Mar 29, 2010

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Are Women Human? collects two essays by Dorothy Sayers on gender and women’s roles in society: the first, self-titled, was an address given to a Women’s Society in 1938; the second, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human”, deals with women’s rights within the Catholic church. The question the title of this collection asks is and yet is not tongue-in-cheek. Naturally everybody “knows” that women are human. But, as Sayers points out, in countless ways the world is still structured as if they weren’t. Sadly, a lot of what she describes hasn’t really changed in over seven decades. These essays are still as relevant today as they were in 1938.

Sayers begins the first essay by rejecting the term “feminism” – this didn’t surprise me (Virginia Woolf did the same, after all), nor did it lessen my appreciation for what she had to say. But it was interesting to notice that the reasons she gives for not being a feminist are the very same reasons why I do call myself one. Her problem with the term “feminism” has to do with the fact that she thinks it overemphasises the differences between the sexes instead of questioning them. She believes that we are first and foremost human beings, that men and women are a lot more alike than they are different, and that our different achievements have merely to do with different opportunities and forms of socialisation, rather than with different abilities. Therefore, she’s wary of anything that strengths or tries to naturalise these supposed differences.

This is a common misconception about feminism even today – in fact, my teenage self felt the same as Sayers. I don’t know whether it was any more accurate in the 1930’s than it is now, but I do know that in our days this line of thinking certainly does not describe the majority of those who call themselves feminists. Feminism is obviously not a monolith, and I have indeed seen the term be used to describe theories that are only thinly disguised versions of the ancient belief that boys-are-from-Mars-and-girls-are-from-Venus (hello, Carol Gilligan). But if I were to throw away a word every time it was used to express something different from what I mean by it, I’d have to revise the whole dictionary every few weeks.

Regardless of whether or not Dorothy Sayers called herself a feminist, these essays perfectly sum up my own thoughts on gender issues. With humour and insight, Sayers dares to question the gender binary altogether, as well as the majority of the world’s insistence on treating women as an amorphous category; as members of an alien class rather than has individual human beings. She says, for example, that it irritates her to be asked to give a “feminine perspective” on writing detective fiction. The distinction between knowledge and ability, she says, is an important one to keep in mind. Because historically women have been known to perform certain tasks (such as, say, looking after children) more often than men, as a general rule they have more knowledge of how these tasks are performed. But this doesn’t mean they have more of a natural inclination of a better ability to perform them. Likewise, when women enter jobs that have been traditionally assigned to men, such as writing, they don’t do it from a specifically “feminine” angle, nor are they magically able to tell you how all women would approach them. Because they’re simply human beings, their perspective on writing is really only that of a human being – unique, of course, but not necessarily any more different from a man’s than any given man’s is from another’s.

She also shares an anecdote about a man who asked her if she had grown up in a large house surrounded by brothers and male cousins – he thought that this was the only possible explanation for the fact that the dialogue between male characters in her Lord Peter Wimsey novels actually rang true. Sayers answered that actually, she was an only child and didn’t have any male friends until the age of twenty-five. The reason why her dialogue between men was accurate, she told him, was because she wrote it as the dialogue of any two human beings talking to each other. Oh Dorothy, I love you so. This actually touches on a huge pet peeve of mine, which is seeing people remark on how amazing it is that this or that novelist wrote a believable character of the opposite gender. To find this remarkable enough that it almost defies belief is to implicitly accept that the minds of men and women work so differently that it’s nearly impossible for a member of one gender to divine how the other thinks. We do often behave differently, of course, because we are expected to behave differently. But it’s not difficult for any perceptive and insightful observer to get these differences right. And anyway, I fully believe that the similarities largely surpass them.

There was nothing in Are Women Human? that I hadn’t guessed from reading Sayers’ novels, but it was wonderful to see her actually express her thoughts on gender. The only thing that I found slightly disappointing was that she seems to oppose violent protest of any kind when it comes to the fight for women’s rights. I don’t know what exactly she means by “violent” – naturally I’m not for bombing the houses of those who disagree with me, but I suspect that she used it to simply mean “loud”. Although I’m quiet and mild by nature, I hate to dismiss loudness and anger. Sometimes they’re more than called for, and I do appreciate those who express themselves in ways different than my own. But this is really just a side note. Overall, I loved these essays, and I’ll be pointing those who ask me what exactly I mean when I say I’m a feminist towards them.

