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After my own heart: Dorothy L. Sayers's feminism.

Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be.

--Gaudy Night (1935)

Might as well admit it: once upon a time, disinclined to mix business with pleasure, I round the very idea of the "Philosophical Novel" off-putting. It was Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends, a deliciously comic exploration of cognitive dissonance and of the pitfalls of social-scientific inquiry, that changed my mind and persuaded me of the merits of mixing pleasure with business. I began to appreciate how a work of fiction may explore philosophical questions and--by means of statements which, being about fictional characters, are not true--convey philosophical truths; and I soon began to acquire a taste for (not the epistolary but) the epistemological novel.

In this genre, I have a particular admiration for Samuel Butler's reflections on the ubiquitous epistemological vices--self-deception, sham inquiry, hypocrisy--that really are The Way of All Flesh, and an especial fondness for Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, a book I discovered only when a graduate student who had heard me give a lecture entitled "Concern for Truth: What It Means, Why It Matters" sent me a copy. She was right on the mark. For The plot of Sayers's story turns precisely on a character's concern for truth and the disastrous series of reactions it prompts, and an important preoccupation is the relation of epistemological to other values: why is honesty valuable in scientific and other inquiry? Is suppressing a fact as bad as telling a lie? What is the relation between epistemological and ethical values? Do the obligations of one's job always, or ever, override considerations of personal loyalty?

Sayers's story is set in an imaginary Oxford women's college, Shrewsbury, of which Harriet Vane, professional detective novelist and part-time sleuth, is a graduate. Miss de Vine, Shrewsbury's history don, is "a soldier knowing no personal loyalties, whose sole allegiance [is] to the fact," her devotion to the intellectual life "a powerful spiritual call." In her previous position as Provost of Flamborough College she exposed the dishonesty of a professorial candidate who, when he found an old letter that undermined his thesis, instead of ripping up his dissertation and starting again, purloined and hid the evidence. The exposure costs him his career and, as he turns to drink and falls into despair, his life. His widow, now using her maiden name of Annie Wilson, has taken a post as scout as Shrewsbury, where she expresses her rage at Miss de Vine, and her resentment of women scholars generally, in vandalism, poison-pen letters, and even attempted murder.

Significant among Annie's acts of vandalism is the destruction of the college library's copy of C. E Snow's The Search. In Snow's novel (loosely based on the early work in x-ray crystallography by W. T. Astbury and his group at Leeds), a young man starting out in science is tempted to destroy the photograph that undermines his beautiful theory, but resists the temptation. Later, however, just as he is about to be appointed to an important post, he finds he has made a careless mistake in his work, the discovery of which costs him the position--after which he decides he doesn't really want to be a scientist after all.

To suppress a truth, avers Miss Edwards, Shrewsbury's biologist, is to publish a falsehood. The bursar wonders aloud what anyone could hope to gain by deliberate falsification, and her colleague Miss Lydgate concurs: "what satisfaction could one possibly get out of a reputation one knew one didn't deserve? It would be horrible." But Miss Hillyard notes that such dishonesty frequently happens, out of ambition, or to get the better of an argument. The dean recalls that at the end of Snow's novel another scientist deliberately falsifies a result, but the man who made the original mistake says nothing, because the culprit is hard up and has a wife and family to keep. "Of course one couldn't do that," responds Miss Barton, "not for ten wives and fifty children." And then Miss de Vine tells her story of Arthur Robinson and his dishonesty.

No less significant among Annie's acts of vandalism are the burning of Miss Barton's book on The Position of Women in the Modern State and the mutilation of the painstakingly corrected proofs of Miss Lydgate's book on prosody, in which the usually mild-mannered and tolerant English don has subjected Mr. Elkbottom's ridiculous theories to harsh criticism. No less significant, because they symbolize Sayers's second theme: the place of women in the life of the mind.

When Harriet, with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, exposes her as the criminal, Annie--the desperately angry Total Woman--is defiant: "Couldn't you leave my man alone? He told a lie about someone who was dead and dust hundreds of years ago. ... You broke him and killed him--all for nothing. Do you think that's a woman's job?" Annie thinks women should be wives and mothers; these women dons, and the women students for that matter, are unnatural creatures, taking away men's jobs.

Sayers's cast of characters enables her to look at Annie's question from just about every angle. Among the graduates, there's Mary Attwood, nee Stokes, who as a student was the charming, polished center of her set, taking the lead in all those late-night discussions of love, art, and religion, but who has by now succumbed to mental stagnation: "one of those small, summery brains that flower early and run to seed"; Catherine Freemantle, who took her degree and married a farmer: "all that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn"; and Phoebe Tucker, a former history student who now works with her archeologist husband and whose little boy has recently very carefully and correctly excavated the gardener's rubbish heap. Among the undergraduates, there's Miss Cattermole, who really wants to be a cook or a nurse, but whose parents insisted that she go to college; and Miss Layton, who, when her fiance shows an interest in the emotionally predatory Miss Flaxman, puts him off by telling him that she's a great scholar. (Miss Layton plans, when she herself gets the First Class degree she expects and deserves, to pretend she did it by being fragile and pathetic in the viva.) And then there's Beatrice, Annie's small daughter, sketched in a half-dozen vivid lines. What does she want to do when she grows up, Harriet asks: to keep a garage, Beatrice replies. You'll never find a husband if you mess around in a garage getting dirty, her mother scolds. "I don't want [a husband]. I'd rather have a motorcycle."

