I keep running into rude, arrogant feminists on YT recently, which has inspired me to pull out the last feminist book I attempted to read by Dale Spender titled Women of Ideas & What Men Have Done to Them (1982). Selecting a page at random, let’s go with page 82 and take an excerpt from the author’s discussion of a pamphlet titled Women not Inferior to Man (1743) that’s been attributed to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu though was authored under the pseudonym “Sophia, a Person of Quality”:
‘Sophia’ was perfectly aware that men made up the meanings of society, and, while she does not use the terms double standard or double-bind (which are the product of exclusive control by one sex, arranging the world in its own interest, these concepts are articulated throughout her book. ‘When they wish to stigmatize a Man with want of courage’, she says, men ‘call him effeminate, and when they would praise a Woman for her courage they call her manly’, for men have ensured that they and the characteristics they have appropriated are perceived positively. ‘Sophia’ recognizes the operation of the double standard and the double-bind for women are rated negatively if they do not have courage, as it is a quality prized in males, but rated negatively if they do have courage for their ‘womanliness’ is called into question — they are manly, and this is intended disparagingly. She rejects this value system. She proposes instead to reverse it, to make women the positive reference point, and men the negative (a process she has implicitly engaged in throughout the book), to give them a taste of their own medicine and to see how they like it. ‘When a Man is possessed of our virtues he should be called effeminate by way of the highest praise of his good nature and justice’, she asserts, ‘and a Woman who should depart from our sex by exposing the injustice and cruelty of Man‘s nature, should be called a Man‘. Maleness and femaleness are not biological constructs but social ones in Sophia’s analysis. Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) made the same point about ‘masculine women’ (in Kramnick, 1978, pp. 80-1), and today terms such as ‘male identified’ are still used to make this point. We have not come as far as some would have us believe.
If there has to be a value judgement about which sex is the better sex (and today we may be more sophisticated in our understanding that difference does not necessarily mean deficiency), then ‘Sophia’ has no hesitation in declaring it to be the female sex, for, she says, ‘I believe no one will deny but that at least, upon the most modest computation, there are a thousand bad men to one bad woman‘. And in her book, it is power that is to be held responsible.
In her analysis it is male power which is the root of evil and injustice, for men have gone to evil and unjust lengths in the attempt to protect that power and to preserve their primacy. It is clear, she argues, that men have created ‘superior’ men and ‘inferior’ women by women do not have to accept the organization and the values that men have created — they are not immutable but can be undone and replaced. When she demands education for women, however, as a means of ‘deconstructing’ what men have done, it is by no means just a demand to share in the education men have designed for themselves; she is not arguing for the ‘right’, as women were to do later, to have access to the institutions men had created (the right to enter their laws, to participate in their political structures). She is demanding that women be free to develop their own reason, their own logic, their own intellect, free from abuse and harassment and on the basis of their own experience. What value is the right to equal representation if men continue to count more than women — for after all, women are equally represented in the population and yet are inferior. She demonstrates that women’s ideas, women’s ways of making sense of and explaining the world are qualitatively different from men’s while women are subordinate — and that men’s will be qualitatively different if and when women are equal and must be taken into account. They would no longer be the sole authorities, they only arbiters. They would have to partake of the experience of not being able to impose their meanings on the world (an everyday part of women’s existence) without reference to those on whom they were imposed. ‘Sophia’ argues for a different view of the world in which men are not superior (and for institutions which will reflect this) and then the social structure which she has described in her pamphlet — patriarchy — would no longer prevail.
‘Men,’ she says, ‘by thinking us incapable of improving our intellects, have entirely thrown us out of all advantages of education: and thereby contributed as much as possible to make us the senseless creatures they imagine us’; their beliefs have ‘come true’ by means of the social system they have arranged, so that the reality of patriarchy is superior men and inferior women. ‘If the truth be spoken’, she states in her conclusion, ‘the blame lies chiefly and originally in the Men’.
‘Sophia’s’ book could be published today and with the aid of a few minor editorial changes could pass as a contemporary feminist analysis of patriarchy. Inside feminist circles it could be perceived as radical — outside them as ‘outrageous’ and cause no doubt for the abuse and harassment typically heaped upon women who dare to assert such reasons in a male-dominated society. Her sanity would be called into question before her intellectual contribution was acknowledged.
Be it philosophy, sociology, psychology, or any of the other branches of the humanities or social sciences, which have since been shaped in modern mould, not one of them has incorporated into its framework the fundamental intellectual questions and perspective introduced by ‘Sophia’. None has incorporated women’s ideas on power, and its inherent sexual dimension into the stock of accumulated wisdom and transmitted it from one generation to the next. Education is still male controlled, the seats of learning still occupied by men, the disciplines still owned and operated by men, the ideas generated still justifying the interests of men, despite the gains in access to institutions and in many respects women are no more free today to assert the authenticity of their own experience, and the validity of their reasoning, which emerges from that experience. The male version of the world is still passed off as the human version and women are still deviant, still required to deal daily with the double standard and the double-bind, and are still the scapegoats, being blamed for the actions of women and men, over which they have no control. It is a mark of male control that Woman not Inferior to Man is not a basic text in educational institutions, for it could be such empowering knowledge for women — but in present (patriarchal) terms it would be ’emasculating’ for men.
[All emphases and punctuation hers, only in reverse since the original text got italicized thanks to this blog theme’s defect. [Update 5/24/2016: This blog’s theme has since been updated and now, once again, italicizes everything in quotations. Haven’t figured out how to fix it yet.]. Quoted in full except where I removed the ibid citations.]
Let’s stop there on page 85.
Books such as this should stand as a testament that I’m willing to consider all sorts of food for thought, though I admittedly stopped reading that book on page 188 a few years back and have yet to pick it back up (other than today to supply transcribed material for this blog today). Spender’s writing proved to be tough to stay engaged with, for a variety of reasons.