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    Portrait of two women by Diego Rivera

    Are Women Human?

    The spunky feminism of Dorothy L. Sayers can be found in her murder mysteries, essays, speeches, and even religious plays.

    By Dorothy L. Sayers

    January 11, 2024

    This article is an excerpt from the anthology The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers.

    In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane is investigating a mystery at one of the new women’s colleges at Oxford. There she meets Miss Cattermole, a rebellious student about to be disciplined by the head of the college.

    Miss Cattermole was understood to say, rather incoherently, that she hated College and loathed Oxford, and felt no responsibility towards those institutions.

    “Then why,” said Harriet, “are you here?”

    “I don’t want to be here; I never did. Only my parents were so keen. My mother’s one of those people who work to get things open to women – you know – professions and things. And father’s a lecturer in a small provincial University. And they’ve made a lot of sacrifices and things.”

    Harriet thought Miss Cattermole was probably the sacrificial victim.

    “I didn’t mind coming up, so much,” went on Miss Cattermole; “because I was engaged to somebody, and he was up, too, and I thought it would be fun and the silly old Schools wouldn’t matter much. But I’m not engaged to him any more and how on earth can I be expected to bother about all this dead-and-gone History?”

    “I wonder they bothered to send you to Oxford, if you didn’t want to go, and were engaged.”

    “Oh! But they said that didn’t make any difference. Every woman ought to have a University education, even if she married. And now, of course, they say what a good thing it is I still have my College career. And I can’t make them understand that I hate it! They can’t see that being brought up with everybody talking education all round one is enough to make one loathe the sound of it. I’m sick of education.”

    A young woman studying, by Stephan Peter Jakob Hjort Ussing, 1898

    Stephan Peter Jakob Hjort Ussing, A Young Woman Studying, oil on canvas, 1898

    Harriet was not surprised.

    “What should you have liked to do? I mean, supposing the complication about your engagement hadn’t happened?”

    “I think,” said Miss Cattermole, blowing her nose in a final manner and taking another cigarette, “I think I should have liked to be a cook. Or possibly a hospital nurse, but I think I should have been better at cooking. Only, you see, those are two of the things Mother’s always trying to get people out of the way of thinking women’s sphere ought to be restricted to.”

    “There’s a lot of money in good cooking,” said Harriet.

    “Yes – but it’s not an educational advance. Besides, there’s no school of Cookery at Oxford, and it had to be Oxford, you see, or Cambridge, because of the opportunity of making the right kind of friends. Only I haven’t made any friends. They all hate me …

    “I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d stop trying to do sensational things, because it’s apt to get you into positions where you have to be grateful. And I’d stop chasing undergraduates, because it bores them to tears and interrupts their work. I’d tackle the History and get through Schools. And then I’d turn around and say, ‘Now I’ve done what you want me to, and I’m going to be a cook.’ And stick to it.”

    “Would you?”

    “I expect you want to be very truly run after, like Old Man Kangaroo. Well, good cooks are. Still, as you’ve started here on History, you’d better worry on at it. It won’t hurt you, you know. If you learn how to tackle one subject – any subject – you’ve learnt how to tackle all subjects.”

    “Well,” said Miss Cattermole, in rather an unconvinced tone, “I’ll try.”

    Harriet went away in a rage and tackled the Dean.

    “Why do they send these people here? Making themselves miserable and taking up the place of people who would enjoy Oxford? We haven’t got room for women who aren’t and never will be scholars. It’s alright for the men’s colleges to have hearty passmen who gambol round and learn to play games, so that they can gambol and game in Prep. Schools. But this dreary little devil isn’t even hearty. She’s a wet mess.”1

    From “Are Women Human?,” an address given to a women’s society in 1938:

    When I was asked to come and speak to you, your Secretary made the suggestion that she thought I must be interested in the feminist movement. I replied – a little irritably, I am afraid – that I was not sure I wanted to “identify myself,” as the phrase goes, with feminism, and that the time for “feminism,” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, had gone past. In fact, I think I went so far as to say that, under present conditions, an aggressive feminism might do more harm than good. As a result I was, perhaps not unnaturally, invited to explain myself.

    I do not know that it is very easy to explain, without offence or risk of misunderstanding, exactly what I do mean, but I will try.

