I would like to open this site for conversation with women of all ages, convictions and styles of life – wherever situated on the gamut of experience. In principle, there is no bar to men joining in, since how one defines women has a lot to do with what it means to be a man. But it is women I invite to pull up a chair at this virtual café table and put their questions and views into the conversation. I can be wrong as often as right, so specific advice will be avoided. What will be sought is light on how best to frame the situation of women, considered as a highly interesting problematic. What kind of hand have we been dealt, as women, and how can we best play it?
“Looking Out for Number One” seems to regard most friendships as transitory. We desire long lasting friendships, but such relationships are hard to find and maintain.
Hillel’s second line is important; it directs us to think of others and not only of ourselves. True, we cannot be good friends or think or do well for others if we do not have a good self-image. And that, I think, is Hillel’s point; we should stick up for ourselves so that we are stronger to care for others who need support.
Abigail relays various experiences about friends who have died or who are sick. Isn’t it a great and lasting tribute to lost friends, either because they have died or moved away, when our outlook on life has been changed as a result of knowing them? Sure, as time passes our memories of these departed friends gets fuzzy. But, we are all the result of the many interactions we have with other people, both good and bad. We are shaped by these experiences.
I have had the pleasure and privilege of sharing many of the weekly study classes with Abigail. At these study sessions the agenda is for the rabbi to teach a short Torah portion, and then each participant reacts to the teaching and also to what other participants have said. Naturally, some discussions are more impactful than others. But sometimes, these sessions are truly brilliant, and when that happens, most of us leave still thinking and talking about the lesson. Some Torah verses are more impactful than others, of course, but usually what makes a particular session meaningful is what derives from the discussion. The cumulative effect for me is that life has more meaning and some of my decisions and actions have been positively colored by what I have learned.
Readers of this column appreciate Abigail’s wide and deep knowledge in philosophy, culture, and history. The participants of this particular study group wait in anticipation for when it is Abigail’s turn to share her thoughts. It is a week-to-week ongoing conversation with a learned professor about a myriad of life’s questions. And, while Abigail is always erudite and informed, sometimes the wisdom in that room comes from others with other experiences. Sometimes the simplest question that a confused participant asks leads to the biggest a-ha moments. These lessons have had a cumulative positive impact on me, and I think these lessons are long lasting.
What we take from a friendship also depends greatly upon what we put into it. Consider, for example, the friendship between long-time spouses. When tragedy occurs and one of the spouses is left surviving, it is likely that the survivor never stops thinking about their departed partner.
Obviously, friendships range in depth and in duration. The real challenge is to make friendships meaningful during the time that we have with each acquaintance and experience. The way to measure a friendship that is long-distance or that has ended depends upon how that friendship has changed us or taught us.
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Your postings, beautifully written, intricately reasoned, wittily and aptly illustrated, are, as I read them, an homage to your mother. They are love letters to her.
I have not replied to any before and have only basked in them, but I reply now because I think you have been too hard on post-modernism. “Transgressing” beliefs that have not been thought through as Socrates did and those easily subject to doubt as Descartes did is what philosophers do. They call into question accepted beliefs and the theories or world views that underlie and purport to justify them. They try to make things and thoughts clear by clearing away the brush so they can see a clear path, as Hume said he was doing, and awakening us from our dogmatic slumbers, as Kant claimed to do, in order to work through the impasses that thought can get itself into, as he held rationalism and empriricism had.
In the course of history there are reason aplenty for looking anew at what is accepted. You are right that the Marxist claim that the beliefs and values in place at a time reflect the interest of those who have power to influence ideas–universities, editors, and the press as well as capitalists and kings–contributed to the upheavals in thought in Europe in the 1960s, when post-modernism was born. The Marxist claim was not, however, the driving force behind contemporary upheavals in the United States. The story of post-modernism is the story of the 1960s, which included the view that the modern belief that contradictions that arose in the thought of the past, inextricably involved as it was with contemporary institutions, had been either refined through thought’s revolution or evolution, or synthesized or simply left behind as one paradigm replaced another was wrong. The view, that is, that progress was inevitable and the modern was always better was wrong. The conceit of the modern gave way to an effort to rethink what had been taken to go without saying.
Weren’t the skeptical questionings of Socrates and Descartes “parasitic” on what they were questioning? What was not derivative was the way they did it. That was new, and we still do what they did. The most charitable reading of post-modernism is to see it as a way of rethinking our relation to the past and trying to recover the presuppositions implicit in what we laud as modern.
In this spirit, women have been asking wherein woman-ness and the feminine lie. A woman’s earnestly trying to realize and to appreciate what being a woman is and not simply seeing herslef in terms of the stereotypes that abound is, I would say, putting a very high price on herself.
