The Feminine Force

Pablo Picasso, 1921

The Feminine Force

Some years ago, I met a young woman artist, a painter of very large canvasses, who had married a young Moroccan in order to give him a way to live and work in New York City.  I no longer recall why she brought her husband-of-convenience to my parents’ apartment to meet my mother.  Anyway, he was polite but didn’t say much beyond the how do you do’s.  My mother, who had lived in Tel Aviv when it had three streets, gave him a keen look and said this:

“How your grandmother must have loved you!”

“When she died, I left home,” responded he.

If I knew half of what my mother knew, I’d be a pretty smart lady.  What I remembered in after years, when I had read many books on the legal and social position of women in Islam, was that a woman can, by her feminine force, become the master of the space she inhabits.  

What is this force?  Cleopatra captivated the affections and affected the policies of the two most powerful men of her day: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – luring the second to his doom with her.  Since Antony’s successors in Rome effaced every mark of her influence, we have only second- and third-hand accounts, but the bare facts of history are impressive enough.  What was she using in the way of feminine force or charm?  These men could afford the best.  They didn’t need her.

At the same time, when it’s wielded socially or personally, the feminine element usually includes a fair amount of self-surrender, of submission — whether feigned or real.  Henry James has a wonderfully well-written novel, The Bostonians, in which the reader gets a close analysis of a young, 19th-century New England feminist, Verena, who is under the emotional and erotic sway of an older woman, a zealot for the cause of women’s liberation.  Pulling in the opposite direction is a handsome young anti-feminist, newly arrived from post-Civil War Mississippi, who is intent on persuading her to give in to her womanly destiny and become his wife.  The contest of wills between these two competitors for Verena’s life choice is as artful a portrayal of the influence of one will over the will of another as I have ever read.  It is clear that what is being preyed upon, from two opposing directions, is the femininity of Verena – her inclination to surrender!

James was not just writing about feminism in the 19th century.  I can recall explaining the syllabus, on the opening day of a class on 19th-century philosophy.  

“Why,” asked a young woman student, “are there no readings by women philosophers of the 19th century?”  

My explanation?  I thought students, including women students, who aimed to understand philosophy in depth – or even go on to do their own original work in the field – should read the best philosophers.  So far as I could tell, the best ones had been men.  (This is not true in 19th-century literature, but it is in philosophy.) If women are to be able in future to do work as good as the best, they should simply read the best and go on from there, as they do in the sciences!

I invited the student who disagreed with me to discuss our differences privately, in my office.  There she told me that she thought it important, for “balance” and women’s morale, to read work by both sexes, regardless of which texts were more challenging philosophically.

I won’t try to resolve our disagreement now.  Perhaps she had a point.  Perhaps I too had a point.  What struck me about our discussion was something else.  As I stated my own view, she looked frightened — almost as if she were looking over her shoulder for instructions from her handlers.  I was sad when she dropped the course, but even sadder when I saw the expression of sidewise-looking fear on her face.  

It was the fear of resisting another’s will.

Sanine was the title of a 19th-century Russian novel (1903), apparently borrowed by my parents from Lionel Trilling, to whom they never returned it.  I used to pour over the novel my teens, trying to fathom the mysteries of men and women.  The surname of its hero, a handsome rule-breaker, nihilist and free spirit, gave the book its title.  In a climactic scene, Sanine has offered to row a young woman across a lake so that she can get home expeditiously.  The girl is pretty, intelligent and self-assured.  With other young people in their circle, she and Sanine have shared theoretical discussions about the meaning of life and the future of Russia, all from a respectful distance.  It’s dusk.  She suddenly rises and shifts position in such a way as to unbalance the boat he is rowing.  He half-rises to steady her and, without knowing why, she prolongs their physical contact a moment beyond the needful.  

In late-19th-century Russia, that counted as consent.  Immediately he moves to push her backward in the boat, while she protests that she meant nothing of the sort.  The last sentence of the episode reads:

Suddenly, unaccountably,

she lost all power of volition

and of thought;

her limbs relaxed,

and she surrendered to another’s will.

Of course, we know what would happen to Sanine today.  If the outcry didn’t originate with the girl, it would come from her fellow fighters for female freedom.

But what is really happening?  Is he showing masculine force?  Is her surrender – in its own way — an assertion of feminine force?  What sort of feminine force serves a woman’s interest?

Perhaps it would be helpful, if fairly unusual, to describe the ideal situation.  We aren’t necessarily living in the ideal situation, but its contours can for once be stated.  

  • Women can be very charming, to men and to other women.  This is a power that they should not suppress, but enjoy and express, while not using it to deceive or undermine the other whom they charm.

  • Women need to be self-protective and to look for the quality of protectiveness in men.  Why?  I hate to mention this, but relations between the sexes are not symmetrical.  We have vulnerabilities that men do not have, to wit: we can get pregnant, we are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases, we can be more easily raped, we are more liable than men to be imprinted by intimacy, particularly first intimacy.  We are more liable than men to be seduced, often by the most time-worn and obvious approaches.

  • Women should act so as to be worthy of the protections they need and worthy of the love they rightfully seek.  We should look for the gallantry we require and seek to evoke it.  “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more” goes two ways — from him to her and from her to him.

  • In our lives, women need to find out what it belongs to us alone to discover, to accomplish and to do.  It is also an ethical duty to try to be personally happy and fulfilled.  If we don’t at least try to be as happy as we can be – I don’t mean to pretend to be — we will find ourselves unconsciously thwarting the happiness of others.

  • There is a surrender to another’s will that does belong to the feminine side of the yin and yang of nature — of creation.  You can see it in other creatures.  You can observe it in our own species.  It’s obvious.  Only an intellectual would have to argue for its naturalness.  In view of the considerations lined up above, it is best reserved for the most protected circumstances:

Mutual love,

reciprocal commitment,

and social safety.

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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