Friday, June 29, 2012

"Are Women Human?" excerpt from Dorothy L. Sayers


I have been a great admirer of C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolken for a very long time.  I relish reading and hearing the reminiscences of the small club known as “The Inklings”.  But how many know that there was a remarkable woman who was also a member of this elite club (if they would thought of themselves as elite…perhaps unique would have been better word).

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, was also a writer of detective fiction, a scholar of the Middle Ages, translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a lay theologian and Christian apologist.

I am still of the age that remembers the limited numbers of women who attended college (ladies, you take it for granted now!) and for a woman to be a trail-blazer was a difficult, daunting path in life.

The following is an excerpt from her essay “Are Women Human?” originally published in 1947.

Dorthy Sayers writes:

There has never been any question by 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 that is pleasant, exciting or profitable—the work that any human being might think it worth while to do. The boast, “My wife doesn’t need to soil her hands with work,” first became general when the commercial middle classes acquired the plutocratic and aristocratic notion that the keeping of an idle woman was a badge of superior social status.  Man must work, and woman must exploit his labour.  What else are they there for? And if the woman submits, she can be cursed for her exploitation; and if she rebels, she can be cursed for completing with the male; whatever she does will be wrong, and that is a great satisfaction.

The man who attribute all the ills of Homo to the industrial age, yet accept it as the norm of the relations of the exes,.  But the brain, that great and sole true Androgyne, that can mate indifferently with male or female and beget offspring upon itself, the cold brain laughs at their perversions of history.  The period from which we are emerging was like no other: a period when empty head and idle hands were qualities for which a man prized his woman and despised her. When, by an odd, sadistic twist of morality, sexual intercourse was deemed to be a marital right to be religiously enforce upon a meek reluctance—as though the instable appetite of wives were not one of the oldest jokes in the world, older that mothers-in law, and far more venerable than kippers.  When to think about sex as considered indelicate in a woman, and to think about anything else unfeminine.  When to “manage” a husband by lying and the exploitation of sex was held to be honesty and virtue.  When the education that Thomas More gave his daughters was denounce as a devilish indulgence, and could only be wrong from the outraged holder of the purse-strings by tears and martyrdom and desperate revolt, in the teeth of the worlds’ mockery and the reprobation of a scandalized Church.

What is all this tenderness about women herded into factories?  Is it much more than an excuse for acquiesicing in the profitable herding of men? The wrong is inflicted upon Homo. There are temperaments suited to herding and temperaments that are not: but the dividing lines do not lie exactly along the sexual boundary.  The Russians, it seems, have begun to realize this; but are revolution and blood the sole educational means for getting this plain fact into our heads?  Is it only under stress of war that we are ready to admit that the person who does the job best is the person best fittest to it? Must we always treat women like Kipling’s common soldier?

It’s vamp and slut and gold-digger,
and “Polly you’re a liar!”
But it’s “Thank-you Mary Atkins”
When the guns begin to fire.

We will use women’s work in wartime (though we will pay less for it, and take it away from them when the war is over). But it is an unnatural business, undertaken for no admissible feminine reason –such as to ape the men, to sublimate a sexual repression, to provide a hobby for leisure, or to make the worker more bedworthy—but simply because, without it all Homo… will be in the soup.  But to find satisfaction in doing good work and knowing that it is wanted is human nature; therefore it cannot be feminine nature, for women are not human.  It is true that they die in bombardments, much like real human beings: but that we will forgive, since they clearly cannot enjoy it: and we can salve our consciences by rating their battered carcasses at less than a man’s compensation.[1]

Women are not human.  They lie when they say they have human needs; warm and decent clothing; comfort in the bus; interests directed immediately to God and His universe, not intermediately through any child of man. They are far above man to inspire him, far beneath him to corrupt him; they have feminine minds and feminine natures, but their mind is not one with their nature like the minds of men; they have no human mind and no human nature. “Blesses be God,” says the Jew, “that hath not made me a woman.”

God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it.  I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha an Mary that did not attempt, somehow , somewhere, to explain away its text.  Mary’s of course, was the better part—the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him.  But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her.  For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross.  They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another.  A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about hem, never retreated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.  There is not act, no sermon, no parable in that whole Gospel that borrows it pungency from female perversity; nobody could possible guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.

But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Woman are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.

Dorothy L. Sayers Are Women Human? (1971, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans) pp 62-69




[1] This [during WW2] last scandal did in the end outrage public opinion and was abolished [that government compensation for the death of a woman was less than a man in Great Brittan].

1 comment:

omalone1 said...

Gwiz, I do wonder what Sylvia Wynter might say in response to this piece