“Intellectual Women”

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

“Intellectual Women” 

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.


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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3 Responses to “Intellectual Women”

  1. Pingback: “Living in History” | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. Carla says:

    …..read your ‘intellectual women’ article abbie…..you so nailed it!!……am amazed at how few men there are who really ‘think’……(this is true in women also)……we seem to live in a flippant, rhetoric-filled society, where there are only rare occasions when one will express an original thought……it seems, the social ‘achievers’ are those who best can do the ‘stand-up comedian’ routine…..banter and laugh off any serious thinking……many times, i hold back in my contemplative responses, because i know they are counter-cultural and will only earn me an apologetic reservation from others in social settings…..gotta keep it so ‘light’ to fit in……get so tired of all this……c’est la vie…..

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Carla. I recognize the social style to which you’re calling attention. It’s kinda boring, isn’t it? The humor isn’t really funny, the bantering not really fun, and the “unseriousness” not really sincere. Life is a pretty serious journey. We can have fun along the way, but not if there’s a ban on being serious. If we have to wear a mask with people, that’s a strain.

      Teaching college students, often they would try to intimidate the lady professor on the first day by looking super bored and impatient. I would deliberately ignore all that, treating it as stage business in a play I didn’t want to be in or watch. Instead of paying attention to their expressions, I’d start talking in complete, grammatical paragraphs about things I take with utmost seriousness. After a while I’d notice that they would look somewhat astonished. I wasn’t buying it. I didn’t care if they wanted to intimidate me. More often than not, the masks would drop.

      We live in an ostensibly anti-intellectual culture. But, as my mother used to say, “Nobody’s dumb.” I mean, a lot of the time, the anti-intellectualism is a mask. We are thoughtful creatures, underneath it all. As Aristotle said, “All men [and women] by nature desire to know.” I agree with Aristotle.

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