Sent to you in love,
Mary, Marele, dear friend and colleague! We two have weathered so many big storms that became less harsh because we could share them! We are to be mutually congratulated for having known how to value each other and a friendship that began as colleagueship but has stretched far beyond the usual “term limits” of that.
Although we’ve frequently consulted about our respective works-in-progress, the last time we came up against each other on opposing sides (that I remember) was when the student Philosophy Society at Brooklyn College organized a Hegel versus Nietzsche debate, with you standing in for Nietzsche and me for Hegel. Unusually for philosophic debate, ours ended with the adversaries leaning across the lecture table to exchange a kiss. I think the students pronounced it a tie! But now let me respond to your timely comment.
First, thank you for the reminder that a qualification is due: Of course I don’t and cannot mean to say that no significant or creative work has emerged out of the five positions I listed. To cite just one example of many, the whole of modern feminism emerged out of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Its philosophical premises were those of Sartrean existentialism: There is no such thing as human nature; the human being is utterly free and self-invented from moment to moment. I do not think that is true, but I do see why that postulate freed de Beauvoir to rethink the feminine situation in a relatively unfettered way. When I take up this list of five, what specifically concerns me is what they may cash for in the concrete (largely extra-academic) experience of women.
In “A Woman’s Honor,” I am surveying them, with a quick sketch for each, just insofar as they furnish reasons to subvert established norms. It’s true, as you point out, that Socratic dialectic and Cartesian doubt also questioned peoples’ assumptions. But they did that with a view to finding the truth or finding certainty.
By contrast, it seems to me that there is a gnostic impetus running through the five attitudes that concern me. For gnosticism, ancient or modern, the world and its creator are bad; the adherent’s job is gnosis — to see through the world. Hans Jonas, in his authoritative work on that subject, includes a variant he calls “libertine gnosticism.” It aimed to subvert the world, not just abstractly by inverting its principles, but actively by breaking its rules.
What has struck me is that subverting the rules in the abstract has little effect on people whose real lives are still disciplined by common sense and the classical virtues. However, it is otherwise for those who take the subversions literally.
An illustration from life may show what I mean. Years ago, I dated a young man who was a Vietnam Veteran Against the War and had a circle of counter-culture friends. They orbited around a charismatic young woman named (let’s say) Phoebe, who was anti-monogamous, ambi-sextrous, and anti- everything she deemed “bourgeois.” Since I hoped to convert my combat veteran into a steady beau and felt that her magnetic influence confused the romance, I finally broke off my connection with her. That clarified things a bit but the romance was ill-starred and I finally lost my brief connection with the counter-culture.
A few years later, I happened to bump into a young poet who had been in Phoebe’s entourage. We had coffee and he filled me in on what had happened since. He had fallen in love and was now married. In the run-up to the wedding, when he and his bride-to-be were still in Phoebe’s circle (and possibly needed her cooperation in some way), they maintained the fiction that they were doing something so “bourgeois” as marrying just in order for the bride to get a green card. They hid the romantic truth till they were safely married and could move out of the orbit of Phoebe’s influence!
The poet told me one other story about Phoebe. She had finally succeeded in becoming the lover of my ex-beau. Their relationship did not last and, in the poet’s words, “he really dumped her.” In other words, it didn’t end as if life was an endless dance through which one could glide with a light and graceful indifference. It ended with the deliberately punishing gesture of man-to-woman rejection, as if to prove that all the airy talk about noncommitment (with which she’d managed to bedazzle and confuse other couples) had been hot air.
My sense about the gnostic adventure is that it can be interesting and even potentially illuminating to entertain it as a thought experiment, but that it’s dangerous to live it.
Abigail. Such a poignant story. “You have the price you put on yourself.” In today’s society women are bombarded with images of what they are “supposed to be” from the bedroom to the boardroom with very little room for propriety. We only have to look at the fashion ads, or television or movies to notice that we have been downgraded! We see examples of how Margaret Mead left her influence; saying one thing by touting the importance of self and at the same time being a eugenics supporter. Does anyone else see a disconnect there? What she did bring was the lead in to abortion. Confusing the importance of self with woman’s own self importance, so woman now believe they are fighting for their rights as woman; to kill our ability to create life and destroy the next generation as well. Sex has gone from women being repressed in Freud’s time to the hookups that Snookie shared with her” Guidos” (her words not mine) on Jersey Shore…she is making a valiant effort to spin a newer cleaner image, living down the party life and opting for the more settled, Nicole Polizzi, with headlines now reading, “I miss my own name”…way to give yourself voice as well as live down your public party persona for your new motherhood. But this is progress, because she was rushed, hurried and bought in to the message that sexual freedom meant you could open them wide and not have to be ridiculed…man, was she wrong. The spreading of seed was given to the strongest, the most intelligent the fastest, because that is how it was in nature, so what have the socio-biologists gotten with their message…TV’s: Sixteen and pregnant, thanks! (perhaps the fastest of the species- but certainly not the brightest!) because it comes back to the Mother of these girls and teaching their daughters, what? Not to hurry, loving support, to place value on themselves as women. Then you got your 3rd date rule, your one night stand, he’s just not that into you, pity sex and even makeup sex…all lowering the value a woman places on herself. Throw in examples like Liz Taylor and other “serial monogamists” who make a mockery of marriage and leave a wake of impressionable followers who do not value the institution of marriage either, another way to destroy a woman’s worth…Liz and Zsa Zsa could afford it! Then you have the likes of Neitzsche, God is dead, so now you take the soul and all its worth and what have you got left…A lot of unlearning and a long conversation with the mixed and very bad messages with your teen aged daughters. Thank you Abigail for this article for opening the window and being a breath of fresh air! Blessings!
