“A Woman’s Standing”

The Darnley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

The Darnley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1575

“A Woman’s Standing”

Up to adolescence, the question of standing as a woman did not arise. You had the friends who wanted to play with you. You could be rated as an athlete or a student or (at the high school I went to) a painter – but as a woman? Not especially.

Since I went to a women’s college, those four years did not change things much. That is, until senior year when, unaccountably, all my high school friends from coed colleges were engaged and I was definitely on the rung below.

Fast forward to the world that feminism has transformed. The movement erupted suddenly into mainstream life with the prime ambition to restore full human standing to women, whether they navigated their worlds alone or in couples.

To achieve this admirable purpose, it used one or other of these two postulates:

   (1) a lost history of a prelapsarian epoch when women ruled or

(2) a reduction of gender differences to mere convention and

role playing.

Apart from the thinness of the evidence for either of these hypotheses, they were astonishingly abstract. Real life rolled on somewhere beneath their realm, on ground these gleaming models seemingly had never traveled.

“I will lose standing,” I groaned to a dear friend and colleague, with whom I was discussing my resolve to divorce my first husband.

“No,” she reassured me. “Not once you’ve been married.” (Needless to say, we were both sincere feminists.)

 At a memorial service for the husband of an old friend, I met a woman I had known since my teen years. She was the author of a number of books on topics that spoke to women. Though we hadn’t seen each other recently, we kept the old fondness and quickly brought each other up to date. I told her that my sister had stopped speaking to me. Also, that I had gotten engaged – to Mr. Right this time. Instantly she reached for my left hand, inspected its ring and said,

“No wonder she’s not speaking to you.”

She was a famous feminist and yet she spoke as if this was a truth universally acknowledged.

Recently I told a woman friend at my temple that I had never belonged to a synagogue before this one and wouldn’t have joined had I still been single.

“Half the time,” I explained, “the wives would have asked me why I was not married and the other half of the time, they would’ve been afraid of an unattached woman.”

My friend looked at me appalled, paused to think a minute, head in hand, then looked up at me and sighed.

“You’re right.”

What is standing, for a woman, and what is to be done about it?

It’s a sign, ladies, of something we all know about: the unfairness of life. The trouble with official feminism was not that it tried to suggest remedies for the extremes of unfairness.   Rather, the trouble was that it held out a promissory note that could not be cashed. The promise was that the asymmetries of our playing fields could be made level if we only implemented one or another of its convoluted theories.

The asymmetries — the yin and the yang — are the playing field. Nobody gets above it. If some woman claims that she has done so, keep watching and



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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