I Never Got A Cat

Renée, my mother’s French friend, with her cat Nora, also French.

Cats are greatly to be respected. For that reason, I never wanted to treat a cat as Abbie’s Plan B, to have and to hold just in case she didn’t obtain what she really wanted – Abbie’s Plan A – whatever that turned out to be.

So what was it that I really wanted? It seems a question to which Sigmund Freud would have very much liked to know the answer. Freud is quoted on “the great question” – to which, in all his years of research, he had not yet found the answer: 

Was will das Weib?

What does Woman want? It’s an intriguing question, but I’d rather not rush to a one-size-fits-all answer. Anyway, not before I look at a question that occurred to me recently:

What do women fear?

About men’s fears, Freud had already hit upon the answer. That would be castration (if you’ll excuse the expression). Let’s not go all the way into his “Oedipus complex,” the hypothesis that he named after Oedipus Rex, the play that Sophocles wrote in fifth-century Athens. I don’t know if men do or do not share the rather intricate fear that Freud assumed they all have. Whatever one thinks about Freud’s theory, it would surely be sensible for any man to be decently concerned for the protection of an external organ that figures significantly in a major human desire. Among the many items about which a reasonable man would feel proprietary, Freud’s favorite would be found somewhere on the list.

Likewise, there is something that all women would be reasonable in fearing, but I’ve never seen it on any list.

It’s not spinsterhood! That’s less awful than it used to be, and believe me I didn’t marry at the age when the other girls did so I know how it used to be.  

We come back to our question: what do women fear – qua woman? Ah, glad you asked! It’s an attack on their womanhood; I mean an attack that targets them as women. There are physical dangers too obvious to list here. But I am thinking particularly of social drummings-out of the sort that can become irreparable.

Think of Monica Lewinsky. A girl who, whatever her weaknesses, found herself publicly outed after a – shall we say compromising? – interaction with then President Bill Clinton. Her very name became a joke.  

Think of Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed – credibly in my eyes as I watched her interview on NBC with Lisa Myers – that she had suffered a brutal rape at the hands of then Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton, in the years before he came to Washington. Broaddrick had not sought any such TV spotlight. When, at a later point, I had occasion to speak with her by phone, she told me that, in the words of her son, she had not so much “come out of the closet” as been outed! The ensuing public notoriety led to a divorce. She had been a quiet, respectable woman. An ordinary woman. Where do you go, after being “outed”?

I could multiply examples. Others come to mind. But let me defer to a certain nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, justly renowned for his sensitivity to the nuances of the inner life. In celebrating the role of the wife in the ethical life of man, the philosopher waxes eloquent on the subject of the “beautiful tresses” of such a woman. Those tresses would of course be neatly bound up in a chignon behind her neck as she would go lightly about her womanly – subordinate yet indispensable – household tasks. I’ll let Soren Kierkegaard take up the story of the ethical woman:

“Behold, there she stands in all her imperfection, a lowlier being than man; if you have the courage, clip the rich tresses, sheer asunder these heavy chains—and let her run like a crazy woman, like a criminal, a horror to men.”

What women fear is precisely what Kierkegaard levels: an attack on themselves as women. You may say that men have similar fears and I don’t doubt that. Yet often enough, the disabled or dishonored man remains a candidate for someone’s sympathy – even the consolations of a good woman.

What about the disabled and dishonored woman? Well, few pronouncements on the human situation will hold universally or unqualifiedly. But I would maintain that, in this respect, the scales are not evenly weighted. Can I prove that? Of course not. But if you want to understand the coping strategies – the demarche in the world – of actual women, you might bear it in mind and see if it doesn’t illuminate

what women fear.

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” (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. 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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