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 …