The Eternal Feminine

“Mona Lisa,” Leonardo da Vinci

The Eternal Feminine

The other night I had a dream where some medical expert was examining me for breast cancer.  He seemed properly qualified to do this and the examination did not in the least bother me.  Then I noticed a second man, wearing a brown three-piece suit, standing beside the medical one and looking on with total fascination.  It didn’t take me long to realize that neither he nor his fascination had any business being there.  I stood up, shaking with rage and demanded his ouster.  He complied, going out by the exit with bent back.

In the morning, it came to me what the dream had been about.  A few years ago, I’d had a lengthy combat, involving the leadership of an organization to which I belonged, to bring about the ouster of a predator who’d been harassing the women.  Although my fight had been ultimately successful, I’d been treated by the leadership without any of  

the deference due to me

as a woman.

What Goethe called “the eternal feminine” is what he claimed “leads us above.”  How often such talk has been decried!  And decried most often by women active and effective in the century-long fights to liberate women!  Women in the vanguard of those combats continuously emphasized how appeals to women to “be women” were tactics that masked the unjust bullying and deprivation of redress being brought about with all the legal, social and brute-physical means at men’s disposal. 

But weren’t these feminists, who attacked words like “femininity,” picking out distorted misuses of language, rather than the use of words to express some underlying reality?

One time, I took at course in Self Defense for Women at the 92nd Street Y.  Our instructor was a young woman with a beautifully compact and disciplined body.  In Lesson One, she told us that women are not as physically strong as men, so they have to fight dirty.  Though I followed the course to the end, did the practices faithfully and found her instructions interesting, I came to realize that I was never going to stick my keys in a bad guy’s eye.  So I went back to the strategic use of prayer on the IRT.  That I knew how to do.  (Maybe I should give a course!)

The crime-fighting TV shows I watch on Hallmark generally end with the girl detective throwing the villain off the roof and rescuing her male colleague with her one fell swoop from the martial arts.  Perhaps I took my self-defense course at the Y with the idea of performing similar feats.  Anyway, during that time, I met a buddy of mine for coffee.  He was a New York City fireman and had been a cop.  He commented that criminals don’t spend all their time committing crimes.  Like many working people, they’re specialists.  So they put in time at the gym.  Best not to go mano a mano with a criminal.

One time, during an American Philosophical Association meeting, I joined some former colleagues for dinner at a restaurant.  It was at the invitation of one of the colleagues — an old friend who was, as he and I both knew, initiating a courtship.  A topic was raised at the table about which I voiced an opinion considered impolitic.  It expressed a reservation about a prestigious philosopher whom the others present held to be above criticism.  My reservation pertained to the quality he was then and there being held up as exemplifying, so my criticism was not gratuitous.  Moreover, the defect was public knowledge so I was not breaking a confidence.

Instead of offering a counter-argument, one of the colleagues started mimicking me in a mocking “female” voice.  Groupthink being powerful, that started the others snickering too.  As I voiced indignation, the would-be suitor at my side said, sotto voce, “Don’t argue!  You’ll only make it worse.”

In the days that followed, I took steps to ensure that nothing like that would happen to me again, but I won’t go into that.  What I want to lift out here was the excuse my would-be suitor offered in our subsequent emails back and forth.

I was a feminist, he wrote, and therefore should be given space to fight for myself.  He really didn’t want to get in Wonder Woman’s way.

I pointed out that he hadn’t even got out of my way.  He’d actively discouraged me from defending myself!  I noted too that one defends a buddy who’s being ganged up on, regardless of sex.

But neither of us was talking about the real issue.  I was talking code, and he was talking code back.  The reality was that a group of men had dropped the role of colleagues and taken advantage of the vulnerability of a woman — qua woman — treating her in a bullying fashion.  Instead of acknowledging her vulnerability the way a man should: with due deference.  With honor.  With gallantry that is normal and second nature to a man who has his own sense of honor.

Everybody knows this.  Nobody will say it in mixed company, though women will sometimes admit this – but note that it’s an admission! – privately with each other.  Not every truth is fashionable.

What about the vulnerability of women?  It becomes apparent when, for example, a biological male claims to be a woman trapped in a man’s body and runs away with all the trophies in a women’s athletic event.  

Insofar as vulnerability means relative physical weakness, it’s an objective condition calling for identification and appropriate legal protections.  But why should mere weakness summon the deference that I maintain an honorable man will normally pay a decent woman?  What justifies the extra claim?  Is it just a matter of sportsmanship?  The way boys are taught that you don’t hit a girl?  Well, you don’t, but that doesn’t disclose what I’m trying to get at here.

There is something else to be safeguarded.  There is an invisible core in the depth of women’s vulnerability.  A yielding, a caressing, an empathic understanding that is a power in its own right.



knows this.

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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