Ugh. What a subject! I guess I’m one, but it doesn’t sound like a fun topic.
In college, I had hesitated before deciding to major in philosophy. Would it look mannish? Would eligible bachelors be put off?
When I was teaching at Brooklyn College, a pair of students, obviously a couple, enrolled in my intro course in philosophy. They always sat together in the back row. The first papers were graded and handed back. She got an A; he got a B. A month later, the next written assignments were returned, and guess what? They both got B’s.
Coincidence? I didn’t think so. Every woman makes her own terms. I understood hers, but doubted they would wear well.
When I began teaching, feminism was new on the scene. A young male colleague and I decided to team-teach a course in Nineteenth Century Philosophy. It’s a field I know something about, especially Hegel, and I was not prepared to dumb down in front of students. But I found coming “out of the closet” in front of a male colleague – disagreeing with him openly when I had to – both distressing and disorienting. It also forced me to realize how reflexively I’d been dumbing down with colleagues outside the classroom, just as a way of being agreeable. Not abrasive.
In The Second Sex, which is the founding text of twentieth-century feminism, its author, Simone de Beauvoir, says of the intellectual woman: her lips purse, her brow furrows, her gaze is abstracted – meaning to indicate by all this that she is “lost in thought” and has – saints preserve us! – forgot to flirt!
Though de Beauvoir wants to defend the woman with the pursed lips, women’s real preferences are seen in what they do, not what they say. The writer of The Second Sex never concealed her satisfaction that the man in her life, Jean Paul Sartre, was the greater mind.
In fact, their intellects were different. Sartre was certainly original and a powerhouse. He won a Nobel Prize and helped define an era intellectually. However, The Second Sex will probably outlive Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. De Beauvoir’s unpretentious, methodical book about women has changed lives all over the world and done more good. I don’t claim that there are gender-based laws of the mind. It might have worked the other way. But that is how it actually fell out.
What does seem true is that intellectual power is a type of power, and a clear-sighted woman will look for a man with power of some type, sufficient for her needs. The sociobiologists have their perfectly plausible explanations. The male must protect the hearth while the female is busy making it a home for her offspring. The National Geographic documentaries on animal courtship illustrate these preferences vividly: the males half-kill each other till the winner emerges. Females take the winner, with the good DNA to pass along to their young.
Great film footage, but what if anything does it have to say to intellectual women? Not too much. It usually takes more than one lion, strategizing with a buddy, to get a lioness away from her cubs. She’s no pussycat herself. And neither is Mother Nature.
What seems to have happened – and it’s one of the great triumphs of the feminist movement – is that our civilization seems far readier than it was to appreciate a woman who has the courage of her talents and strives to be at the top of her game. She has come to seem more – not less – of a woman.
It’s amazing, one of the truly profound and beneficial revolutions in human history and it has occurred in one generation. The exaggerations, the unintended side-effects, the retreats into ideological rigidity – these are unpleasant and unsurprising. However, what is emerging from it all is something rarely seen before now:
women whose inward and outward freedom
is constrained only by
the discipline of their tasks in the world –
not by the fear of losing out in the mating game.