Women, Women, Women

Botticelli. The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486).

I know of two instances where fair-minded young mothers brought their child custody disputes before a judge. In each case, the fact that the judge turned out to be a woman caused the plaintiff’s heart to sink, anticipating the worst – quite accurately, as it turned out.

At the start of my own seven-year fight to get my job back at Brooklyn College, I sought the help of a faculty feminist committee on campus. The real reason I was fired had to do (in the words of the eventual Arbitrator) with a departmental fight over “power, perks and privileges.” But I thought the faculty women might be interested, if only because language insulting to women had been part of the damning teacher observation report that supported my firing.

However, I had badly miscalculated since, prominent among the faculty feminists, was a woman in the bloc that had fired me. Not only did the feminists decline to support a battered woman colleague. They went to the lengths of an official letter to my chairman advising him that my case was of zero concern to Brooklyn College feminists!

In fact, it was the only time in the long fight when I came down with a two-week cold in reaction to something that happened in the course of the fight.

Examples multiply. I know of a lifelong activist who attributed her breast cancer to the year she spent, in the movement’s early days, on the in-fighting editorial board of a leading feminist magazine!

What’s really happening in such cases? When we try to balance the books on feminism – what we’ve won and what we’ve lost – why are stories of this kind routinely kept “off the books”?

Usually, when I need light on a pathway in history, I turn to philosophy. One of the early modern arguments for legal equality for women is found in John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjugation of Women (1869). Written in collaboration with his beloved Harriet Taylor, it’s an attempt to fit the liberation of women into the wider utilitarian program, whose aim was “the greatest happiness for the greatest number, each man [that is, each person] to count for one” – and no more than one. It was hoped that such a rational standard could erase all inherited privilege, including that of men over women. Insofar as politics takes account of women, they are just the same as men.

Mill’s devotion to Harriet Taylor reminded me of a passage toward the end of Tolstoy’s War and Peace where Pierre, reunited with his true love, becomes – like her – a feminist. His progressive turn occurs after he hears the woman he loves speaking up in favor of legal rights for unmarried women. He intuits her meaning: had he not given her his husbandly protection, she might have been one of them.

Factual or fictional, these were cases where a reflective and ardent lover has thrown the broadly inclusive mantle of feminism over the shoulders of the woman he’s singled out for male protection of the most extensive kind.

I will protect you (he is saying),

and all who are like you.

But where is the woman who is a philosopher in her own right and can lay out the intellectual foundation for this vast rearrangement of the human story?

Surely that woman must have been Simone de Beauvoir who, in The Second Sex, first laid out such a groundwork. “I have long hesitated to write a book about women,” she begins, in Vol I (1949). Her philosophical argument is that there is no essence of the feminine. A woman becomes what society deems her to be, and the acculturation process is typically difficult and deforming. One has to learn how to be what they call “a woman.” It’s like a dance, with a precise pattern of steps. But if you can’t or won’t do the dance, you’ll be stigmatized.

Her case histories, drawn from memoirs, biographies and reports from the relevant scientific disciplines, richly illustrate her thesis. So did the death threats she received after the book was published.

But what was the philosophic ground on which Beauvoir’s renewal of feminism in the twentieth century would rest? It rested on Being and Nothingness, which was the major work by the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. The argument of Sartre’s work is that all the traits of human personality derive from arbitrary choice, which a person can change freely, from one moment to the next. Thus, there is no fixed human nature. Ergo, there is no feminine nature either. We can recognize these postulates as having passed into the assumptions of post-modernism, where they continue to be taken for granted.

If Beauvoir’s thesis depends on Sartre’s philosophy, what was he to her? He was her deepest love, her closest friend and ally – erotic, intellectual and political. And how did he regard her? He made infidelity the liberating motif of their relationship, eventually depending on her to supply cooperative younger women. Having thus betrayed her on every feasible man-to-woman level, he even put his literary estate in the hands of someone else. She, his titular widow and chief mourner, emerged from their lifelong relationship with nothing.

And what of her philosophic foundation for feminism? We can see its steady, cumulative exfoliation from here. Having deemed that femininity has neither biological nor ontological foundation, Beauvoir’s feminism has left women without grounds to protest the presence of men in their footraces, locker rooms or prison cells.

Ladies, sisters, looks like it’s about time to go back to the drawing board.

We don’t have a theory!

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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