    The question of “sex-equality” is, like all questions affecting human relationships, delicate and complicated. It cannot be settled by loud slogans or hard-and-fast assertions like “a woman is as good as a man” – or “woman’s place is the home” – or “women ought not to take men’s jobs.” The minute one makes such assertions, one finds one has to qualify them. “A woman is as good as a man” is as meaningless as to say, “a Kaffir is as good as a Frenchman” or “a poet is as good as an engineer” or “an elephant is as good as a racehorse” – it means nothing whatever until you add: “at doing what?” In a religious sense, no doubt, the Kaffir is as valuable in the eyes of God as a Frenchman – but the average Kaffir is probably less skilled in literary criticism than the average Frenchman, and the average Frenchman less skilled than the average Kaffir in tracing the spoor of big game. There might be exceptions on either side: it is largely a matter of heredity and education. When we balance the poet against the engineer, we are faced with a fundamental difference of temperament – so that here our question is complicated by the enormous social problem whether poetry or engineering is “better” for the State, or for humanity in general. There may be people who would like a world that was all engineers or all poets – but most of us would like to have a certain number of each; though here again, we should all differ about the desirable proportion of engineering to poetry. The only proviso we should make is that people with dreaming and poetical temperaments should not entangle themselves in engines, and that mechanically-minded persons should not issue booklets of bad verse. When we come to the elephant and the racehorse, we come down to bed-rock physical differences – the elephant would make a poor showing in the Derby, and the unbeaten Eclipse himself would be ­speedily eclipsed by an elephant when it came to hauling logs.

    Portrait of two women by Diego Rivera

    Diego Rivera, Portrait of Two Women, oil on canvas, 1914

    That is so obvious that it hardly seems worth saying. But it is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious. 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 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. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person … What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women – and it is the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall into about themselves.

    Take, for example, the very usual reproach that women nowadays always want to “copy what men do.” In that reproach there is a great deal of truth and a great deal of sheer, unmitigated and indeed quite wicked nonsense. There are a number of jobs and pleasures which men have in times past cornered for themselves. At one time, for instance, men had a monopoly of classical education. When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The answer is not that all women would be the better for knowing about Aristotle – still less, as Lord Tennyson seemed to think, that they would be more companionable wives for their husbands if they did know about Aristotle – but simply: “What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. It is true that most women care nothing about him, and a great many male undergraduates turn pale and faint at the thought of him – but 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 which need prevent my knowing about him …”

    Which brings us back to this question of what jobs, if any, are women’s jobs. Few people would go so far as to say that all women are well fitted for all men’s jobs. When people do say this, it is particularly exasperating. It is stupid to insist that there are as many female musicians and mathematicians as male – the facts are otherwise, and the most we can ask is that if a Dame Ethel Smyth or a Mary Somerville turns up, she shall be allowed to do her work without having aspersions cast either on her sex or her ability. What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is no good saying: “You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls”; if the answer is, “But I don’t,” there is no more to be said. Few women happen to be natural born mechanics; but if there is one, it is useless to try and argue her into being something different. What we must not do is to argue that the occasional appearance of a female mechanical genius proves that all women would be mechanical geniuses if they were educated. They would not.

    Where, I think, a great deal of confusion has arisen is in a failure to distinguish between special knowledge and special ability. There are certain questions on which what is called “the woman’s point of view” is valuable, because they involve special knowledge. Women should be consulted about such things as housing and domestic architecture because, under present circumstances, they have still to wrestle a good deal with houses and kitchen sinks and can bring special knowledge to the problem. Similarly, some of them (though not all) know more about children than the majority of men, and their opinion, as women, is of value. In the same way, the opinion of colliers is of value about coal-mining, and the opinion of doctors is valuable about disease. But there are other questions – as for example, about literature or finance – on which the “woman’s point of view” has no value at all. In fact, it does not exist. No special knowledge is involved, and a woman’s opinion on literature or finance is valuable only as the judgment of an individual. 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. …”

    Nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.

    Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general. And though for certain purposes it may still be necessary, as it undoubtedly was in the immediate past, for women to band themselves together, as women, to secure recognition of their requirements as a sex, I am sure that the time has now come to insist more strongly on each woman’s – and indeed each man’s – requirements as an individual person. It used to be said 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. To oppose one class perpetually to another – young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man – is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it – not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, on the individual Jack and Jill – in fact, upon you and me.2

    Here is the ageless story of Mary and Martha as told in The Light and the Life, the seventh play in The Man Born to Be King.

