How’s the Eternal Feminine Doing These Days?

Abbie’s mother in her student days at the University of Lausanne

How’s the Eternal Feminine Doing These Days?

 When I started this blog – lo! some years back – I was moved by a concern about women.  We are being bombarded by half-truths.  And if we women start down one of the currently recommended roads, cheered on all sides by our advisors and fans, we may find our way beset or blocked by unforeseen hurdles, with supporters just as baffled as we are.

For more seasoned counselors, I looked backward in time to certain women I had known in childhood or as a young girl.  These remembered figures seemed to embody success at being a woman.  Even as a child I’d known that this was not the same as literary success, or marrying advantageously, or being a respected academic.  The womanly art seemed a different thing entirely – a thing in a class by itself.

The three women I recollected were all European-born.  They were therefore free of the warnings that American girls of those days internalized – to be tomboys so as NOT – at all costs never — to be evil, slinky temptresses.  An American girl had to be nonthreatening.  You had a chance with boys, provided they weren’t scared of you.  (As must be obvious, I had no chance.)

The Europeans who formed my models of womanhood were naturally charming.  They were unafraid to draw people toward them, men or women, attracted by their unassuming coquetry.  Yet they were not manipulative.  They didn’t charm in order to advance an agenda: only the agenda of being present to themselves and other people.  They enjoyed the connections made accessible by their womanly presence.  Their enjoyment was charming.

Of course I was curious – fascinated might be the right word – to know their art.  It was so different from the familiar good-woman flatness of those days that merely telegraphed:

Don’t be scared.

I’m too humdrum to be a threat.

Whatever they knew, there was one thing for sure: they weren’t telling.  They seemed to possess the art of being a woman by instinct.  Or perhaps it belonged to their era: the earlier decades of the last century.  It was a time when women were first coming into their own as accomplished and cultivated, but also persons who could admit to a talent or vocation and pursue it.  Yet, in that transitional era, they were still confident of being admired as ideal beings.

Since one of the three ladies was my mother, I am now in possession of letters in French from admirers that I still won’t read, though she’s been gone these many years.  To my mind, they’re her business — not mine.

Anyway, I kept this troika in my mind as symbolic of the womanly art that “Dear Abbie” would be free to explore.  Until the other day when suddenly something occurred to me.

In their later years, all three of these exemplary women found themselves under close-range attack from relatives who had been notably unsuccessful as women.  How attacked?  Nagged, reproached unfairly, intruded upon to the extent that their inner rhythms – the intuitive harmonies they had mastered – became painfully hard to maintain.

None felt able to control the attacker or else push the intimate enemy out of her life.  Their social circles would have reproached them for it.  The jealous relative would have spread evil gossip – and it would have been believed!

Why did this happen – as it did – to all three of my exemplary women?  Is there something within achieved womanhood itself that marks out a target for aggressors?  Mind – in these particular cases – the aggressors were not male bullies or predators.  They were women who had not mastered the art of being a woman but who knew – better than a man would! – just where to strike.

It’s a great puzzle and I can only offer my best guess as to the answer.  I imagine there is something inherent in the realized woman that is, by its very nature, vulnerable.  Vulnerability in a woman who has the art is a key to her strength.  She has the power to accept and foster her own receptivity and tenderness — as a musician might have the power to hear the exactly right note or a painter the power to see the very color that is there.  It is an enviable power.  But it does not seem to include the one further thing needed:

the power to protect without sacrificing —

her own vulnerability.

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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