Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the painting above, takes an uncommon view, since the self-display is rather complete.  Usually, in photos from all over the world, every clime and hue, the feminine look has slightly lowered eyelids, a face turned sidewise, a half-smile, eyes that look back knowingly and a good deal of her is covered.

What is femininity?  It says, come hither; I might be available; I might surrender to you; you should investigate; but let me do the same.

The late André Philip was a family friend.  He had been De Gaulle’s first Minister of Finance and, before that, during the Second World War, a hero of the Resistance to the German Occupation of France.  His wife, Mireille Philip, had worked alongside him in that combat.  One time, she was traveling by train to an appointed rendezvous with fellow resistants, carrying an elegant suitcase in which weapons were hidden.  In her compartment, she found herself surrounded by German officers.  Never at a loss, she engaged them in witty and animated conversation.  When she descended from the train, one of the higher-ranking German officers gallantly carried her suitcase for her, unaware of the weapons loaded inside.

What is femininity?  It says, I can’t give up truth, even for your sake, even if I like you.  I can’t give up integrity, or my surrender would lose worth.  I will support you and help you, because men need support and help, but not at the cost of truth and integrity.  At least, not if I can help it.

There is a tale that the writer, psychologist and feminist Phyllis Chesler tells in An American Bride in Kabul.  As a college girl, she fell in love with and married a Westernized young Afghan man.  During their honeymoon world travels, he suggested that they stop in Kabul for a brief visit with her new in-laws.  There she found herself a prisoner of her father-in-law’s polygamous household, without the passport that had been taken from her at the airport.  She became ill, lay at the mercy of a mother-in-law who quite possibly was trying to kill her. The husband, who had been her soul mate before he was swallowed entire by his traditional culture, had become unrecognizable.  Not an ally, no longer on her side, he did nothing to help.  Finally her father-in-law stepped in.  Perhaps he did not want a dead American bride on his hands.  With his covert help, she managed to escape and save her life.  Chesler never forgot the violation of trust and the elementary decencies to which she was subjected.  For the rest of her life, she has fought for vulnerable women, writing to expose invasions of human rights in the name of a viciously misdirected male authority.

But, to the disapproval of some critics, she continued to care about the ex-husband who had so badly broken their marital bond.  Indeed, her lifelong combat to challenge the mores that break the spirits and lives of women can be understood as a demand – an insistence to the point of open warfare — that her early love live up to its shattered promise.  The story she tells in An American Bride in Kabul is, to my mind, an intensely feminine one.

What is femininity?  It says, I will help you to be the man you should have been, if I have to raze the hell you live in, to do it.

When Ernest Hemingway allowed himself to be seduced away from Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, the woman he would love and regret to the end of his days, Hadley did not try to defeat her rival.  Perhaps she felt it was beneath her dignity.  Or perhaps she valued him, the flawed man, too much to meddle with such earthy preferences.  So she did not fight for herself.  She let him go.  Years later, when his seducer told Hadley that she had definitively tired of Hemingway, Hadley wondered how a woman who had once loved Hemingway could ever cease to care about him.

What is femininity?  We try not to be losers, but there are worse things to be.

When my mother was dying, all the feminine charm that I had loved in her – the wide-brimmed hats, the pearls, the perfumed scents – vanished away.  Her face became androgynous, the modulations blurred like the face on a weather-beaten stone.  All that was left was Love, solemn and solid underneath.


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” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) 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 https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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