Friday, July 20, 2007

Some thoughts on womanhood

Yesterday morning I came across a little book called The Best of Women's Quotations. Although I had been given it some years ago, it had remained unopened on my 'things to do later/that don't really interest me' shelf. I picked out a couple of quotations to start off my 'Daily(ish) quote' post, not giving any serious thought to the subject matter. It just doesn't do to rush to print or to judgement, does it? I took a proper look at the book last night and saw that it deserves better than my flippant treatment.

There is no commentary in the book, it is simply a collection of quotations from women from the eighteenth century to the present day. It is beautifully illustrated and the quotations are roughly grouped by theme. I have to admit that my first impression was that it was pretty corny, like all those so-called 'inspirational' gift books, usually sold on railway stations and in garden centres. In fact, it depicts the very real struggle that women had to obtain justice, to be treated with respect and fairness and for their gifts and talents for anything other than domestic chores to be recognised.

The book isn't a series of whinges. It is the modern feminist who whinges, belittling the efforts of her great grandmother. The words of Sojourner Truth refer to real slavery; Elizabeth Stanton, Julia Ward Howe and Lucretia Mott were abolitionists and also worked for basic social rights for women. Natalya Baranskaya speaks as a woman struggling to balance her role as a scientist with her domestic duties in Soviet Russia.

Women of the middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not experience the physical privations of their less fortunate sisters, their struggle was against inequalities in education and opportunities to express themselves in art and literature. Francoise Gilot, whom I quoted in yesterday's post, was born in 1921 into a wealthy French family. She had excellent educational opportunities, gaining a degree in Philosophy from the Sorbonne and one in English Literature from Oxford, but she had to keep her ambition to be an artist secret from her family. Sophie Tolstoy, a poet in her own right and mother to 13 of Leo's children, felt that she was regarded by the great man as "... a source of satisfaction to him, a nurse, a piece of furniture, a woman - nothing more."

Quotations from these women and others such as Lucy Stone, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf show the frustration of artists and thinkers who were subject to restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society. It is difficult for us to imagine living in a society in which women were laughed at or even condemned for wanting to 'do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.' (Charlotte Bronte) And yet it was not really so long ago: my own mother, born in 1920, was not allowed to take up a scholarship to the Liverpool College of Art because her parents couldn't see the point of higher education for a girl.

It is interesting to note the change in tone from earnest to humorous as more freedoms were won and different goals set:

  • "In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman's heart until she bows to it no longer." (Lucy Stone 1818-1893)
  • "If civilisation is to advance at all in the future, it must be through the help of women, women freed of their political shackles, women with full power to work their will in society." (Emmaline Pankhurst 1857-1928)
  • "I'm furious about the Women's Liberationists. They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That's true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket." (Anita Loos 1888-1981)
  • "It occurred to me when I was thirteen and wearing white gloves and Mary Janes and going to dancing school, that no one should have to dance backward all their lives." (Jill Ruckelshaus, b. 1937)

Reading these quotations, finding out about their authors and the times in which they lived(aren't search engines wonderful!) has made me realise how much we owe to their courage and determination. They are not to be confused with modern feminists, about whom I will keep quiet since I cannot think of anything kind to say. They were not anti-men, they just wanted to be considered as fully human. That is our heritage: we have equality in law, employment, education and most areas of social life.

I'm going back to my shelf of discards to see what other little gems I might find.


  1. You have titled this post well, because "some thoughts" is about all one can contribute to what most men eventually come to see as a timeless, inchoate sense of grievance they can grasp about as firmly as a handful of mercury. Here are a few of mine:

    A) There is a bit of a pattern to the plights of women like Ms. Gilot and Ms. Tolstoy, one that applies as well to De Beauvoir, Arendt and lots of others. Women of exceptional talent and ambition themselves, they made the huge mistake of becoming romantically attached to similarly gifted iconoclasts whose disdain for the boring, horribly oppressive canons of the traditional order (like fidelity, financial support and companionship outside bed)eventually led them to rank misogyny and an insistence on living any way they darn well pleased. These men used and abused them because they used and abused everybody. Yet instead of just calling a jerk a jerk, hiring the best lawyer and admitting a mistake, the women spun out grandiose philosophies of gender-oppression that supposedly applied to everybody. If they were so determined to wow the world with their accomplishments and talents, they should have listened to their fathers and either stayed single or found a Dennis Thatcher or Duke of Edinburgh to anchor them.