Favourite passages:
In reaction against the age-old slogan, ‘woman is the weaker vessel,’ or the still more offensive, ‘woman is a divine creature,’ we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that ‘a woman is as good as a man’ without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape our attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual.

Now, it is frequently asserted that, with women, the job does not come first. What (people cry) are women doing with this liberty of theirs? What woman really prefers a job to a home and family? Very few, I admit. It is unfortunate that they should so often have to make the choice. A man does not, as a rule, have to choose. He gets both. (…) I have admitted that there are very few women who would put their jobs before every earthly consideration. I will go further and assert that there are very few men who would do it either. In fact, there is perhaps only one human being in a thousand who is passionately interested in his job for the job’s sake. The difference is that if that one person in a thousand is a man, we say, simply, that he is passionately keen on his job; if she is a woman, we say she is a freak.

We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served. There is a fundamental difference between men and women, but it is not the only fundamental difference in the world. (…) A difference of age is as fundamental as a difference of sex; and so is a difference of nationality. All categories, if they are insisted upon beyond the immediate purpose which they serve, breed class antagonism and disruption in the state, and that is why they are dangerous.
We are different, yes, but first and foremost we are all human beings. It really is as simple and as seemingly impossible to grasp as that.

Reviewed at:
Grasping for the Wind
Devourer of Books

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. This sounds like an interesting read, I am adding it to be TBR list right now.

  2. This sounds like a really enlightening read. I'm definitely going to be on the lookout for it ...

  3. "But if I were to throw away a word every time it was used to express something different from what I mean by it, I’d have to revise the whole dictionary every few weeks."...LOL, how true. Sometimes, frustratingly so.

    I would definitely love to read this book, but I think even more so it has me craving to dive into Strong Poison.

  4. This sounds like something i really need to read! Thanks for sharing about it. The title certainly caught my eye!

  5. Women have rights in the Catholic church? Excuse the snark. Great post and I would definitely like to read this but what strikes me most here is something that you touch on. Have things changed that much for women despite this large passage of time? Is it meaningful or simply unfortunate that Sayers' words still resonate with women today? So I am both drawn to the read and saddened by its relevance I guess.

  6. Hooray & congratulations for an excellent review on something out of the norm. I felt I was back in my college days reading this... which was a very good thing.

  7. It's so sad that these essays are still relevant. Our society really does demand/expect a lot from women today. This sounds like a fascinating read.

  8. 'The reason why her dialogue between men was accurate, she told him, was because she wrote it as the dialogue of any two human beings talking to each other. This actually touches on a huge pet peeve of mine, which is seeing people remark on how amazing it is that this or that novelist wrote a believable character of the opposite gender.'

    I hang my head in shame, because I have definitely been guilty of this previously. I don't think like that now, but I know I have in the past. Isn't that terrible!

  9. The second quote in particular hits home for me, because I hope to be that woman who is passionate about her career and forgoes a family. I'd like to think the stigma therein has weakened somewhat, but I suspect it's just better hidden.

  10. I didn't realize that Sayers had written non-fiction, but I suppose given how learned she was that I really shouldn't be surprised.

    This sounds like a provocative work, and I always find it interesting to see how other women conceptualize the notion of feminism. Plus, I liked how you pointed out how the term might be an evolving concept. I know that like you I certainly had different ideas about it when I was a teenager than I do now.

  11. Why am I not surprised that she wrote these essay? I hadn't heard of this book before but now I'm going to search it out!

    I recently wrote that I loved Tolstoy's Anna Karenina because his portrayal of Anna felt so real as opposed to various female characters written by male authors who I just couldn't relate to. But then after reading your post I felt that I actually I didn't have that problem with most writers I like simply because they wrote so well. So maybe it's a matter of writing well rather than a gender issue? I'm not sure.

  12. What a great title and what a great subject! I'm often talking about nature v. nurture in relation to gender in my courses. So many seem to think that women are born knowing how to cook, that that activity is somehow hardwired into our brains; these same people think that men are missing that part of the brain. This sort of thinking drives me nuts.

    And I'm with you on the whole "oh, he writes women so well" idea. I first heard that in that movie I'm totally forgetting with Jack Nicholson... The differences in the way we think and speak are minor regarding gender and much more relevant to where, when, and how we were raised than to what body parts we have.

