The Feminine Principle

THE OLD feminist, the brilliant, self-assertive, daring, reforming woman, is as extinct as a dodo, and the movement called feminism could not fill a small lecture hall. There is not much need for agitation, in the political sense, because legal, social, and economic rights for women are fairly well won. “Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I’m not a feminist or anything like that,” we say with a shudder.

Nevertheless, “bad” habits do not die so quickly, snuffed out by a reprimand. Teasing refusals and a vast block of irritability proclaim the rock of feminine self-assertion that declines to soften even in our present bland moral climate. Just now, after the exhausting effort of the war and the unexpected continuation of psychological and political strain, we are living through years of slack and fatigue, a kind of mental depression, cushioned by material prosperity. We seek and find an after-dinner repose, the mood of repletion, slumberous satisfaction. The conversation at such times will be anecdotal and suitable to good digestion. We say things we don’t really mean in order to be pleasant, to further the national relaxation. A good many people complain that we are suffering from complacency and self-deception.

If this mood is not necessarily wicked—and how can we know the full degree of its errors and carelessness?—if it is not wicked, it is not particularly accurate either in its power to represent our reality. In this period, under the terms of the truce we have signed with our fatigue, theory and practice are blithely separated. When practice disputes our theory or our preference, we feel it is disagreeable to be reminded of it and we become suspicious of those critics who do not like to leave well enough alone.

And so it is with feminism. In this subject the worm of journalism lies curled at the core, waiting for the incautious tooth. Helplessly, the writer falls into a bantering, breezy tone, fit for an elegy on a dead subject; or if one is feeling more alarmed than resigned—hostility often masquerades as alarm—the tone taken toward women may be moralistic and threatening, with talk about gains being actual losses, freedom being slavery, and independence, tyranny. Lightness or lugubriousness—or silence. The quip, the insight, the turn of phrase, the hard-breathing rhetorical effort: what are these in the face of the wide, indeed the ostentatious yawn on the subject of woman’s place, women’s rights, whatever we decide to call them. The yawn is the reality and the indifference is, to some degree at least, realistic.

Not long after the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe wrote that her engagement in the Suffrage Movement brought her relief from a sense of “isolation and eccentricity.” If we remember Mrs. Howe at all, we recall the photograph taken in her old age. She is a wrinkled old lady in a white cap and she sits in a great, hooded rattan chair on her veranda in Newport. At the moment, fashion having resurrected yet another group of corpses, our minds reach out greedily for the delicious rattan chair, an old object once more le dernier cri. And that is about all of Mrs. Howe we would seek to have about us. She was not a woman of supreme genius and yet the vigor of her preparation for life seems, by comparison with that of our own time, near the prodigious. “The first writer with whom I made acquaintance after leaving school was Gibbon . . . I have already mentioned my easy familiarity with the French and Italian languages. In these respective literatures I read the works which in those days were usually commended to young women. These were . . . Lamartine’s poems and travels . . . Racine’s tragedies, Moliere’s comedies; in Italian, Metastasio, Tasso. . . .” It is humbling to go on with the list—Dante, Goethe, Cicero. And, again, Mrs. Howe was not intellectually or artistically quite of the first order!

Our great women are not much like the gay and worldly, experience-driven great European women. Margaret Fuller remembers it was “on a Sunday” that she first took a volume of Shakespeare in her hand. She was eight years old. Her “other friends,” as she puts it, were Cervantes and Molière. There is a good deal of pathos in Margaret Fuller and also in Mrs. Howe. They were cut out of Puritan cloth and have therefore a sort of cramped and uncertain note in their characters, something pained, earnest, and tireless. Margaret Fuller died too young, at forty, in a shipwreck off Fire Island, yet leaving the hint that she had used herself up in the effort to define herself as a person. And that effort was monstrously hard for a woman of the early nineteenth century in America.

At the present time there is a genuine reluctance to look sharply at our lives. Longings for the past are allowed; indeed they are the only acceptable form of social criticism during a spell of national pride and self-consciousness. Nostalgia is one of the most narcotic and beautiful aspects of a comfortable state of being. Backward yearnings are seldom a radical criticism of society; they represent a wish, a benign and soothing dream of lost pleasures and purities. And thus in a state of lamentation, as brief and light as the cap of a wave, a good deal of money can be made by reprimanding the cookout, the car pool, the TV dinner, the picture window, the Disposall. These are little tidbits, footnotes, subplots; our national vanity permits a chuckle over the very, very new and up-to-date. We are, chuckles and pieties smoothed out in the blender of our prosperity, wildly concerned with our reputation, our popularity, our character, our future. When the words “American woman” appear on the cover of national magazines, there is something overwhelming in the use of “American.” The charged, stressed, underlined “American” is the signal for dizzy self-congratulation or for animadversions, light spankings, based upon old yearnings. “Is the American woman really happy?” Whatever the answer, it will represent a discontent that will not hinder our devotion to things as they are.