    B) At the risk of being accused of wanting to send children back to work in the mines, I'm a little disappointed you seem to have bought into the modern cant about how unspeakably awful and restrictive woman's lot was in the past because of legal disabilities and patriarchical custom and how that translated into a kind of slavery that thwarted all female talent and initiative, although I'm resigned to the reality that even the most conservative women today tend to see it that way. But the world didn't begin in late Victorian times and things were a lot more ambiguous than that one-dimensional perspective suggests. In the first place, all those famous legal disabilities applied to married women. Widows and single women have been equal to men more or less since feudal times and lots of them ran businesses and estates, became saints, wrote poetry, overturned dynasties, etc. Secondly, there were all kinds of legal tricks used to get around the loss of legal independence of married women of means that allowed them to keep control over their wealth. Thirdly, until well into the 19th century, husbands did not have the commercial and property freedoms they do today--they needed their wives' cooperation more than is commonly supposed. Fourthly, the admittedly rank discrimination in education only became a big issue when male education became serious and widespread--again the late 19th century. As with the vote and commercial independence, it took not much more than a couple of generations for women to catch up to what was relatively new for men as well. Unjust to be sure, but not a story of thousands of years of straightline patriarchical oppression ever since we blokes got together and overthrew the Earth Goddess.

    C) Just how far should we be going in aligning family law and our attitudes to the rights and duties of motherhood (that is really what it is all about--who cares about childless men or women?) with our desire to ensure a potential female Rembrandt or Trump isn't lost in some gender prison? Modern libertarian feminism has been a terrific boon to upper middle class and professional women, but it is madness to deny that women lower down the socio-economic scale are paying for it. Compare the lot of the average working class wife/mother in 1920 with today in terms of security and status. And how much unrecognized talent ignored by cloddish chauvinists or thwarted by domestic drudgery is really out there? Modern angry feminists always seem to tell tales about how their poor mothers would have been great film stars or novelists or whatever if only Dad had backed them, but a trope is a trope. I must say, though, I really have no idea how to react to the statement that Sophie Tolstoy was a mother of thirteen children, but also a poet "in her own right". Mind-blowing!

    All this is fascinating intellectual history for bloggers, but one very contemporary feature of our absorption in the West with strict legal equality and gender interchangeability is the incredibly arrogant and blinkered view so many of us take towards Muslim women. On the one hand, there are inspiring widespread calls for reform and more civil rights for women within the Muslim world by a lot of determined, courageous Muslim women and also Muslim men, but on the other, I see little evidence of their wanting to adopt our basically androgynous model or looking to their putatively liberated sisters in the West as the solution. I wish I understood more what they they envisage, but I suspect the security and dignity of family and children are greater priorities than writing a bestseller. And I also suspect they are more focused on reining in male misbehaviour than fighting for the freedom to behave just as badly.

  2. Peter, I have a house guest so don't have time to respond. I'll get back to you tomorrow evening.

  3. Peter:

    I chose to put 'some thoughts' and not 'my thoughts' in the title because I was not setting out to make any kind of judgemental statement about the issues in the book. On considering how I had presented it in my earlier post, I felt I had been unfair. It is very difficult to take quotations in isolation, so I looked (very fleetingly) at their context.

    I think I made it clear, and certainly anyone who knows me is aware, that I have no truck with modern feminists who appear to be bent on undermining the family, vilifying all men and behaving in what I consider to be a fashion which degrades women.

    In my post I drew a clear distinction between those who worked for the improvement in the living conditions of women, for better standards in midwifery, nutrition and sanitation and those middle class women whose concern was about intellectual and artisitic freedom. I do not confuse the categories or give them equal consideration. I pointed out that the difference was obvious in the tone of the writings which changed from earnest to humorous in the examples I gave.

    I deliberately did not quote from the more modern section in the book e.g. Erica Jong and Germaine Greer because I find their sentiments offensive.

    I don't believe that I have a false sense of history, certainly not of British history. I know that the lower classes, whether working on the land or in the industrialised towns, lived in appalling conditions and that any improvement in the care of women meant improvement in the lives of the whole family. I also know, as you point out, that basic education for working class women came only slightly later than for men.

    I am aware that single women and widows had, on the whole but not universally, equal legal status with men. But the majority of women, prior to World War 1, would have been married and their legal status was far from equal. Had they, as you suggest, left abusive or indifferent husbands they would have had no right of access to their children and probably no right to any money either.