    Thanks for the review!

  13. I love The Dorothy. I love that she's so even-keeled and sense-making. When people try to promote their ideas by either railing at the opposition or preaching to the choir I want to pelt them with peas, but both Dorothy and Woolf are very good at appealing to common sense.

  14. Dorothy Sayers. Being awesome all the time. *overcome by love*

  15. My library system doesn't have this particular book, but it does have a later collection of Sayers' essays called Unpopular Opinions, and I'm hoping these two are in it! I just put it on my holds queue. They're going to have to send me the 1947 edition clear from a little boondocks library. What fun!

  16. I think it's interesting, when you talk about feminism's two iconically different meanings, and then look back at Ms Sayers, growing up in such a turbulent age for the role of so many marginilized groups in society (turbulent in, eventually, a frequently good way, but still turbulent), that the argument boils to down to exclusiveness and inclusiveness - and that in the end, the human need for exclusiveness in these situations probably had a lot to do with realy, pitiable human fear. In both her time and ours, our sort of human sense of our individual identity is changing so wildly - globalization, information revolution, etc, all these things sort of revolutionize who we are to each other as individuals. And this makes e look at someone who, in 1920 or 1930, was deeply intent on 'proving' differences between man and woman, man and monkey (Scopes trial, for instance), man and black man, etc, as struggling to form some sort of cohesive identity. and the easiest way to form an identity is to say what you are not: I am not a woman, I am not a black person, I am not a poor person, and that means I do not have to worry about being weak, poor, stupid, unmoored, immoral, or whatever other human fear/weakness I displace onto the 'other'. Ironically, the feminists that I personally sometimes feel frustrated with (and I say this as a feminist myself, as much as my little brain can manage) sometimes feel like they are doing the exact same thing - creating a little exclusive group of those who are 'right' so that they can displace 'wrong' onto the unenlightened masses. In a sense, this explains a lot of tension in our society to me - the conservative right in America is panicking and consolidating into a more radical version of their ideentity, in part because that identity is threatened. The same goes for old-wing leftists, this isn't an attack on the right. The problem is that we need to find more productive ways to fill that need for an identity, I guess.

    Anyway, I'm not sure how much that has to do with Dorothy Sayers. Sorry. :P

  17. This sounds like a really great book. I've just ordered it based on your review and can't wait to read it!

  18. I really like this article about writing like a woman or a man:

  19. This makes me even gladder that I've just started my first ever Sayers' book. Only a chapter in, but so far so good :)

    Whenever anyone gives out about feminists or what they see as feminist thinking I always remind myself (and sometimes them) that there is no such thing as a central Feminist Theory. Instead there are a multitudes of theories and approaches. Once you have some sort of belief that men & women should be treated equally (not as though they were entirely the same) then you meet my definition of feminist, whether you use the word of not

  20. This reminds me of something I think Margaret Atwood wrote about the Penelopiad. When a story is told from a woman's point of view, it's automatically assumed to be a "feminist perspective." But really... it's just a story from a woman's point of view.

    I feel like people spend too much time defining feminism (and all sorts of other things). It makes it seem like a much more complicated and strange thing when in actuality, it's pretty simple.

    This book sounds good, but I feel like you are such a huge Sayers fan, that is to be expected ;-)

    On that note, I think you'd really, really like Angela Thirkell.

  21. This sounds like a powerful read. I think the cover is lovely!

  22. What a great review. I like your point and Sayers point about writing convincing characters of the opposite sex.

    I agree with the poster above that the cover is pretty cool!

  23. I had no idea that this book was even out there, but it sounds like something that be well worth my time. Sayers sounds like she has a lot to say about gender issues, and I love the story about writing from a different perspective. Even though I haven't read many of her fictional works, I am thinking about trying to pick this book up soon. Wonderful review, Nymeth! You always find the best stuff!

  24. Sounds so interesting. I like how she believes men and women have more in common than different.

  25. Ooh, this sounds like an excellent collection of essays. I'm sure it's very interesting to read! You always pick the neatest books out there!

    from Une Parole

  26. To piggyback Viv, and to disagree...I still am in awe with an author captures the voice of their opposite gender. Sure, I think that ultimately we're human and I hate all of the isms that we use in society (even though it's a love/hate relationship because I understand the need to classify and group) but there are specifics to gender (just like race) that make it difficult for someone to capture an authentic voice.

