Three women I knew as a child seemed to me to have mastered the art of being a woman.  One was an opthamologist and eye surgeon.  She had been named Woman of the Year in New Jersey.  She was very Russian and I remember her saying, as she switched lenses to determine the right prescription, “Is it better-r-r now, sweethear-r-rt, or befor-r-re?”  Another was a Frenchwoman who did, so far as any chronicler could tell, absolutely nothing but serve tea or coffee with a sweet in the garden, stroke Nora, the black cat, and move in the most effortlessly gliding way through fresh topics of conversation as if the afternoon sun would never set on them.  These two women were my mother’s friends, and the third master of the art was my mother.  She could read Thomas Mann in the German, Proust in the French and Dostoevsky in the Russian.  When she died, the condolence notes cast aside all formality, as if the writers were sitting on her lap and she was their Mommy.

These women had been a success at something that is not ordinarily spoken of in terms of success or failure: being a woman.  How did they do it, I wondered?  Was there a set of instructions anywhere?  Even a child could see that a woman could succeed at many things — yet also fail at being a woman.

I came to think that it must involve a definite problematic, like painting with a limited palette.  The compression of forces gives the woman’s situation its intensity, potential for human achievement and risk of tragedy (tragedy not being the same as failure).  There was something to solve here, a dance to be danced.

It’s not usually presented that way, as a skill or an art.  Although we may if fortunate escape the burden of traditional limitations, the terms in which women’s lives are framed remain crucially uninformative.  The advice too often misses the real stakes for us.

I would like to open this site for conversation with women of all ages, convictions and styles of life – wherever situated on the gamut of experience.  In principle, there is no bar to men joining in, since how one defines women has a lot to do with what it means to be a man.  But it is women I invite to pull up a chair at this virtual café table and put their questions and views into the conversation.  I can be wrong as often as right, so specific advice will be avoided.  What will be sought is light on how best to frame the situation of women, considered as a highly interesting problematic.   What kind of hand have we been dealt, as women, and how can we best play it?


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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12 Responses to Preamble

  1. Pingback: “Sex Appeal” | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. Nilda says:

    Wow! Tragic? Would it have been less tragic had she found a man worthy of her so that she could be complete? Do you wonder if she thought herself less fulfilled? I don’t know….seems like the tragedy is that we as women ‘need’ men or women at all. Would it not be better that we choose men (or women) based on just loving to be in their company, their laughter, and their joy? And even find this love of company when they cannot laugh? I guess being a woman means different things to different people. I think I would rather live under my own definition than endure life as another person might define me, or need me to be.

    • alrmartin says:

      Thanks so much, Nilda, for your thousand-dollar question! I see two ways to approach “need” and “fulfillment,” the political and the existential. Re the political: the feminist movement fought to gain full human status for women. The rationale for denying that status had been that femininity itself was a defect – only remedied by the guardianship of men.

      Simone de Beauvoir counter-argued (in The Second Sex, 1949) that “femininity” was a social construct, a choice, a grammatical convention, hence something that could be transformed at will. Not an adequate view (philosophically it drew on Sartre’s implausibly extreme doctrine of freedom in Being and Nothingness, 1943), but a necessary tactic, and the American feminist movement took it over.

      The tactic provided body armor during the single-woman years of my adult life. I would go to New Year’s Eve parties peopled by couples – only me solo – and be unfazed. I would go out for Thanksgiving dinner alone, to a restaurant crowded with families gorging on turkey & fixin’s, and think, the company I have (my own) is better than yours! Was it bravado? It was a tactic, but a necessary one, and it became second nature, as feminism meant it to be.

      But there is an existential sense of need/fulfillment that has to do with the exercise of our full humanity. Our fractured selves want to be whole – the puzzle pieces to find their place in the full picture. The love of friends, who bear witness to our struggle and of a partner in life who shares it, help us to understand our lives — and to want to live.

  3. Kate says:

    What is tragedy? What does it mean to fail as a woman? I think that there is no one answer – it must vary from woman to woman.…

    • alrmartin says:

      Surely it must vary, for failure as for tragedy. About tragedy: I think of a Lakota woman I knew. She was descended from a nineteenth-century chief whose name is well known. When she stood or walked, she was straight as a birch tree — the kind of straight you cannot learn from balancing books on your head. It was my impression that the inner woman was like that too.
      She was not afraid of men or situations and she was arresting to look at but – despite a fair number of applicants — she found no partner in life. The man who would have complemented such a woman just wasn’t there. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. In his place were all the demoralized, defeated and brutal candidates for her affections, not one of them what he should have been. She did not pity herself. But she did not look elsewhere than the X where history had planted her. Her life marks that spot. Her story is tragic.

  4. Cara says:

    I think it is very interesting to think of being a woman as similar to mastering an art or a skill, and it seems like a lot of the success of the women Abigail describes is in how they make others feel positive feelings (but not in like a servile way, because they all seem very solid). I’m not really sure what to do with that, but maybe it would be interesting to ask people to write about a woman or women who they view as having mastered the art of being a woman, and look for threads of commonality in the responses?

    • alrmartin says:

      About making others feel positive feelings, one has to watch that. One time a colleague urged me, “Smile, Abigail!” We were both in the green pea soup. We had both been fired. My answer? “The reason I have a natural smile, buddy, is that I never use it except when I want to.”