The postwar period has been marked by early marriages and a consequent rise in birth rate. This has led some commentators to sugary conclusions about the return of the American woman to that Eden, the American home. We are reputed to be once more discovering the joys of a role fixed by nature and custom and to be, in droves, happily relieving ourselves of the burden of a personal destiny, individually worked out, suffered, and enjoyed. These conclusions are too speedy—they are also too broad and vague and grand to describe the world. Our syrupy “togetherness” is only matched by our sour “apartness”—divorce. The new morality, the new domesticity: one must be as sharp-eyed as a spy or a knight of perfect faith to discover in action these dawn-fresh purities whose existence is primarily literary and journalistic. The high divorce rate, juvenile delinquency, the collapse of family authority, the reported muscular weakness of car-happy young Americans, the inordinate lust for television, the decline of the willingness to study difficult material: these are the depressing conditions of the world in which the American wife and mother lives. Perhaps if we had not decided this was in some desperate fashion healthy, democratic, the hope of the world, we would not be able to bear it. The “new conservatism,” the current “back to the home” movement, for women seems to be nothing more than a call for a sweet, devoted girl to share the nest of the solid American man. Such a notion has about as much force as the flight of a butterfly when we remember the real situation of the American family.

The moral conservatism so much talked about is like some great wonder few have seen but all know “by reputation.” Those women whose circumstances are such that they cannot help themselves appear to be the most “morally conservative,” while those who are in command of their own lives use their opportunity with all the ruthlessness, liberalism, and forwardness they can muster.

Infidelity, allied with beauty or charm or fame, is the great drama of the daily press. A total commitment to the feminine principle, the expression of the self by love, romance, and marriage are explosive, presuming all the possible fireworks of a life devoted to the senses and the sentiments. Is Liz Taylor really in love at last? the headlines inquire. All of us thrill a bit as romantic hope again visits this young woman.

The powers of a movie star are close to the absolute. These actors partake of the magical, the infinite, the perpetual. We are always being told that acting in the films is hard work and perhaps it is. And yet few wish to abdicate; in that respect acting has something in common with politics, where the hope of public office is so beguiling that men will subject themselves, over and over, to the greatest indignities, exhaustion, and fatuity rather than return to private life. The money a film star earns is only a small part of the magic, even if in the case of women it is unusually important because of the lack of other careers in which women can earn huge fortunes. Beyond the money lies the golden treasure of beauty, endless, matchless possibilities. The very name of a movie star, be it past or present, great or small, has prodigious value. You cannot disown these people; the memory refuses to evict them. When they have lost their beauty, their youth, they can go on television, design dresses, marry rich men, manage real estate, nightclubs, or restaurants, sell their life story to the films.

Like some oil-rich sultan, female movie stars need not fear their poor subjects; their image is irresistible, their power is exceptional and peculiarly accidental, like that of a king or queen. Yet it is gloriously theirs. The chanciness of a film career, the luck of being discovered at the soda fountain are part of the glow and wonder of the whole thing. It is the more beautiful in that talent is far from necessary. When an ordinary mortal passes a well-known, or just a known, actor on the street, the plain citizen smiles involuntarily and the film image passes on, its tight, concentrated features leaving a secular, movie-star benediction behind for a moment.

How do these women with such power behave? They seem to forget they are part of our new era, a statistical item in a huge barrel of names called “the American woman,” a citizen living and voting under the dispensations of a religious revival, the new conservatism: these things are at hand for the asking, but our beautiful, lucky American film star might just as well be living in the last days of the Roman Empire for all the use she makes of them. Her morals and her habits are curiously resistant to our current notions of woman as a dependent being and yet we continue to love our star and to need her face on the cover of even the most conservative parts of the popular press. Movie stars go on preferring rights to duties. They are, in their demanding way, genuine feminists and usually utterly subversive to our professed moral standards. Dewy-eyed, in sacramental white, they marry again and again and their marriages are reported in the press with virginal enthusiasm and romantic exaltation. No suggestion is intended here that the movie stars are in need of punishment. Their vast impudence is fantastic and interesting; they are a vivid and brilliant example of the difference between theory and practice. The wish to be irresponsible, to seek pleasure, to escape consequences—these things are largely impossible for most women. They are not only economically but personally impossible, and if this were not the case the future of our social institutions would be uncertain indeed. But for those who cannot have freedom, there is the substitute of unlimited gossip about the famous person, the indiscreet and daring woman, the tremendously, insolently unfaithful.

