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I’ve been reading quite a bit of Dorothy L. Sayers recently (and by recently I mean the last fifteen years or so) and noticing how even her non-fiction writing has the complexity and subtlety we might expect of a novel.  The two passages I want to talk about come from her speech “Are Women Human?”  (given in 1938) and a letter to C.S. Lewis.  Without wanting to fall into rightly-parodied babble about “levels” of meaning, Sayers seems to smuggle in an awful lot more ideological critique than is obvious on the surface.  I’m possibly over-reading these extracts, but over-reading Sayers is an enjoyable chamber sport and I don’t see why I should give it up.

Firstly, then, Sayers responds in “Are Women Human?” to charges that feminism is simply women wanting to copy men, via a disquisition on trousers.  I can’t say I find the whole of “Are Women Human?” very comfortable reading, since she claims that the 1930s is a post-feminist era, that treating people as groups like “women” is unhelpfully like class war, and we should simply value the best person for the job.  All arguments which roll off the lips of reactionary blowhards with tedious regularity in our own day.  But I suppose the emphasis on people as “simply human” without regard to gender makes more sense in a society which was radically more gender essentialist even than our own – and that the political atmosphere of the 1930s might well have made the reification of “classes” of people look unpleasantly like the corporatist model of society being imposed in Germany.  (Her worry about the “error of insisting that there is an aggressively feminist ‘point of view’ about everything certainly suggests a concern with the totalising potential of ideologies which claim to explain and map people’s lives.)

Even her rather complacent comments about the best person most suited to the job (beloved these days of those who write for the Daily Mail and whine that “identity politics” is oppressing white people) are balanced by the passages in Gaudy Night where she makes it clear that finding one’s “job” in the broadest sense is an almost existential concern for Sayers, not a matter of market economics.  (And that those forced into the wrong “job” by social pressures are potentially a danger to themselves and other people.)  There are also some passages in that book where it is very clear that she has no problem with women in higher education treating each other as if they belong to a coherent “class”, if only for tactical reasons.  When it’s a matter of young women coming to Oxford for the wrong reasons and failing, or drinking away their degrees and thus being taken as proof that women are unsuited to education, Sayers develops a doctrine of solidarity pretty swiftish.  Not the noblest stimulus to react to perhaps, and a pretty horizontal kind of solidarity but nonetheless…

But anyway, on to Sayers on the subject of women allegedly copying men, approached via the trouserings:

Let me give one simple illustration of the difference between the right and the wrong kind of feminism.  Let us take this terrible business – so distressing to the minds of bishops – of the women who go about in trousers.  We are asked “Why do you want to go about in trousers?  They are extremely unbecoming to you.  You only do it to copy the men.”  To this we may very properly reply: “It is true that they are unbecoming.  Even on men they are remarkably unbecoming.  But, as you have discovered for yourselves, they are comfortable, they do not get in the way of one’s activities like skirts and they protect the wearer from draughts about the ankles.  As a human being, I like comfort and dislike draughts.  If the trousers do not attract you, so much the worse; for the moment I do not want to attract you.  I want to enjoy myself as a human being, and why not?  As for copying you, certainly you thought of trousers first and to that extent we must copy you.  But we are not such abandoned copy-cats as to attach those useful garments to our bodies with braces.  There we draw the line.  These machines of leather and elastic are unnecessary and unsuited to the female form.  They are, moreover, hideous beyond description.  And as for the indecency – of which you sometimes accuse the trousers – we at least can take off our coats without becoming the half-undressed bedroom spectacle that a man presents in his braces.

So, this is clearly not about trousers.  Sayers admits as much, offering it as an example which can illuminate her idea of feminism as valuable only for “useful” and “rational” changes in society.  But there is, I think, a lot more going on here.  Firstly there’s the choice of example, which is surely inflected by the symbolism of “who wears the trousers”.  She’s picking on an example which demonstrates the value of utility, but also one with a lot of cultural freight.  Then in defending women’s choice of trousers as practical, insisting on their value to “human beings” who prefer comfort and efficiency, she seems to pre-empt some of the writing on the male gaze which would come later in the century (though I may be ignoring a famous piece on the subject from before Sayers!)  Her phrase “Even on men they are remarkably unbecoming” highlights the gendered assumptions in the criticism of women wearing trousers: that men are an unmarked, invisible Euclidean point from which observation takes place, and women are objects who are observed without observing back. It points out the assumption that what is “becoming” to humans, in absolute terms, is determined by what men like to see.  Sayers reverses the direction of the gaze, whilst agreeing – trickily admitting that they are not a stylish garment by subjecting men to the sexual gaze and deciding that teh pretteh is not much in evidence.  She also takes on more directly the assumption that a woman in public is submitting herself to sexualised scrutiny (“for the moment I do not want to attract you”), something which Hollaback and the Everyday Sexism Project document on our own streets.