    I made the offending reference to Sophie Tolstoy's thirteen children and her poetry because it tied in with what she claimed was her husband's view of her - a source of satisfaction to him (13 children might support that view), a nurse, a piece of furniture, a woman, nothing more.' I haven't read any of her work so I don't know if it has any merit, but she was a writer and obviously felt that this part of her life was not recognised or valued. In my mind, but obviously not clearly enough in my words, I was also referring to what Duck had said and I had endorsed in the previous post, about women as child bearers, family raisers, home-makers etc. We tend to define women by their married status and motherhood before adding their profession or accomplishments. We don't define men in that way. We wouldn't say Leo Tolstoy, husband of Sophy, father of thirteen children and a great writer. It was meant to have a touch of sarcasm.

    I think the views in your final paragraph are similar to my own. It is very difficult to judge other cultural practices and values. About twenty years ago we did a lot of voluntary work with Vietnamese refugees. We lived in a very big house at that time and we invited a group of 25 refugees to stay with us for a break from the camp they were living in. My husband and I were shocked at their daily routine: the men sat around all morning, smoking and playing cards while the women cleaned, cooked and looked after the children. At lunchtime every day, the men and older boys sat at the table, the women brought in dish after dish that they had spent the morning preparing and stood behind the men, ensuring the dishes were passed around and replenished as needed. The younger children did not sit down, they were given a bowl of rice and went around the table while the men added tidbits of fish and meat from their bowls. When the men had finished eating they left, taking the children with them. The women cleared up and then sat for their own meal and then I saw the reality - they ate what they liked best, they chattered and joked among themselves and they were free of the children - it was a daily party! We had missed the point.

    Now that they are all westernised, I'm sure their lives are very different. I don't know if they are any better.

    I thought keeping off politics and religion would keep my blogging safe. Obviously not!

  4. Monix: the recent skirmishes have understandably left you a bit oversensitive. Your post and Peter's comment are the best things I've seen on a blog for ages. Top marks all round.

  5. You know me, Brit, I like to discuss almost anything and everything objectively, I'm just not so good when it seems to get personal.

  6. Gosh, Monix, I do apologize. I didn't think I was even arguing with you. It felt more like I was just distracting myself randomly.

    I guess where I am coming from is more a sense of being perplexed by how much almost all women today base their somewhat defiant expectations of a rigorous legal, occupational and even "domestic" (ahem!) equality on a supposed historical horror show that doesn't often bear out under close scrutiny. It's important because I don't think male-female relations are particularly healthy these days and we have become positively colonialist about the rest of the world. I confess my eyes glaze over whenever I hear yet another speech on how women in the past were considered to be "chattels", and I'm often tempted to stir the pot by asking why more men didn't sell them at the local market or pledge them to the nearest moneylender. Part of the problem today is that what works pretty well in public life doesn't always work so well in private and also there is near-total ignorance about what the gods of necessity demanded for a family in the past to survive and why the rights and roles of men and women evolved the way they did. It is certainly true that an abused or deserted woman in the 19th century was very vulnerable, but do we imagine there were a lot of men decamping for Majorca with their new trophy wives?

    Shakespeare is full of very intelligent, perceptive women making ascerbic comments about their plight and the follies of men they had to suffer, but there is little sense of history-gone-wrong or demands for political organization and change. Not much whining either about how they could write a terrific epic poem if only their husbands helped more with childcare. There is much more a sense of competing natures and timeless conflicts. But then, I guess they didn't have the benefit of all those edifying courses in gender studies at redbrick universities.

    An Orthodox friend once told me that some rabbis say the original versions of Genecis should be properly translated as "And God created woman to oppose man". That would explain a lot.

    Am I forgiven or am I still in the doghouse?

  7. Brit:
    You are right. I've re-read Peter's comment and I did over react. I'm getting tired of making public apologies so I'll just say, if you're listening, Peter, don't mind me.

  8. Peter:
    Your last comment crossed with mine, so I hope the air has cleared! Despite my age, I never managed to grow a protective layer.

  9. No problem, monix, although you will understand why I didn't dare post my lengthy comment on Molly and Freddy. :-)

  10. Peter, I'll change my motto for some more of your words:

    "... the first commandment for blogmeisters: Thou shalt not be hurt!."


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!