Except where movie stars are involved, our whole society seems to concur in the rebuke given to the career woman who wishes to live outside or beyond strict domesticity. There is an evident distaste for the unusual and superior woman of the sort men of talent and importance formerly sought. Women have the vote and needn’t take a chaperon about with them, but they must beware of being too clever. To be interesting is no longer an enviable state—a woman born in this state is often at a distinct disadvantage. It is not possible to be interesting without a good deal of egotism and a tendency to take the spotlight. Clever women want admirers—and above all, auditors. If one is even discouraged in her hope of being a true woman, how much more unlikely does it appear that she can be an interesting woman and get by with it.

A great deal of happiness and vivacity died in social life when anatomy ceased to be a sufficient designation of one’s sex. The worry about whether one is feminine enough or masculine enough inhibits the free and natural development of the spirit. It weighs down most heavily on the intellectual woman. Under the everlasting scrutiny of a hostile eye weighing one’s sexual characteristics, as a salesgirl in a smart shop cannily tries to size up one’s real prosperity—under that glance, conversation withers and character dries up. Poor Ninon—was her promiscuity a sign of frigidity? And Madame Récamier’s “peculiar impenetrability”—could such a creature be a woman at all? George Sand in her trousers, with her love affairs in which she was like a mother hen cradling her chicks under her feathers, her vast literary productivity, like that of some manufacturer in the early years of the industrial revolution. George Sand’s character is an encyclopedia of complication and perversity. Or George Eliot’s situation—sexually scandalous, and not because of the fact that her “husband” was already married but rather because of the way he gave in to her, submerged himself in her career. Nowadays, our constant questioning of the sexual nature of everyone has made bachelors embarrassed and maiden ladies tense. Some of the questioning can be laid at the door of psychoanalysis and much can be assigned to social timidity, fear of eccentricity, and the insatiable need to be acceptable. The Baron Charlus would now get married and have a couple of children.

The description of Queen Elizabeth in Green’s History tells of a woman of such overwhelming diversity that it is exhausting to try to hold her in our minds. We would have to conclude that Elizabeth was not “our kind of gal.” Queen Elizabeth, and a great many of the other extraordinary women of the past, were dominating and of very limited domesticity. One cannot easily be an important, able, memorable woman outside the family and local circle by practicing the virtue of humility and by seeking restrictions. (Saint Theresa was a splendid organizer, we understand.) Consistency, modesty, and equanimity are admired—in others. Aggression, discontent, striving, desire to rule are frequent inhabitants of the feminine body.

As our superstitious flaying of our psychic flesh increases with the everlasting question, there is a noticeable relaxation of secondary sexual function. The man helps with the dishes but resents his wife’s brilliance. The woman drives the car and repairs the plumbing but there is a mistrustful look in her eye when her husband doesn’t dominate the neighborhood scene. Is he too much of this and too little of that? These psychic measurements are far more dismaying than the old bourgeois standards of income and social position: those at least were truly measurable. But who can know his own hidden soul, his balance, his furtive, fascinating, mysterious genes? Repression of individuality, forced return to archaic and unnatural patterns lead only to decay and dryness.

In our new, challenging, retrogressive air, what is offered to women? If they are to give up independence, perhaps it is the power of the muse they are being offered, the source of man’s inspiration, the grandeur of the White Goddess who is the source of man’s poetry and philosophy. Indeed, women have always taken their abilities as the inspiration of man with great seriousness—often with a seriousness so ferocious and literal that they have claimed more as divine muses than some great men were willing to grant them.

Women are most successful as pure inspiration when their role is unconscious and instinctive. There is something comic and spurious in taking on these divine functions as one would take on the cooking. In his book Choir of Muses, Gilson has an instructive tale about Maeterlinck and his mistress, Georgette Leblanc. Georgette confused courtesy and gallantry with fact: when Maeterlinck said that he owed everything to her, all his work, Georgette believed it and wanted her name listed as coauthor on the title page. Maeterlinck drew back, amazed, but in the case of one bit of inspiration Georgette’s brother sued, wanting the realistic reward for her to whom so much was owed. As Gilson says: “Dante placed Beatrice in heaven, but he never said that she had written The Divine Comedy

Boredom, fear, constraint, bullying: these lie behind the new attitude toward women. Women are commanded to cease their struggling, directed to forgo independence—and yet human beings cannot move from a complex to a simple state without turning away from civilization itself. Ease is poisonous and simplicity is decline. From a false simplicity and an assumed dependence only hysteria and breakdown can result. The American woman in her American home with her two and one-half children and her appliance debt—who can plumb the spiritual history of that strange creation of industry and optimism? If she becomes as compliant as her dishwasher, all the music of the human drama will die away and that great gurgling whirr of domestic efficiency will be heard about the house. And nothing else.


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