  5. Nilda says:

    I work with men; I have male clients and I use my position as a shield. Not that I stayed up nights planning on doing this, but years of being female has taught me that men cannot help but read my best intentions personally. Was I flirting? Did I give out signals of availability? Not in the work arena, I do not. So I arrange my desk so, I dress so, I refrain from touching so. I ‘read’ them so that I am sure what I say and how I say cannot be construed as an invitation of any sort other than to be friendly, and trusting. (As I type this I realize that as a therapist I am asking men to trust me with their deepest darkest thoughts and feelings. They have never trusted their own mother or wife as deeply.) I wonder if my colleagues create their environments with such care? Well of course they do. We all probably long for those “lazy, hazy days of summer” before everything became so freaking serious.

    • alrmartin says:

      Thanks, Nilda, for joining the conversation. Your mention of male clients’ “darkest thoughts & feelings” brought to mind an incident I hadn’t thought of in many years. A student came to see me during office hours. He was young, black and male, and wanted to share a dark fantasy that haunted him. I don’t recall whether he read me a description or just spoke it, but it involved a white girl he was murdering. There was a knife, some sex sadism, and — as the scene dragged on — it was acutely uncomfortable for me to sit quietly and listen, but I was careful not to show any shock.

      My sincere response was this: what you are imagining is entirely normal. White girls have been held up for you as the most sexually desirable and as forbidden — unfairly. In those circumstances, to picture yourself taking such obvious revenge is as natural as wanting to step on the grass where there’s a sign prohibiting it. It does not mean there is anything wrong with you!

      My student told me that this was life changing for him. He had been thinking of taking refuge in same-sex relations, not because he preferred them, but rather to keep himself from committing criminal acts. Now he felt released to be himself.

      Years later, I ran into him on the north side of 89th Street, between Madison & Park, right by the little “country church” that’s set back from the street, nestled in a green alcove between the tall buildings. He was dressed in a well-cut, three-piece suit. I think he said he was a Manhattan lawyer (or occupied some such place on the map of comfortable life). It’s my recollection that he said he was married. With a warm and still-boyish sincerity, he thanked me again.

      • Nilda says:

        Just had a conversation with a man today regarding his “normal” reactions to a very alarming situation. All these long years he beat himself up mentally for reacting normally! Good story!

  6. Loretta says:

    One of my favorite angles to look upon feminism as a journey to complete womanhood and not to compare oneself to men. The attempt to “even the score” with men or to “Make things equal” both become absurd as you realize that differences between man and woman are sacred, God-willed, and perfect.

    I believe there is a balance to this world set in place by God and trying to make genders the same is like trying to make apples and oranges the same thing.

    Secondly, as the world changes we see the word woman being redefined every day, there is less identity recognition with the more traditional ideas of”ladylike” and “the martyrdom” of motherhood. I find that the woman we now choose to identify with is strong, independent and also still able to see with eye of compassion.

    I could write more on either of these topics, a lot more, but one more thing…

    “History is written by those in power” I once heard a teacher say, and how true that is of woman’s role in society, for instance, we are taught about the hunter and gatherer societies but the history books are quick to forget that many of these cultures were matrionic (is that the word?) and the hunters themselves were women as the men stayed home with the children.

    From what i have read, it seems like the first gods were women based on statuettes of fertility goddesses and it was not until the man realized his job in procreation that we had a male representation of god. It also seems that the older and more original a culture puts more power and respect upon women.

    Loretta Allen

    • alrmartin says:


      You are so right about that. When I first started full-time work as an assistant professor, philosophy was an overwhelmingly male profession. All my colleagues would be men. In my college days, the women who taught me masculinized themselves in their gestures and dress, so that no one could accuse them of allowing seductive feminine wiles in the halls of academe.

      I did not want to do what my women teachers had done. The sixties were ending. The new feminism was just beginning. Eventually, it would change the landscape. But its way of framing the situation was generic. What I needed was a concrete sense of how to navigate.

      Here’s what I did. I imagined, empathically, what it would be like to have the body of a man. You have external genitals. That’s a dangerous vulnerability. You can be aroused involuntarily. Unless you are Attila the Hun, there’s another vulnerability. Your power and reputation are in principle under fire from other men. You stand on a field of combat. Meanwhile, if a seductive woman approaches, you can be attracted and rebuffed, even used and discarded. Or you can miscalculate the pushes and pulls of courtship and find yourself attached to a woman who is wrong for you. Or you can turn out a deliberate heel, but that is no light thing either, especially in a work situation.

      That being roughly the masculine ordeal, I would have to (1) gauge and respect distances, so as to telegraph that I was not planning any of these kinds of power plays. This is more a matter of rhythm, timing and “body language” (but these reflect intentions telegraphed). I would also need (2) indirectly to acknowledge the erotic factor, which exists between a man and a woman, at any age and condition – even perhaps between a priest and a dying woman. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the way we are, once we grow up. It was better before we grew up, but here we are. Nobody can help it. What I really wanted was to allow collegiality to usher us back to the halcyon days when I was ten years old, when we boys and girls were free — before dates and proms and wallflowers — before everything got horrible.

      Here’s an example of indirectly acknowledging the erotic factor: a colleague was giving a paper and chanced to remark, perhaps in the Q & A, that flirting was a thoroughly bad thing. I countered, “How can you say such a terrible thing? Who would want to live in a world without flirting?”

      To say that is not, in itself, to flirt. It’s to say, “It’s all right. We can’t help the way life is.” Everybody is acknowledged. Everybody is off the hook.


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