Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness

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I got tipped off about this book in the footnotes of Divided Lives, but had no idea what a powerful collection of essays, plays, dialogs it would be. From the very first entry, “Pretty” by Alta, through the scholarly and witty retorts of Millet, Ozick, Nochlin, into the wildness of Lamb’s plays, each page articulates thoughts that have been half-formed in my own mind. Published in 1971, it is a fierce collection from the 2nd wave, required reading for anyone with a brain.

My favorite essay was Cynthia Ozick’s The Demise of the Dancing Dog where she details the horrors of teaching English to mediocre college students and proves that men and women’s minds are equally idiotic, all while giving us the Ovarian Theory of Literature. She questions whether one can tell that something is written by a woman or man, her class is flummoxed after learning that Flannery O’Connor is a woman, their perceptions shift immediately. And it’s not just the students– her fellow instructor tries to convince her that style is influenced by physical makeup by saying that Keats was battling tuberculosis and his poetry couldn’t be unaffected by this. Ozick’s reply is classic, “Ah, but you don’t suppose that being a woman is a disease?” Her best tirade is against people who equate giving birth with creativity. “It is insulting to a poet to compare his titanic and agonized strivings with the so-called ‘creativity’ of childbearing, where – consciously – nothing happens… The woman’s body is a vessel, thereafter, for a parasite. For the presence of the parasite she is thereafter no more responsible than she is for the presence of her intestinal tract. To call a child a poem may be a pretty metaphor, but it is a slur on the labor of art.” More disturbing, she recounts a debate held recently at her college “Should a Woman Receive a College Education?”, the auditorium packed with co-eds who laugh along with the “fiercely bearded professor of psychology (ostentatiously male)” as he makes a mockery of the subject. Laughing at the futility of an educated woman.

This is our “problem” – the problem of a majority’s giving its credence and its loyalty to a daydream. And it is a bigger problem than any other we know of in this country, for the plain and terrifying reason that we have not even considered it to be a problem. Whenever the cliche-question is put, “What is the number one problem in America today?” the cliche-answer comes: “Civil rights – the Black Revolution.” Scarcely. The solution to that problem is there – we have only to catch up to it, with all our might. If the debate at my college had dealt with civil rights it would have been serious, passionate, argumentative. We had a Vietnam teach-in: it was serious, passionate, argumentative. But until now no one has been serious and passionate, and certainly no one has been argumentative, concerning attitudes about woman. Once a problem has been articulated, the answer is implicit; the answer is already fated. But this problem was never articulated; there was no answer, because no one ever asked the question. It was a question that had not yet found its Baldwin. Its substance was, on every level, the stuff of primitive buffoonery.

A culture which does not allow itself to look clearly at the obvious through the universal accessibility of art is a culture of tragic delusion, hardly viable; it will make room for a system of fantasy Offices on the one hand, and a system of fantasy Homes on the other, but it will forget that the earth lies beneath them all. It will turn out roleplaying stereotypes (the hideousness of the phrase is appropriate to the concept) instead of human beings. It will shut the children away from half the population. It will shut aspiration away from half the population. It will glut its colleges with young people enduringly maimed by illusions learned early and kept late. It will sup on make-believe.

Linda Nochlin’s tremendous piece, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?, pops a pin in the balloon that floats that question, unmasking the underpinning assumptions that goad it into existence. “The fact of the matter is that there have been no great women artists… or any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, or Eskimo tennis players…. in actuality things as they are and as they have been in the arts, as in hundreds of other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle-class or above, males. The fault lies… in our institutions and our education.” She raises the question of what conditions are generally productive of great art, and shows a correlation between great art and having a father who was an artist. “What if Picasso had been born a girl? Would SeƱor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?” Never mind the problems that women faced in getting actual training– forbidden to draw the nude body, male or female. Found out about Aphra, a feminist literary magazine in the 1970s, and will put JS Mill on my reading list. More from Nochlin:

The question of the availability of the nude model is but a single aspect of the automatic, institutionally maintained discrimination against women… One could equally well have examined other dimensions of the situation, such as the apprenticeship system, the academic educational pattern that was almost the only key to success; regular progression and set competitions which enabled the young winner to work in the French Academy; this was unthinkable for women and they were unable to compete for the prize until the end of the nineteenth century, when the whole academic system has lost its importance anyway… Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards, it is almost incredible that a certain percentage of women actually sought out a profession in the arts.

It is no wonder that those who have privilege inevitably hold on to it, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another… As John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a century ago: ‘Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.’

… art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “influenced” by previous artists and by “social forces” but art… occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of the social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of divine creator and artist as he-man or social outcast.

Kate Millett’s piece on Prostitution: a Quartet in Female Voices is one of the smartest things I’ve read on the subject. She weaves her voice alongside the voice of two prostitutes and a legal defender, the material culled from a summer of rap sessions. “… prostitution is the very core of the female’s social condition. It not only declares her subjection right in the open, with the cash nexus between the sexes announced in currency rather than through the subtlety of a marriage contract, but the very act of prostitution is itself a declaration of our value… it is not sex the prostitute is really made to sell: it is degradation.”
The collection of essays begins with a one pager by Alta. Here’s the last bit of “Pretty”:

drove me to cover my face with makeup, eyeliner, lipstick, mascara. drove me to curl and bleach my hair, drove me to diet, drove me to sit with my fists clenched so no one could see my nails. tell me i’m not oppressed. ask me what i want. tell me you don’t like my methods. listen to my life and see that it has been intolerable and leave me the fuck alone.

