Comprehending the Fate of Women

Illustration from Jane Eyre by Edward A. Wilson

Comprehending the Fate of Women

Alfred de Muset, the romantic French writer, wrote a play with the title, On ne badine pas avec l’amour, or in English, One Doesn’t Kid Around with Love.  The heroine of this play speaks a line that’s since become classic:

Est-ce que vous ne plaignez pas

le sort des femmes?

Or, in English, do you not pity the lot of women?

With me, the lot of women is not a pity, but it is a concern.  My concern is not that our fates as women are pitiable.  It’s that our fates have not been successfully comprehended.  We don’t know when and what to pity, what the stakes are, how the losses and gains are to be reckoned.

Actual women make the private computations all the time, and share their accountings with trusted friends, most often other women.

But feminism, regarded as the theoretical account and proposed remedy for the plural predicaments of women, has neglected le sort des femmes – the lot of women – most especially the fate that concerns me as a friend to my own sex.

Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre portrays the situation I have in mind.  Jane, the book’s heroine, is employed by a certain Mr. Rochester, as governess to his ward.  They fall in love and are on the verge of marrying, when the disclosure of a mad wife now living saves her from bigamy.  So as not to be tempted to become his mistress, she flees, without resources or protections of any kind, to a far district where – in one of those coincidences of the 19th-century novel – the house on the moor that finally takes her in happens to contain three heretofore unknown cousins.  They are two pleasant young women and a handsome clergyman.  A lost legacy is found too and her life might attain safety at last, except that the clergyman, who plans to become a missionary in India, presses her – with all his personal force of will –to accompany him as his wife.

Jane describes his pressure:

I felt veneration for St. John [the clergyman]

 – veneration so strong that its impetus thrust me at once

to the point I had so long shunned.

I was tempted to cease struggling with him

—to rush down the torrent of his will

into the gulf of his existence

and there lose my own.

There are some women who have never had this experience, but I’ve not met too many.  There is a powerful feminine tendency to yield.  With sufficient force of will, or force of circumstance, or persuasive power, or power of groupthink, many a man can “have his way” with many a woman.

I don’t mean that any man can, with any woman.  Of course not.  But I do happen to know of more than one public feminist whose lover or husband beat her, browbeat her, or allowed her to be exposed to sustained insult.

Jane Eyre’s vulnerability, her temptation to yield to another’s aggressive and persistent will is — dare I say it? — natural.   I don’t care whether we attribute this naturalness to culture, evolution or providence.  It’s real and the default position in every culture I know of, from the stone age to our age.

In our age, refrigerators have allowed us to leave our cooking pots, contraceptives make it possible to pace our childbearing, contemporary clothes and gymnastic can give us more bodily self-command, armed constabulary can make it safer for us to take solitary walks, changes in legislation make it possible to vote, own property, acquire new capabilities and become financially self-supporting.

What has feminism contributed to the situation?  Hasn’t it changed what used to be the default position?  Yes, it certainly has, but one of the problems associated with this change is that women who still have to fight for recently acquired opportunities risk taking on a defensive aggressiveness that obliterates their underlying power of yielding.

On the other hand, if they yield imprudently to that very power of yielding, they can find themselves erased in the sense that threatens Jane Eyre as she resists the young clergyman’s force of will.

If she yields — to his egoistic willfulness — she may lose her own existence as a center of desire, thought and purpose.  And he, in conquering the woman he wants, will lose her just as much.

If she resists his power — with a brittleness originating out of fear — she may lose her own connection with the deep-based, feminine power-of-yielding.

The man who, out of egoistic weakness, abuses a woman backs her into this brittleness.  He thinks he is asserting his masculinity.  Rather, what he flaunts is an embarrassing unmanliness.  And yet, aggression belongs to the masculine nature.  It’s not per se toxic.  In many circumstances, it’s what real life requires.  Women don’t talk about that but they know it.

So here we are, in our advanced society, working on the precarious, ever-unstable ideal equilibrium between men and women.  The woman must preserve her power of judgment, her principles, her desires, her purposes – and with all these retain her power-of-yielding, which is the feminine power.  The man must preserve his mental and energetic forces together with sufficient self-command not to abuse but rather protect the dignity of women, and thus to be able to protect — in the singular woman he may find and love — her power of yielding.

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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