Harriet herself is the most rounded and real of the characters in the book. She is nostalgic for the sheltered academic life, but having made her way in the real world (and survived the scandal of being falsely accused of the murder of her lover), she isn't entirely comfortable back in Oxford. Harriet isn't sure that Miss de Vine did the best thing, but she is sure that people like Annie, who make other people their jobs, are dangerous to have around. Looking her heart in the face, she finally acknowledges her love for Peter Wimsey, but fears that to accept the proposal of marriage he makes on special occasions--as a birthday treat, on Guy Fawkes' Day, and regularly on April Fool's Day--would be fatally to sacrifice her independence. Lord Peter, however, surprises her by acknowledging her right to run her own risks to solve the crimes: "That was an admission of equality.... If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in a new light." Twice in the course of the book Harriet rejects Peter's proposals ("No, I'm sorry." "No. I can't see my way to it."); but on the last page of the book, when he asks, "Placetne, magistra?," she answers: "Placet."

One advantage of a novel, as of a Platonic dialogue, is that many different approaches and answers can be presented and explored; one disadvantage of a novel, as of a Platonic dialogue, is that the reader may be left unsure which approach the author takes to be best, which answers she takes to be true. Happily, however, we know how Sayers herself would reply to Annie; for besides her detective fiction, her translations of the Chanson de Roland and of Dante, among her wide-ranging essays (on politics, on Dr. Watson's Christian name, on the richness and flexibility of the English language) is a pair of crisp and refreshingly unorthodox papers on feminism. I say "feminism" though Sayers herself eschews the term, because by my lights she surely is a feminist; not, to be sure, a feminist of any of the now-fashionable varieties, but an old-fashioned, humanistic, individualistic feminist: a feminist, in short, after my own heart.

Since, these days, both "humanist" and "individualist" are likely to be misunderstood, I had better explain that "humanist," in this context, means "concerned with what human beings have in common qua human beings" and carries no connotation of aggressive atheism. (In fact, Sayers was a devout Anglican--too devout for my taste; among her works is the famous radio play of the life of Jesus, The Man Born to Be King, and a whole corpus of writings on theological matters.) Even more importantly, perhaps, "individualist" here means "valuing the individuality of individual human beings, respecting the differences between you and me," and carries no connotation of every-man-for-himself-ism; it has the sense rather of William James's shrewd essay "On the Value of the Individual" than of Dewey's "ragged individualism."

Sayers defends two main positive themes: that women are fully human beings, just as men are; and that, like all human beings, women are individuals, each one different. These are so closely interrelated that disentangling them is close to impossible--but probably, as this passage reveals, also undesirable:
 "What" men have distractedly asked from the beginning of time, "what on
 earth do women want?" I do not know that women, as women, want anything in
 particular, but as human beings they want, my good men, exactly what you
 want yourselves: interesting occupation, reasonable freedom for their
 pleasures, and a sufficient emotional outlet. What form the occupation, the
 pleasures, and the emotion may take, depends entirely upon the individual.
 You know that this is so with yourselves--why will you not believe that it
 is so with us?

Observing that "women are more like men than anything else on earth," Sayers stresses the needs that all human beings share: meaningful work, family, friends, someone to love. "A woman is as good as a man"--if it is not to be as meaningless as "an elephant is as good as a racehorse" (as good as a racehorse for what?)--should mean that a woman is just as much an individual human being as a man is. And qua individual human being, a woman should be free to do whatever work she is best at. (Like Plato, Sayers seems to assume that if each person does what he or she is best at, each job will be done by the person who does it best. Not so, unfortunately, but I won't pursue the point.) Probably, she thinks, there will always be fewer women mathematicians and composers than men, but what matters is that talented women can become mathematicians or composers if they choose. But what woman, it will be asked, really prefers a job to a home and family? Relatively few, Sayers believes. The unfairness is that a woman who devotes herself to her work is apt to be regarded as a freak, while a man who does the same is seen as dedicated, and--now Sayers sounds a lot like Harriet--that women should so often have to make the choice between work and family, whereas men do not.