    Martha (arriving in a flurry): That careless girl has broken the big yellow pitcher. And something has gone wrong with the scullery door. It won’t shut properly. How much longer are Peter and James going to be? The meat will be dried to a cinder. Mary, I do wish you’d take a little interest in the housekeeping. There’s too much work for one pair of hands, and that Abigail’s no use at all. It’s all very well for men to sit about talking all day, but a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Rabbi, why do you encourage Mary to leave everything to me? Don’t you think it’s a little unfair? Do tell her to come and help me.

    Jesus: Martha dear, you are the kindest soul alive. You work so hard and you take so much trouble about everything – except, perhaps, the greatest thing of all, the thing that Mary cares about. She has chosen the better part, and you must not take it away from her.

    Martha: Rabbi, I don’t grudge Mary anything. But I still don’t think it’s quite fair. She was away from home long enough, goodness knows – and considering everything, I think the least she can do …

    Jesus: Martha, can the cooking get on without you for just five minutes?

    Martha (grudgingly): Well, I daresay it could …

    Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary

    Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on canvas, c. 1655

    Jesus: Then stop worrying about it for one moment and think. Sit down. Do you remember a story I told you the first time I ever came to see you?

    Martha: The day you brought Mary back to us? About the younger son who ran away abroad to see life, and he wasted all his money and had to keep pigs? And then he was sorry and came home and his father forgave him?

    Jesus: Yes, that one. Did I tell you about his elder brother?

    Martha: No, Rabbi. It ended with the father having a feast for the one who’d come home.

    Jesus: Well, the elder brother was working in the fields all this time, and when he came back, he was surprised to hear music and dancing and a party going on. So he called one of the servants, and asked, “What’s happening?” And the servant said: “Your brother’s come home, sir, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he’s so glad to have him back safe and sound.” But the elder brother was angry, and wouldn’t go in, but sat sulking outside, till his father came out and begged him to join in the merry-making. “Look here, sir,” said the young man, “I’ve worked for you all these years, and been a good son to you, and you’ve never let me have so much as a roast kid to entertain my friends. And here’s this brother of mine, who’s squandered your money in dissipation and bad company, and you go and kill the fatted calf for him. It isn’t fair.” And the father said: “Son, you are with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But it is right that we should rejoice and make merry to-day, for your brother is alive when we all thought he was dead: he was lost, and now we have found him.”

    Martha (upset): Oh Rabbi! Have I really been behaving so unkindly?

    Mary (distressed): No, no, never! Rabbi, indeed she hasn’t. She and Lazarus have been perfect angels to me.

    Martha: I don’t know. Perhaps I have resented things a little bit. Down underneath, not on top. Rather pleased with myself, you know, for acting more generously than I felt. Staying at home all day, one gets a bit narrow and exacting – a bit – Yes, Rabbi – I know what you’re going to say: don’t say it.

    Jesus: Very well, then, I won’t.

    Martha: “Self-righteous” – I can see it in your face … Mary, my lamb, don’t take on so. He’s quite right – and I’m sorry. There, there! Come along in now. We won’t wait for the others. If their supper’s spoilt it’ll be their own fault for being late.3

    From a magazine article:

    God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it. I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part – the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.

    Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.

    But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.4


    1. Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (London: Victor Gollancz, 1935), ch. 8. Copyright © 1936 by Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming. Copyright renewed © 1964 by Anthony Fleming. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
    2. Are Women Human?” is an address given to a women’s society in 1938, published in Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946). Copyright © 1946 by Dorothy L. Sayers. Reprinted by permission of the estate of Dorothy Sayers and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.
    3. Scene I, “The Light and the Life,” play seven of The Man Born to Be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943). Copyright © 1943 by Dorothy L. Sayers. Reprinted by permission of the estate of Dorothy Sayers and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.
    4. “The-Human-Not-Quite-Human,” Christendom: A Journal of Christian Sociology, September 1941, republished in Unpopular Opinions. (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946). Copyright © 1946 by Dorothy L. Sayers. Reprinted by permission of the estate of Dorothy Sayers and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.
    Contributed By DorothySayers Dorothy L. Sayers

    Dorothy L. Sayers was a renowned British writer best known for her detective stories, as well as for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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