Her claim that not wearing braces shows that women are carrying out the “right” sort of feminism similarly smuggles in a counter-attack under the cover of reason and efficiency.  The dubious value of braces is argued, not solely by complaints of how unsuited they are to the female body, but by holding men’s bodies up to criticism.  The gaze, and the criteria, are reversed again – braces are apparently being judged in the abstract as suitable for humans, but the focus is kept upon their allegedly ridiculous appearance when worn by men.  The language is reminiscent of the jocular comments made in the period about women’s “unnatural” undergarments (“those machines of leather and elastic”) and the final line subjects men to the combination of interest and scorn which supposedly “provocative” women’s clothing attracts.  I think the “half-undressed bedroom spectacle” is deliberately ambiguous, leaving Sayers plausible deniability to claim that she simply meant that men get dressed in their bedrooms, but bringing implications of sex.  The thesis of this passage may be that reason and practicality should be the principles of women’s progress, but the rhetorical process involves putting men through a few moments of the scrutiny that women live with and showing how foolish and unpleasant it is.  (She would develop this technique further in the unbelievable passages in “The Human-Not-Quite-Human” which invite men to imagine a world in which they were continuously subject to a controlling female gaze.)

What a hussy.

What a hussy.

The other excerpt I thought demonstrated Sayers’ sly and multi-layered wit comes from a letter to C.S. Lewis, picking him up on a suggestion he had made that “the Priest at the Alter must represent the Bridegroom to whom we are all in a sense, feminine.”  Sayers wrote:

Incidentally, one has to be very careful with that ‘Bridegroom’ imagery. It is so very apt to land one in Male and Female Principles, Eleusis, and the womb of the Great Mother. And that sort of thing doesn’t make much appeal to well-balanced women, who look on it as just another example of men’s hopeless romanticism about sex, and who are apt either to burst out laughing or sniff a faint smell of drains…

The Eleusinian Mysteries: down with this sort of thing.

The Eleusinian Mysteries: down with this sort of thing.

This looks like Sayers at her most splendidly suggestive.  Pushing back against the essentialism (not to mention the totalising) implication that “bridegroom” and “feminine” are appropriate categories to place over human interactions, she reminds Lewis that Christianity has frequently defined itself against fertility cults and ecstatic rites from in the Old Testament period onwards.  If he’s going to talk about Male and Female in a grand sense, she’s going to remind him that those are specific reproductive categories, and mention the word “womb” to see who’ll blush first. “Bride” and “bridegroom” are people who have sex, and Sayers is fine with that, she’s just not sure Lewis is.  (To paraphrase, “You won’t like it when I’m gynaey.”)  “Womb” also echoes in the opinions of “well-balanced” women, given that the term lurking in the background as the opposite of “well-balanced” is “hysterical”.

The reference to “drains” made me pause a bit.  On the argument level, she seems to be using it as a synonym for “smell a rat” or “smell something fishy”, but it’s an oddly specific idea.  Ostensibly she’s just saying that women with their head screwed on will see something illogical and unconvincing about talk of bridegrooms and “feminine”.  I think she’s also saying she doesn’t like Christian men slinging around sex as an explanatory category with such abandon when they haven’t always spoken of it as particularly clean.  Lewis has, after all, written in The Screwtape Letters that in the heart of every human “he[1] is haunted by at least two imaginary women – a terrestrial and an infernal Venus” the latter whom “he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally…in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that ‘tang’ in the flavour which he is after”.  Sayers is perhaps suggesting there is a cloacal whiff when a man explains to her about religion and sex, a faint “tang” of all those condemnation of sex as infernal and filthy.

The other implication of that “faint smell of drains” (which may be present instead or as well as the cloacal miasma) is the domestic responsibilities which the sexual division of labour heaped onto women.  Counterpointed with the “hopeless romanticism about sex” which men display is their readiness to leave the “angel of the house” (in Patmore’s phrase) to deal with the practicalities of married life.  Whilst men are raving about love and the eternal feminine (or even indulging in more intimate expressions of physical love), Sayers’ phrase hints at a woman lying back and wrinkling her nose slightly as she lets him carry on if he likes that sort of thing, wondering if that’s a whiff of drains or whether she left the gas on…  The implication certainly chimes with the surface meaning of her critique (that sexual categories have specific meanings, and shouldn’t be generalised to “explain” humanity) as well as insisting on women’s actual experience as a test which these grand terms must pass.  A test which may not be very gratifying to the vanity of the men who deploy those terms…

As I say, this may be over-reading Sayers’ work, but her polemical writing seems frequently to display the layering of implications and images we’re more used to in her novels.  Perhaps this should be unsurprising in a writer whose The Mind of the Maker attempted to illuminate theology via the creative processes of literature – or for whom engagement with Four Quartets solved her character’s emotional problems.

[1] Yes, I bet that pronoun didn’t get past the author of “Are Women Human”?