Myrna Lamb’s two plays, But What Have You Done for Me Lately and The Serving Girl and the Lady would be tremendous to see live. BWHYDFML details the aftermath of a surgery where a woman in surgical smock informs the man that he is pregnant. Protestations and bemoaning ensue, demanding options (we’re still a couple years away from Roe v Wade). Role reversal at its best.

Vivian Gormick edited this collection (along with Barbara Moran), and submitted her own essay Woman as Outsider.

Only a brief look at the cultural and religious myths and the literary projections of woman that surround the female existence – smothering it, depriving it, manipulating it, and in the final irony, creating it and then reflecting it – will instantly reveal the essential outsided-ness of woman: her distance from the center of self-realizing life, the extremity of her responses to experience, her characteristic femaleness incorporating (very much as a black man’s blackness does) a distillation of human behavior that grows directly out of the excluded nature of her destined life. Further, a look at culture and literature will confirm that the life of woman, like the life of every outsider, is determinedly symbolic of the life of the race; that this life is offered up, as every other outsider’s life is offered up, as a sacrifice to the forces of annihilation that surround our sense of existence, in the hope that in reducing the strength of the outsider – in declaring her the bearer of all the insufficiencies and contradiction of the race – the wildness, grief, and terror of loss that is in us will be grafted onto her, and the strength of those remaining within the circle will be increased. For in the end, that is what the outsider is all about; that is what power and powerlessness are all about; that is what inclusion and exclusion are all about; that is what the cultural decision that certain people are “different” is all about: if only these Steppenwolfs, these blacks, these Jews, these women will go mad and die for us, we will escape; we will be saved; we will have made a successful bid for salvation.

I am not real to him. I am not real to my civilization. I am not real to the culture that has spawned me and made use of me. I am only a collection of myths. I am an existential stand-in. The idea of me is real – the temptress, the goddess, the child, the mother – but I am not real. The mythic proportions of woman are recognizable and real; it is only the human dimensions that are patently false and will be denied to the death, our death. James Baldwin once wrote: “The white man can deal with the Negro as a symbol or as a victim, but never as a human being.” … the same understanding is granted to women.

Jessie Barnard deconstructs the paradox of happy marriage, first quoting de Tocqueville’s observations at length “In America the independence of woman is irrevocably lost in the bonds of matrimony…[women] make it their boast to bend themselves to the yoke, not to shake it off.” She then quotes Mary Roberts Coolidge’s Why Women Are So, claiming that over the past century, women were “broken” by marriage and lost the power to think or decide for themselves. Then dives into lots of research data and tables comparing happiness levels of married/unmarried men/women. Naturally single women and married men scored tops.

Una Stannard’s The Mast of Beauty ravages the beauty myth and its place in culture, “Glittering and smiling in the media, looked at by millions, envied and ogled, these ideal beauties teach women their role in society. They teach them that women are articles of conspicuous consumption in the male market; that women are made to be looked at, and that females achieve success in the world by being looked at.”

The cult of beauty in women, which we smile at as though it were one of the culture’s harmless follies, is, in fact, an insanity, for it is posited on a false view of reality. Women are not more beautiful than men. The obligation to be beautiful is an artificial burden, imposed by men on women, that keeps both sexes clinging to childhood, the woman forced to remain a charming, dependent child, the man driven by his unconscious desire to be loved and taken care of simply for his beautiful self. Woman’s mask of beauty is the face of a child, a revelation of the tragic sexual immaturity of both sexes in our culture.

Marjorie B. U’Ren on the low opinion many women have of their own sex: “Individuals generally adopt the attitudes of their culture even when these attitudes are directed against their own kind. Experiments show that preschool children learn very early to discriminate against themselves. Given a choice of white and black dolls, for example, and asked to pick out the prettiest, both black and white children in our culture choose the white doll.”

Elaine Showalter’s Women Writers and the Double Standard is another standout essay that exposes the change in tone critics undergo once they learn a book they were praising was written by a woman. Pseudonyms and the desperate Victorian game to unmask anonymous writers. The unnatural competition fluffed up by reviewers trying to pin Bronte vs. Gaskell, “women writers were thus forced to be rivals.”

Roslyn Willett’s Working in a “Man’s World” is a terrific depiction of the horrors women have been encountering in the workforce. Particularly appalling was the male-only executive flight from NYC to Chicago that United ran through the 1960s and into 1970. After complaining about discrimination to the Civil Aeronautics Board, they said it was a promotional event and if women wanted an all-female executive flight, they’d put one on. Willett suggests “they tell black people that they were not discriminated against on most flights, but on one flight a day only whites were to be permitted and if blacks wanted an all-black flight all they had to do was create effective demand.” She details how the presence of women help balance out the aggressive/fantasy nature of men, but that men when threatened immediate go apoplectic. “Blunt, straightforward talk and action and ad hoc responsiveness to real-world situations are very characteristic of women. But it is precisely because men do not want or expect directness – and often do not get it from each other, particularly in the white-collar world – that they find it incomprehensible. They prefer fantasies…”

Catharine Stimpson’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Thy Neighbor’s Servants”: Women’s Liberation and Black Civil Rights details the long and twisted history of the women’s movement and fighting to end slavery and achieve equality for blacks. “Both blacks and women are highly visible; they cannot hide, even if they want to.” She quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech in 1860 before the New York State Legislature, “The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The Negro’s skin and the woman’s sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man.”