Womanly Arts

“A Woman at Her Toilet”
Titian, circa 1515

Womanly Arts

At the Eric Voegelin Society conference we attended this week in D.C., Jerry and I were on a panel entitled “Life as a Spiritual Journey.”  They went awfully well — both of our (totally different) presentations.

For the record, I should note that I am always half-sick before these things.  On the roster of experiences that induce high anxiety, speaking in public is generally ranked near the top.  Right up there with divorce, getting fired and life-threatening medical diagnoses.

Nevertheless, two people thanked me feelingly afterward, and two others said they wanted to read the rest of the story.  What I’d read was a distillation of “Paris without End,” one of the early chapters from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It told what Paris signaled to me when I was a young Fulbright grantee, away from home for the first time.

Among the impressions: the American effort to maintain integrity over/against the seductions of Paris – the most beautiful city in the world; the shakeout from the German Occupation of Paris, seen in the “existentialist” belief that values – if they could be so overturned and inverted – must be arbitrary or “absurd”; the marxist proposed cure for the fragility of values, which was to set them aside entirely, until they could be founded anew on a new and purified economic basis.  (As we say in Brooklyn: believe that and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.)

Then there were the thoroughly unofficial concerns of my American women friends.  We were full of surface idealism and subsurface fears.  Of what were we afraid?  We feared (though we were too scared to spell it out in plain words) that, when and as time chipped away at our youth – and with it our power to attract – our vaunted ideals would begin to seem mere phrases, without substantive heft or appeal.  High-sounding, empty words.  On paper, we could make a case for the coinciding of our values and our feminine reality.  But …

we weren’t living on paper. 

At the Q & A, one of the questions prompted me to reflect on the difference that feminism had made to this predicament.

“On the one hand,” I said, “feminism has given us years.  You don’t have to feel it’s all over, once you’re past 23” – as we all had felt or feared.

On the debit side: feminism has denied that there is such a thing as femininity, or that the two sexes are different in any important respect.

“That means,” I concluded incautiously, “if I have a problem as a woman, I would never go to a Public Feminist.”  I would find a woman friend – a civilian!

One of the people who thanked me afterwards was a man who had two daughters, one on the brink of adolescence.  He hadn’t a clue how to guide or protect them, in the face of the culture’s denial that there is, or could be, any problem.  He has two sons as well, and he doesn’t know what to tell them either, now that the traditional masculine virtues are being treated as flaws.

“Femininity,” I responded, “is an art.  So is masculinity.  To master an art, you need models who have themselves mastered it.  Also, as with painting in oils, you need to know the medium, what it can and cannot do.”

Simone de Beauvoir begins volume II of her brilliant and courageous book, Le Deuxieme sexe, the book that, with its publication in 1949, launched the feminist movement in the twentieth century, with this sentence:

On ne nait pas femme: on le devient.

“One is not born a woman.  One becomes it.”  That is true.  Femininity is, at least in its social component, the result of an acculturation.  And it was de Beauvoir’s great contribution to show how this “becoming,” this acculturation, was shot through with features that diminished the women who emerged at the end of the process.

One learns it, this womanization process.  But one also learns every function we have that is not autonomic: the prehensile thumb and how to use it; language; upright bipedal carriage; one’s name, and many more etceteras.  Nor are we the only species that requires acculturation.  Animals of many other species need to learn how to function effectively within their species constraints, inherited and environmental.  It doesn’t follow that what they learn is arbitrary in the sense of “made up” out of whole cloth.  If it were, the young ones would not survive to adulthood.

Every woman knows that you can bungle your professional life and that you can also bungle your womanly life.  In either case, you might fail to gain your objective because of strategic mistakes or because of circumstances beyond your control.  The failure could be remediable in the former case, tragic in the latter case.

That said, the method that conducts to success on the professional track is separate and distinct from the art that will work in the case of womanly fulfillment.

That is so obvious as not to need saying.  Except that today, as we’re told,

you can’t say it.

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. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. 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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