Human Being, Being Human

Dear Kimberly,

I thought I’d continue our dialogue about our respective readings of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as we became familiar with it during two different time periods.

I liked the way you summed up the basic message of Friedan’s book in the previous post. I think it really boils down to these questions: What does it mean to be human? And are women human?”

Are Women Human?

There’s a little book titled, Are Women Human? It consists of two essays by the late British writer Dorothy Sayers (known as much for her detective novels about Lord Peter Wimsey as for her scholarly and theological works). The essays were originally part of a larger collection of essays published asUnpopular Opinions in 1947. But because of their common theme, they were separated from the larger collection and published by Eerdmans in 1971 under the title of the first essay, “Are Women Human?”an address Dorothy Sayers had given to a women’s society in 1938.

The book’s introduction was written by Mary McDermott Shideler, who has published numerous writings in theology and psychology. I love the way she describes why Sayers didn’t consider herself a feminist (even though Sayers certainly embraced full equality for women and men). She reasoned that there would be no need for such a movement if only women were recognized simply as part of the human race with the same needs and wants as the male part of the human race. “The liberation of women was not a cause she espoused,” writes Shideler, “but a way of life that she practised on the premises that male and female are adjectives qualifying the noun “human being,” and that the substantive governs the modifier” (p. 7, 1971 edition). Shideler continues her summary by saying that Sayers emphasized that “We are all equal in our creaturehood, whatever our sex, color, age, background, or abilities” and that “the primary work in living, for any human being, is to find and do the work for which he or she was created” (p. 10). Sayers did not think those qualities of age, sex, color, and the like should be the determining factor in the work for which a particular person — a human being — was created.

Human and Mrs. Human

When gender is used to determine one’s worth and destiny as a human being, women find themselves yearning for something more. In other words, they face the “problem that has no name” discussed in The Feminine Mystique. But apparently some religious leaders believe that women are somehow less than fully human.

Years ago, The Christian Century asked me to review a 753-page, heavily footnoted new book that was being used by many conservative theological seminaries. Written by Stephen B. Clark in 1980 and titled Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences, the book was praised by one endorser cited on the jacket as being “both an intellectual tour de force and a practical handbook for Christian survival in the twilight years of the twentieth century.” But what did I find in the book? More of the stereotypical thinking that lies at the root of so many problems experienced by both women and men and society in general.

Clark expressed some of the most extremist views I’ve seen anywhere, including the idea that when men spend too much time with their wives they are in danger of being “feminized.” He wrote that female subordination has been and always will be the will of God. And in commenting on Genesis, he emphasized that “it is the man who is called ‘Man’ or ‘Human’ and not the woman. . . .What we meet at the end of Genesis 4 is Human and his wife” (p. 25). (I wonder if he meant the end of Genesis 2 rather than 4 there? But I’m quoting it as it is in the book.)

When I used that quote in my Christian Century review (March 11, 1981), I added a parenthetical comment that these words reminded me of a letter Henry James once wrote to a friend in which he said, “We talk of you and Mrs. you.” Probably because of that, the Christian Century editors titled my book review, “Human and Mrs. Human.” I thought that was perfect!

Work and Love

If we answer Dorothy Sayers’ question, “Are Women Human?” with a resounding “Yes!’ we then need to ask another question: What does being human mean? Sigmund Freud wrote that “the communal life of human beings had . . . a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love” (in Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930).

It makes sense then to think of both work and love as essential aspects of being human. Sociologists talk about the instrumental dimension of life (the aspect of life concerned with work and activity) and the expressive dimension (that aspect of life concerned with our feelings and relationships with others).

The problems that occur in attitudes toward both women and men have related to the way these two sides of life are perceived as being divided up, with men seen as concentrating on the doing (the instrumental or work side) and women being seen as providing emotional support and caring (the expressive or love side). Both women and men are then cheated. Work and love are needed by both.

You illustrated that so well in your August 14 post, Kimberly, when you told of what you were feeling in class as you listened to the professor’s theories about “the curse” in the Genesis story of the creation and fall. You said your desire to experience fulfillment in work was as much of an issue for you as the relationship side of life. Being a woman didn’t change that longing to use your talents and achieve. But at the same time you were sure there were men in the class who desired fulfillment in the love side of life and were finding that relating to others was as much of a concern to them as the work side of life. I think you’re so right! it’s balance that is important. And that was the point that Sayers and Friedan emphasized in the past and that others of us right now (you and I included) want to underscore as well.

When I wrote my post on “The Feminine Mystique — Then and Now, Part I,” I had planned to continue my 1963-1964 story in this new post, but I think I’ll save that for the next one. I’m looking forward to your further thoughts on what I’ve written this time.

Your friend,

Letha

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

2 COMMENTS

  1. It’s amazing to see in the blog exchange how far feminism has come, and yet how many themes recur through the decades. In addition to the issue of the full humanity of women, another of Friedan’s questions at the crux of The Feminine Mystique is “who is woman in relation to children?” as Kimberly brought up in her previous post. Way back in the 1974 first edition of All We’re Meant to Be, Letha and Nancy acknowledged that this is not just about women [of a certain group circumscribed by race, class, education, sexual orientation, level of disability, and nationality] with children making the decision whether or not to work outside the home as Friedan might frame it, it is also about women making the decision whether or not to have children at all.

  2. Letha, thank you for reintroducing Dorothy Sayers wonderful little book, Are Women Human? I just showed it to my Women & Religion class at California State University, Northridge, when I was introducing them to what feminism is.

    Sayers and Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex were so insightful in presenting basic truths that no woman before them had fully expounded at book length:
    1) One half of the human race is not considered fully human.
    2) Women are secondary and subordinate in patriarchal social order.

    It took about 6,000 years of patriarchy before women stood up and spoke truth to male rule in this definitive way.

    Anne Eggebroten

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.