Heterodox in her own day, apparently, and even more so in ours, Sayers deliberately plays down the idea of women as a class, category, or group. On some topics, she grants, women are likely to have special knowledge, though even there they will probably disagree among themselves; but on most questions, she insists, there is no "woman's point of view." "Are women really not human," she asks, "that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep?" Yes, there is a fundamental difference between men and women, but it is not the only fundamental difference in the world. In some ways she has a lot in common with her cleaning lady, but in a discussion of art and literature she would have far more in common with Mr. Bernard Shaw. And her opinions on questions of art or literature, she continues, are just that, her opinions:
 I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of
 magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction "from the
 woman's point of view." To such demands, one can only say, "Go away and
 don't be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an
 equilateral triangle."

Those who opposed admitting women to the universities asked rhetorically, "Why should women want to know about Aristotle?" The answer is not that all women would be the better for knowing about Aristotle, much less that they would be more companionable wives for their husbands if they did; no, "What women want as a class is irrelevant.... I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions that need prevent my knowing about him." Sayers might have chosen literature or logic, archeology or architecture as her example, but her choice of Aristotle has a particular poignancy, for also among her essays is "Aristotle on Detective Fiction" adapting and applying the Poetics to a new genre.

Sayers's angle on Aristotle is certainly not the, or even a, "woman's point of view." It is her angle, the point of view of a particular person with her own particular interests, her own particular projects. It puts me in mind of the disagreement I once had with Jurgen Habermas. I had argued that the idea that women bring to philosophy the special insight made possible by their oppression "neglects the most important qualities talented women have to offer philosophy: logical acumen, textual sensitivity, creative imagination, analytic rigor, conceptual subtlety and penetration, etc."; Habermas maintained, in the kindest possible way, that his women graduate students had brought special insights, pointing out to him that Aristotle's view of women was in some respects unenlightened. No doubt Sayers would have been quick to give the answer I wish I'd given: "Not good enough! Each serious woman scholar of Aristotle will have her own contribution to make to our understanding of his work; to expect anything less is condescension." Sayers's angle on Aristotle, I might add, is fresh and illuminating, while the supposed "woman's angle" is by now, surely, more than a little stale.

When Sayers wrote "Are Women Human?" in 1938, the battle for the admission of women to the universities was already won. (Sayers herself earned First Class honors in Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford in 1915, but received her degrees only at the historic ceremony in 1920 at which the first women graduates were honored.) She would surely be pleased by the great advances women have made since then, in the life of the mind as elsewhere. But she would hot be pleased to see college becoming less an opportunity for those who genuinely delight in building and stretching their intellectual muscles than an exercise in credentialism, nor to sec how inhospitable today's academy can be to the genuinely independent thinker, of whatever gender. She would detest the jargon-choked, muddy blandness of contemporary academic prose. And she would surely be dismayed to find how influential the idea has become that a woman academic had better take the "woman's point of view," or else be deemed guilty of complicity in sexism.

Doubtless some will see Sayers's whole approach as passe, a holdover from the Dark Ages before Second Wave feminism; but I sec it as a much needed antidote to the emphasis on women-as-a-class which predominates in feminism today. A focus on women-as-a-class was the basis of the old practices of exclusion, and those who fought to get rid of those practices had no alternative but to focus on women-as-a-class themselves. Now, however, focusing too exclusively on the category "Woman" risks playing into the hands of the oppressors. "If used to be said" Sayers observed, "that women had no esprit de corps; we have proved that we have--do not let us run into the opposite error of insisting that there is an aggressively feminist `point of view' about everything."

A refusal to acknowledge women's full humanity, and a correlative inability to appreciate each woman's full individuality, really is at the very heart of sexism (and, mutatis mutandis, of racism). So it is disturbing that many women in the academy today, rather than being unambiguously welcomed as full participants in the life of the mind, find themselves subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged to confine themselves to the pink-collar ghetto of "women's issues" and "feminist approaches," as it is to hear the echoes of the old, sexist stereotypes in contemporary feminist philosophy: feminist ethics will focus on caring rather than duty, on virtue rather than justice; logic is a masculinist enterprise; feminist epistemology should stress connectedness, community, emotion, trust, the body, etc.

How much better it would be if, instead of casting around for an epistemology that represents "the feminist point of view" we tried, as feminists, finally to get beyond the stereotypes and, as epistemologists, to develop a true account of knowledge, evidence, warrant, inquiry, etc. Then we might be readier to acknowledge that any halfway adequate epistemology will need to be at once quasi-logical, personal, and social; concerned with the cognitive capacities and limitations that all human beings share, and with the idiosyncrasies, expertise, and imaginative contributions of individuals; looking to the way interactions among individuals may compensate for this individual's perceptual and intellectual defects, while keeping the insights only that individual could contribute.

C. S. Peirce once complained: "There is a kink in my damned brain that prevents me from thinking as other people think." But without that kink, without Peirce's intellectual left-handedness, philosophy would have been poorer by far--as feminist thinking would be the poorer without Sayers's quirky, idiosyncratic, literate intelligence. "Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors" Einstein observed, "looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else," when at any given time "there are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste." And even fewer, I would add, so wryly witty that it's a pleasure doing business with them.
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Author:Haack, Susan
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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