Up From the Pedestal
“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man…who breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
It is not good luck to be born a woman. Given the choice in advance, who would elect it? It is disagreeable to be part of a lesser class unless that class is both militant and rising. But women, as a class, have their fortunes inextricably bound up with those of their oppressors. They, says Aileen Kraditor, “have been the only subordinated group that has belonged to the same families as its rulers.”
Still, we make the best of it. “I have not,” writes Mary Ellmann, “heard of women who have killed themselves simply and entirely because they were women.” For a depressed majority, we are rather cheerful; enjoying the benefits of a kind of culture of poverty in which lowered expectations allow us to be successful even when we have not really achieved anything. The wife of a president—so long as she does not fall down drunk in public—will invariably appear on a list of most admired women.
This notion of the existence of women’s spheres in which it is possible to be both best-of-class and still inferior to half the population has come down intact from the past. Only the definition of woman’s territory changes as conditions change. Activities tend to fall within her boundaries after having slipped from the highest status levels. One suspects that women doctors became emotionally acceptable at about the time pure science leaped into prominence as the field for the best minds.
Yet women are not too much disturbed by their condition. Except for brief periods of heightened interest—most notably during those times when society threatens to come apart—women have been largely indifferent to feminism. In fact, they tend to be embarrassed by it. One has only to complain publicly of sex-based inequities to elicit a protesting letter from, let us say, a mother who writes that carving wooden birds for her children is more creative than taking a job—which is doubtless true, jobs being what they are, but has nothing to do with equity.
Anti-feminists have always maintained that women were privileged not to be forced into the dreary day-to-day work of the world, a slippery concept responsive to a feminist movement of middle-class women of leisure. During this century, however, women increasingly do the dreary work outside their homes, and then go home and do it inside.
“Women don’t want to be plant managers,” we are told. “They have other concerns.” Or, Mary Ellmann writes: “I read that only nineteen American women became orthodontists in 1962. I am humiliated…. It’s days before I think to be glad that so few wanted to be orthodontists.”
Yes—but then one thinks of the women who have grown old as assistants to plant managers and orthodontists and wonders if, being stuck with the machines and the teeth anyway, they might not as well enjoy the money and the fun.
But they do not really think about it, women. And, can they be expected to? Acquiescence in one’s oppression is the mark of oppression. One of the quandaries of early feminism was that if it were acknowledged that women had been impaired by subjugation, how could equal rights be demanded for an inferior caste? If, however, women had not been damaged, what then was wrong with the system? In any case, thinking about women is disheartening. As is reading about them. After a while, one begins to imagine that if all events had been utterly changed, if wars and revolutions had ended differently, if history had not happened, the status of women would still be what it is. We are a class outside history.
Aileen Kraditor, the author of The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement has now, in Up From the Pedestal, edited and commented on an impressive selection of 300 years of writing about women. Here is Anne Bradstreet in 1642:
For such despight they cast on female wits:
If what I doe prove well, it wo’nt advance,
They’l say its stolne, or else, it was by chance.
And “Constantia,” writing in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 of the differences in nurturing the sexes:
…the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited…. She experiences a mortifying consciousness of inferiority, which embitters every enjoyment.
Here are puffy men dwelling on the analogy of the female vine clinging to the sturdy masculine oak; the feminist response that if they will look at the oak about which the ivy twines, they will see that it is dead at the top. And those awesome nineteenth-century feminists, the Grimké sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the others who vigorously proclaimed the legitimacy of women—even their superiority—demanded female autonomy, challenged man and the Bible, rummaged in the past for evidence of ancient matriarchates which, like those vanished African civilizations of black history, were always golden. Later, there were new names and more politic approaches as the high-minded abolitionist morality faded into the turn-of-the-century pragmatism of the next generation of suffragists.
The last document in the book is the 1966 Statement of Purpose marking the inception of the National Organization for Women, which was formed to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now… [believing] the time has come to move beyond the abstract argument, discussion, and symposia over the status and special nature of women….”
It would seem that, over so long a period of time, every possible argument against the full political, economic, and social equality of women would have been beaten into the ground. The issue should be done with by now. It is a bore. Yet, Caroline Bird’s Born Female, which is useful for its documentation of discrimination against women, tells us with facts and statistics what we all already know: women today do not have political, economic, and social rights equal to men. Even the addition of the category “sex” to that section of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 which prohibited discrimination in employment was introduced by a Southern Congressman in order to embarrass and annoy the Northern liberals. We are, in victory too, it seems, a joke.
Thinking About Women is the twist of the knife; a witty, rueful essay by Mary Ellmann on attitudes toward women—literary and other. Norman Mailer is much in evidence, as is fitting for America’s pre-eminent male colonialist. Here is Mailer in the Presidential Papers:
The fact of the matter is that the prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.
And Freud who, resenting John Stuart Mill’s conception of intellectual freedom for women, wrote about his fiancée:
Am I to think of my delicate, sweet girl as a competitor…I will make every effort to get her out of the competitive role into the quiet, undisturbed activity of my home.
Mrs. Ellmann is sharp and funny in the sections on sexual analogy (the ovum has a lonely existential journey while the sperm travels like a mass of jostling commuters), phallic criticism, and feminine stereotypes. Her writing is mordant and dry—perhaps to avoid embodying what she sees as a fundamental male concept of females: that they are wet. They are also shrill, hysterical, formless, irrational, and deciduous. Soft, too. One cannot argue with her statement that “The male body lends credence to assertions, while the female takes it away.” In this context, only imagine Johnson, Nixon, or Humphrey as women. Who would have put up with any of them for an instant?
When one reads about women, it becomes clear why so few women, anywhere in the world, are in positions of real power and authority: people do not think much of them.
What, if anything, is to be done? Feminist thinking on the subject has shifted as each specific victory on a list of demands failed to bring total victory: higher education, access to professions, the vote. At one time, the socialist answer was the abolition of private property. Engels found the elemental instance of class oppression in monogamy: male using female as his means of production of legitimate heirs so that his property could be preserved intact. But where are the female leaders in the socialist states?
There has been, in the past few years, a resurgence of American feminist activity—most recently in response to the discovery by some women in the new radical movements that they had once again become a ladies’ auxiliary. Even while “restructuring” the society, women were still most useful as typists and cooks. Simultaneously, militant black women were encouraged to subordinate their own drive for equality to black men’s assertion of their rightful masculine role.
Among the new women’s liberation groups, WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) has the most arresting name, but its activities so far have been more guerrilla theater than IRA—not nearly so terrorist as Mrs. Pankhurst’s British suffragettes who poured acid in mailboxes and blew things up until the First World War threw them back into the service of Man.
Of course, it is easier to fight unjust laws than an ambiance; difficult to unite women against an attitude. So the new feminists again look for a focus in the law: abortion law reform, state-supported day care centers, the end of protective legislation. But many of them have concluded that it is the family structure which is the root cause of difficulty. The most radical insist it is the fundamental fact that only females reproduce. To be a mother is to be the eternal footman. Nothing short of the destruction of the family system and the end of internal reproduction will do.
This future is made at least faintly plausible by projected advances in biology which deal with the artificial production of life. Add to this the increasing need to limit population growth and you have the possibility of eliminating women qua women altogether.
But that is at least a generation away. In the meantime, there will be more books.