Maple Green Beans
Dear Maple green Beans,
Thank you. Your comment is heartening to me. I am so glad you found this column supportive! It’s striking that a column apparently focused on a list of abstract theses has drawn immediate responses from women with very down-to-earth mother/daughter concerns.
Thinking about that, my mind went back to an incident that made the newspapers a few years ago. A young woman, admitted to Yale, asked permission to live off campus. Living in a co-ed dorm was inconsistent with the value she placed on modesty, as a Modern Orthodox Jew. The university denied her request, even fought it in court and won!
Is “modesty” a realistic concern? I remember a graduate of a university, a young T.A. at Brooklyn College, speaking of how demoralizing it was to wake up to her roommate having sexual relations in the next bed. While students are having these experiences, faculty and administrators have Women’s Rooms and Men’s Rooms to which they may repair in privacy. When administrators and faculty go to conventions, they are not required to use uni-sex bedrooms or bathrooms at the convention hotels. Nor does anything like that get required of the public at large. There must be some extraordinary principle that is governing university officials in this kind of case, making arbitrary exercises of power over vulnerable young people seem right in their own eyes.
My question is, what is going on here? The Yale case, and others like it, cannot be understood as instances of women’s “liberation.” Rather, administrators of a major institution of higher education were coercing a young woman into living in a way that violated her conscience. If she resisted their coercion, she would lose the right to attend the college of her choice. In no way did the dictates of her conscience interfere with the learning process — hers or anybody else’s. Since this violation of personal privacy and liberty is large and obvious, one wants to know, what is driving it? What has turned ordinary academic functionaries into usurpers of a student’s harmless and obviously legitimate rights and powers?
I think it can only be the power of ideas like the ones I have listed in “A Woman’s Honor.” That’s why motherly women immediately saw the point. These are ideas that make young people intellectually unable to protect their own privacy and dignity, lest they be deemed sexually repressed or puritanic — unlike the (imaginary!) girls in Samoa. According to one mother of a college student I know, the same ideas make the young beg their parents not to interfere, lest the stigma of having puritanic parents rub off on them. Yet these ideas — about sexual repression and non-repression — are highly speculative. To my knowledge there are no statistically significant data backing them. They belong to a particular cultural mood, as expressed by certain talented writers who caught the mood of the day. And yet, in our culture at the present time, they transmute into rulings that carry crude coercive power and are allowed to stand without appeal.
This is not to say that the whole meaning of the views mentioned was captured in my five dismissive thumbnail sketches. My purpose is more narrowly focused. I am simply asking what ideas like these cash for, where women are concerned. How much support do they give women who want thoughtfully to determine the course of their own lives? Let’s not only answer on our own behalf, but also look around us.
At first look I thought, jokingly, “Why didn’t Abigail L Rosenthal commission you, Jess Cortes, to write this piece?” After reading her post it’s clear that an attempted witty remark would be nothing short of juvenile….not that Jess wouldn’t be able to give her bit of “non-advice.” Great article Abigail. I’m happy for the both of you and I completely agree that one must stay true to their course, reevaluate as we dusts ourselves off and true love will find its way into our lives.
Thanks very much Jeff. These are fun and supportive words. Of course, I left out suffering — the valleys connecting the peaks. That was not our topic. (For more on the valleys, see “Success.”)
In this ever increasingly evil society it is so easy to get lost in fear, fear that locks us up away from each other. Abigail, thank you for this reminder of the power of love. Blessings, Loretta
Thank you so much, Loretta. What you wrote is really moving to me. Contemporary philosophies give us the assignment (hopeless on its face) of finding meaning in an absurd world. Yet we sense — that can’t be feasible! Philosophies of the absurd give rise to fear (why wouldn’t one fear if life is the mere site of randomness or blind power drives?) and fear in its turn gives rise to philosophies of the absurd. I remember once driving home in a blinding rainstorm from Kennedy airport. My prayer was, “God, please don’t let me be so scared that I can’t see the road!”
Nilda — many thanks. This reads like poetry or an assembly of back-to-back mantras. Wonderful!
