Industrial Age on society and human flourishing; yet, they uncritically accept the effect that it had on normalizing gender roles. It prized a woman who had an "empty head and idle hands" and simultaneously sexualized and demoralized her by limiting her to the home: "When to think about sex is indelicate for a woman, and to think about anything else is unfeminine."
The church is complicit in all of this. Sayers points out that sermons about Martha and Mary tend to (correctly) point out that Mary is doing what Jesus desires (being a disciple like any other) and yet as soon as men leave the pew, they expect their women to be Marthas.
It is hard to think about Sayers' thoughts in their original context. In a number of ways, her thoughts are outdated and would offend contemporary feminists; and yet, in some ways, her concerns with the feminism of her own day were validated and are common points of agreement with later feminisms.
One point that would no doubt create controversy today is Sayers insistence on leaving class distinction behind. For Sayers, the question of man or woman ought not to occur in a number of instances because it is irrelevant to the question of ability normally. This is an idealized position. Today, we are far more aware of the many ways in which sexism, racism, and the like can hide and thrive in societies that pursue gender-blindness or color-blindness. In this regard, emphasizing women as a class of minorities has become the means by which individual women have experienced greater freedom to be fully human.
And yet, I wonder if Sayers insistence might have something to say to today's identity politics? Have we overemphasized categorical identity at the expense of the humanity of each individual?
Review: Short read. Interesting snapshot of 20th century British women and Christianity. Probably not a serious dialogue partner for contemporary feminism.