    Oh dear. Did I just ramble?

  27. I actually almost just ordered this one when I saw it on Amazon last night! Glad to hear that it's good. I totally agree with you (thought I've disagreed before in emails...I'm wishy washy) that both sexes are capable of writing in the voice of the other sex as long as they stop looking at people as male/female and instead just look at them as human beings. I've noticed that Sayers writes her characters SO WELL!!! I love them!

  28. 1938, eh? That's the same year Woolf published Three Guineas. I've got to get my hands on this one!

    Your remarks on writing the opposite sex remind me of a conversation with my BFF about how if a man writes a woman well he gets tons of credit (eg, a Booker or a Pulitzer), whereas if a woman writes a man well, it is a shock. Clearly Sayers, like Woolf, was ahead of her time, and for each of them "feminism" was intrinsic, less a political construct than an integral part of fairness. That women weren't being allowed. (Does that make sense?)
    Thanks for the insights, Nymeth!!

  29. We are all humans--male or female--and we should celebrate our differences. I'm glad to be living in this era where in most parts of the world, women are now given the opportunity they more than deserved.

    If we acknowledge and respect the fact that men and women are created and wired differently to function effectively in their own capability, the world is definitely going to be a better place.

    Thanks for the review, Ana! Sayers is one of my favorite authors for deep reading. :)

  30. I've never really been interested in Dorothy Sayer's detective fiction (I think I'd need a detective year to cath up on that genre, which I'd like to do but never will so it tends to get neglected)but I very much admire all the views you've quoted here, so I maye have to work her into my reading pile somewhere. I also wonder what she does mean by violent protest. Can't help wondering if she's referring to the same kind of things Ali Smith mentions in 'Girl Meets Boy', throwing rocks through windows and such.

  31. Are Women Human sounds very thought-provoking. I know I regularly get into verbal arguments at work about what it means to be a feminist, and it annoys me to no end how ignorant some people are when it comes to feminism. I know there are many theories and forms of feminism, I just, I hate when people lump it all in one category, or worse, when all they see is a demonized version of feminism.

    Definitely appreciate your views and insights, rock on for eloquence!

  32. Candletea and Joanna, I hope you both enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Debi: Yes, do dive into Strong Poison! It's now as good as the ones that follow, imo, but it's still plenty good :D

    Rebecca, it's a great title, isn't it? I love how it goes straight to the point.

    Frances, no need to apologise :P The essay does focus on the lack thereof. And yes, I thought it was quite depressing that so much of it was still so relevant. The concrete examples may have changed - for example, in most contexts nobody much comments on women wearing pants anymore - but the underlying attitudes remain.

    Elisabeth, thank you! I hope I didn't sound *too* lecture-ish :P

    Kathy: It does, yes :\ Baby steps, I guess?

    Vivienne, nothing to be ashamed of! Honestly, I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, and it'd be perfectly fine even if you hadn't changed your mind.

    Corvus: Sadly, I agree :\

    Steph: She's written quite a few essays! Some of them are on theology, which doesn't attract me nearly as much as gender issues, but I'm interested enough in her to want to know what she had to say on anything.

    Chasingbawa: I do think it's more of a matter of being able to empathise with another person, being perceptive and being insightful, which are traits I'd attribute to pretty much all the writers I like. But these are of course just my two cents.

    Trisha: Born knowing how to cook - that made me laugh, though in reality it's not funny at all. But I'm living evidence of how untrue that is :P And this - "the differences in the way we think and speak are minor regarding gender and much more relevant to where, when, and how we were raised than to what body parts we have" - is exactly how I feel about it.

    Raych: I know! I love how they both state the obvious in a way that doesn't make you feel like you're being told the obvious. They invite you to think about it in new ways.

    Jenny: Infinite <3's!

    Trapunto: Yes, Unpopular Opinions does have these! Unfortunately I only found that out after getting this much shorter collection. But I definitely want to read her other essays sometime.

    Jason: Well, that DOES have to do with what Dorothy Sayers says in this book, so don't be sorry! I think you hit the nail on the head, yes. I wish we could find ways to definite ourselves that didn't involved othering other groups, but I realise this isn't easy.

