"Are Women Human?" "Duh."

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

Or at least, that was what my daughter said when she saw me reading Dorothy L. Sayer's essay collection Are Women Human? Although the title may sound a bit trite, Sayer's simply sets out to remind her audience that when discussing gender debates, we need to get down to the core of the issue, which is our shared humanity - not just between men and women. It must be remembered in any attempt made to categorize people, such as socio-economic status, race, education, or vocation. As she says,

"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 'a woman's place is in the home,' or 'women ought not 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.... 'an elephant is a good as a racehorse.' It means nothing until you add, 'At doing what?'

Being one of the first women to graduate Oxford in 1920, Sayers ended up living at the heart of the controversies over women's education. However, considering her vast body of work ranging from novels to academic writing on Medieval History, she wrote very little on the subject of women and feminism. In fact, when she gave the first lecture presented in the book in 1938, she made a point to clarify she didn't really identify with the feminist movement of the time. Rather than call a battle between the sexes, she believed in viewing people according to their individuality, essentially, what made that specific person "human."

"In reaction against the age-old slogan, 'A woman is as good as a man,' 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 is it 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 many a 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 a member of a class and not an individual person."

Essentially, Sayers argued that making broad stereotypes about gender, or any other way of classifying people, can end up being an affront to the very things that make them "human. It can fail to acknowledge the person as who they really are, or who they want to be, by assuming they ought to fit into a certain category and be a certain way.

Let's use a trivial example that, I hope, will illustrate this point. There is a general belief that "Women like manicures and pedicures." While I see nothing wrong if someone wants to get a mani/pedi, personally, I do not like paying money for someone to touch my feet, and then the polish chips, which annoys me to no end. I also find the smell of all the associated polishes and concoctions necessary for the task overwhelming. If I'm going to spend $40 on myself, I can think of dozens of other things I'd rather blow it on. Last month, I bought yarn for my summer knitting projects. This month, I bought a stack of Dorothy L. Sayers books for my vacation reading. Next month, it's probably time for a new pair of everyday shoes. However, being a woman, it is often assumed that I like getting manicures and pedicures, so when I get invited to mani/pedi outings and say "No thanks, I'd rather not," the response is often confusion, even from my friends who know me well.

I think Sayers would have understood this dilemma, and if I would have had the chance to sit down with me over a cup of tea on the Oxford campus, assured me it was okay that I didn't want to go get a pedicure with the other girls. I can imagine her saying, "'Bea, Mary, Sally, and Sue'" (because those are totally 1930s names, right?) "'like pedicures, but Rachel doesn't,' is a truer statement than 'Women like pedicures.'" Rachel also likes knitting, books by British authors, and comfortable shoes. Sayers would have understood that my personal likes and dislikes, and expanding on that, my ambitions, how I like to spend my time, and my opinions on things like politics, religion, and philosophy, aren't "what women think," it's "what Rachel thinks."

However, I'm working towards a Masters Degree under social sciences, and I've studied enough research methods and marketing to know that categories of people are important and useful. I'd happily sit down with someone trying to promote an organization and explain to them how to determine their "target market" and then study the things that group has in common so they can most effectively get their message to the people they want to reach.

On that note, I do see the danger in thinking in marketing, or social science, mode all the time, lumping people into groups by demographics and drawing assumptions about the individuals based on generalizations about the group as a whole. The study of statistics warn of us of this - there's always a variance, and no such thing as a perfect study. Someone will break the mold and throw off the results.

What causes the variance in statistics, and what makes the social sciences a "soft" science compared to the "hard" sciences like chemistry and physics, is that it deals with individuals - with humans, that are, at the end of the day, might go against the flow of the category they happen to fall into it. Sayers believed that forgetting that was dehumanizing. With that in mind, when asked to address a Woman's Society in 1938, she spent her time reminding the of the importance of remembering that the answer to "Are Women Human," really, truly, is "Duh."

"If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it - not on class and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may think or act except as a member of a category. You must base it on the individual Tom, Dick, and Harry, the individual Jack and Jill - in fact, upon you and me."