I have heard ‘bitch’ applied to men and women. I have heard it as a term of endearment, and as a term of derision. I have heard it said towards women who are aggressive in the same manner men are, but while the male is called assertive, the female is called a ‘bitch’.
Strong women are intimidating to all who lack confidence in themselves. Calling a strong woman a ‘bitch’ tells me more about the one doing the name calling than the one they are attempting to tear down.
You’ve got flair, girl!
As someone who loves dogs, I say, let’s take the word back and turn it into the compliment it should be. Next time someone calls you a bitch, smile and say “thank you.”
Many thanks, Kate for the inspiration: “The B Word”.
We get used to the word bitch. People are intimidated by strong women.
Thank you, Judy, for going to New Guinea and bringing back this amazing story, for us to reflect on. See my response, “Make It Fun”.
I find the anthropologist in me arising in response to the question of what it is to be a woman. It varies so much depending upon the culture one is in. And the time in which one lives, of course.
The subject of submission brought forth an experience I had in New Guinea in around 1968, living with people who still used stone tools (as well as some steel axes they got through trade.). I was the first white woman they had ever seen.
Women were in some ways considered to be beings in between people and pigs (a very important part of the culture.). And “bride prices” usually included pigs as well as fancy shells, tobacco and feathers. About 20 people lived in one communal house in the hamlet. Closest hamlet a day’s walk away through rain forested mountains. There was a woman’s section and a man’s section. Babies and girls stayed with the women, little boys could be in both sections.
One day I went into the house, and all the men were gone. To my surprise (and delight), the several women inside were spread all over the house, talking, eating, and acting completely relaxed. As soon as a young boy entered, the women who were in the men’s section drifted back into the women’s section. It was all very casual…no big deal. No sense that the women were rebelling when the men were gone. But there was a shift in my perception: submission to male dominance might not be as heavy as it seemed. More like a cultural form, even a bit of a joke perhaps. There was a sense of freedom in it, perhaps because there was no tension, which might expect from breaking a strict cultural norm.
One thought: why is male dominance such a pervasive cultural phenomenon. I’m sure many others have postulated as I do that it is only the woman whom knows who the baby’s father is. And therefore……..gotta keep her under strict control.
Surely it must vary, for failure as for tragedy. See my response in “Tragedy”.
What is tragedy? What does it mean to fail as a woman? I think that there is no one answer – it must vary from woman to woman.…
Just had a conversation with a man today regarding his “normal” reactions to a very alarming situation. All these long years he beat himself up mentally for reacting normally! Good story!
Thanks, Nilda, for joining the conversation. Your mention of male clients’ “darkest thoughts & feelings” brought to mind an incident I hadn’t thought of in many years…Read the rest of Abigail’s response here.
I work with men; I have male clients and I use my position as a shield. Not that I stayed up nights planning on doing this, but years of being female has taught me that men cannot help but read my best intentions personally. Was I flirting? Did I give out signals of availability? Not in the work arena, I do not. So I arrange my desk so, I dress so, I refrain from touching so. I ‘read’ them so that I am sure what I say and how I say cannot be construed as an invitation of any sort other than to be friendly, and trusting. (As I type this I realize that as a therapist I am asking men to trust me with their deepest darkest thoughts and feelings. They have never trusted their own mother or wife as deeply.) I wonder if my colleagues create their environments with such care? Well of course they do. We all probably long for those “lazy, hazy days of summer” before everything became so freaking serious.
You are so right about that. When I first started full-time work as an assistant professor, philosophy was an overwhelmingly male profession. All my colleagues would be men. In my college days, the women who taught me masculinized themselves in their gestures and dress, so that no one could accuse them of allowing seductive feminine wiles in the halls of academe…Read the rest of Abigail’s response here.
One of my favorite angles to look upon feminism as a journey to complete womanhood and not to compare oneself to men. The attempt to “even the score” with men or to “Make things equal” both become absurd as you realize that differences between man and woman are sacred, God-willed, and perfect.
I believe there is a balance to this world set in place by God and trying to make genders the same is like trying to make apples and oranges the same thing.
Secondly, as the world changes we see the word woman being redefined every day, there is less identity recognition with the more traditional ideas of”ladylike” and “the martyrdom” of motherhood. I find that the woman we now choose to identify with is strong, independent and also still able to see with eye of compassion.
I could write more on either of these topics, a lot more, but one more thing…
“History is written by those in power” I once heard a teacher say, and how true that is of woman’s role in society, for instance, we are taught about the hunter and gatherer societies but the history books are quick to forget that many of these cultures were matrionic (is that the word?) and the hunters themselves were women as the men stayed home with the children.
From what I have read, it seems like the first gods were women based on statuettes of fertility goddesses and it was not until the man realized his job in procreation that we had a male representation of god. It also seems that the older and more original a culture puts more power and respect upon women.