    Amy, and I can't wait to hear what you think :)

  33. Jill, I feel that I could write a whole dissertation about that article! And in fact I did at some point consider a dissertation on this topic, but it's perhaps for the best that I didn't follow that road :P Anyway, I just have doubts about there being a typically male versus female voices and male versus female themes. I'm not trying to deny that there are themes about which men write more often and themes about which women write more often - that's definitely true. But I think that more than a matter than naturally rending towards one sphere or another, women have traditionally not been allowed to write, say, more political or public books, whereas men are frowned upon for being too "emotional". But if a woman tried to write military science fiction, for example, like James Tiptree Jr, she can do it in a way that will be indistinguishable from a man's. And the same goes for a man writing a quieter/more emotional book. Not any woman or man, of course, as individual differences come first. But I don't think that ability or inability is tied so much to gender as it is to gender expectations. I hope this makes sense!

    Fence: Hooray! Which one is it? And very true about there being no central feminist theory. Your definition is pretty much mine too.

    Aarti: I might have misinterpreted Margaret Atwood's quote, but I remember being annoyed at the time because I felt that she was trying to dissociate her work from feminism as much as possible. I mean, she completely has the right not to want to identify herself and what she writes as feminist books, but I was saddened that she seemed to want to disallow people from reading them that way. By saying, "this book of mine that deals with gender and women's right is NOT feminist" it seems that you're trying to limit what feminism *is* for other people. And it's not quite fair for an author to do that. Anyway, people DO spend too much time trying to define it, and I've probably just done the same :P

    Kathleen and Jess, I love the cover too :)

    Zibilee: She did have a lot to say, and she was just so...sensible about it. I love her <3

    Chris: I love that too!

    Emidy, thank you! I try :P

    Christina, it's completely okay to disagree! I guess I just don't believe that there is a typically masculine and a typically feminine voice. People DO have different voices and different ways of thinking, but for me, gender is only one factor among many that influences who we are, how we think and how we sound. I don't see gender as a wide gulf, nor as any more determinant of our voices than age, nationally, social background, and individual personality. So if I were to be amazed that a novelist captured the voice of someone of the opposite gender accurately, I'd have to be amazed that they accurately captured the voice of any other human being who is not themselves. Which in a way I am, actually, but you know :P I hope this made sense!

    Chris: You're not wishy washy! We all change our minds :P And yes, her characterisation is top notch. That's one of the main reasons why I love her so.

    ds: And I need to get my hands on Three Guineas! I loved A Room of One's Own and can't believe I haven't read it. I agree that there seems to be much more of a shock when women write men accurately than the reverse. Just one double-standard among many, sadly. And yes, what you said makes perfect sense!

    Alice: I still worry about the state of things, but they have undoubtedly improved, and I have faith that we're getting there :)

    Jodie: I actually think you'd enjoy her detective novels. They're about so much more than just solving mysteries! And I wonder about that too. Possibly it's something like that, but somehow I got the feeling the was dismissing impassioned arguments completely - I hope not.

    April: That annoys me too :\ But hooray for speaking up about it :)

  34. Sounds like an interesting couple of essays, Ana. Thanks for the review!

  35. Okay, how did I manage to get a degree in English and Sociology with a focus on Women's Studies and NOT hear of Dorothy Sayers?!? I'm going to have to seek out her work.

    I haven't used the term feminist to describe myself since college. I don't know why really; it's not like my thoughts on the matter have changed. This certainly gives me something to think about.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  36. Rebecca: You're most welcome! They're fascinating essays, I think.

    Anna: I think she's neglected because she wrote genre fiction...hmmpf :P But she's definitely an author that anyone interested in feminism and gender questions should check out!

  37. Thanks for writing about this book. I have read murder mysteries by Dorothy Sayers and this looks like a really different and interesting work of hers.

  38. Nymeth, I kept meaning to come over here and let you know that I'll be back to read your review after I read the essay! I'm looking forward to it. I'm in paper writing mode right now, so I've disappeared from blogland again for a bit.

  39. Nymeth, while I was reading your excellent review, I kept wondering if Sayers had talked much about the theological roots of the problem (to put it in Mary Daly's words, If the Divine is male, then the male is divine.) (And of course, conversely, the female is not-divine and therefore only human in the most animalistic sense.) Sayers herself was a theologian and I wondered if she addressed things like St. Augustine's contention that women were not "in the likeness of God" unless they were married to a man...or Martin Luther's infamous belief that women should be "a nail in the wall" of their houses.


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