In Dorothy L. Sayer’s article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human”, part of her argument involves asking men to imagine what life would be like if society treated them in the way it treated women. The piece contains some other telling moments, such as her pointing out that “Vir is male and Femina is female…Homo is both male and female”, but that “Man is always dealt with as both Homo and Vir, but woman only as Femina.” In other words, humanity is treated as if it is male by default, and women are an unusual subvariant; an idea which will be picked up in the passages I quote below. There is also a dramatic climax in which she lambasts the Church for ignoring what she perceives as Jesus’ teachings on gender equality (you don’t have agree with her exact handling of the texts to be blown away by the rhetoric and rightness…) But for these posts I’d like to concentrate on the remarkable section where she sketches a world in which men were subject to the same kinds of pressures as women. She begins:
Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in and day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverentia) a virile member of society. If the centre of his dress-consciousness were the cod-piece, his education directed to making him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias; his interests were held to be natural only in so far as they were sexual. If from school and lecture-room, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function. If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence. If, instead of allowing with a smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all his goings in conformity with that pronouncement.
As with previous remarks I’ve made on Sayers’ polemical writing, there seems to be a lot packed into this passage. There is even an ambiguity as she sets up the conceit she’s going to follow: “ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself” – at first glance this appears to be simply asking “think about how strange it would be if…wouldn’t that feel odd to you, given your experiences of a society which hasn’t done that to you?” But the emphatic pronoun “himself”, coupled with “his life” suggests that in fact she’s concerned with how strange it would feel to a man in that world, not as a contrast to our own. In other words, Sayers is arguing that women in our (or her) society are subject to alienation: their own lives seem strange and incomprehensible, their experiences feel somehow inauthentic to them(selves).
Then, of course, we have a knob joke: “not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverential) a virile member of society”. The salva revenrentia translates as “saving your reverence”, an old-fashioned phrase meaning roughly “with respect” or “sorry to have to say this in front of you”. It’s ostensibly an apology for the fact that “member of society” accidentally becomes a bit rude if you add the word “virile”, but it also functions as a flag in case we miss the joke. Not everyone may notice that “virile member” sounds like “membrum virile”, so Sayers helpfully makes her apology in Latin so we’re primed to see the gag in the next phrase. I think there’s also a jab here at the way language is used patronisingly in front of women: reversing the assumption that women will find reference to sexual organs indelicate, Sayers pretends to be protecting the modesty of male readers by making the quip in Latin (which men would be less likely to speak in the world she depicts.)
Behind her comments about chemistry, bridge and typing is Sayers’ favourite principle that “humanity” matters more than sex, and society is wrong in assessing so many activities in terms of gender or sexuality. It’s a principle which subsequent feminists would have many problems with (I can’t imagine many figures from the second or third wave regarding it kindly), not least because she used it elsewhere to decry the idea of female solidarity or feminism as a tool of broader cultural analysis. Her comments here would, however, chime with Betty Friedan’s work at the time of The Feminine Mystique. Sayers’ criticism of how “biological function” was used as a framework to determine women’s spheres of activity sounds a lot like Friedan’s “sex-directed educators” who saw college as dangerously unfitting women for the role of wife and mother, and for whom “adjustment” to sexual “destiny” was the major benefit education had to bestow upon women.
Those last clauses about how men currently claim ruefully or jokingly that “women prefer cavemen”, but are not under “the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all [their] goings in conformity with that pronouncement” presents a rhetorical complication. Not the fact that I’m unsure whether “order his goings” is an echo of Macbeth or the Book of Numbers, though that too. Rather it points up a problem with the conceit of “flipped prejudice”: that the structures of a sexist and misogynistic society aren’t perfectly symmetrical. Fangs for the Fantasy have written powerfully on the subject of fiction which asks readers to imagine a world of black people oppressing white people, or a society in which straight people are marginalised by a gay hegemony. Their critique is three-fold: such fiction appropriates real suffering for the entertainment of people privileged (even if unconsciously) by an oppressive society; “flipping” is a crass marketing exercise because writing about actual racial minorities or gay people would instantly be confined to a literary niche as “black writing” or “gay interest fiction”; and it is ineffective because there are enough people who actually believe that today’s society disadvantages white heterosexual people. Clearly Sayers isn’t appropriating the crap women have to put up with, she’s experienced all the petty indignities and economic disadvantages she’s detailing (whilst ignoring the class dimension to her experience). Nor is this an attempt to gain readers, since the essay is clearly about women’s position in society and the Church.
But the third criticism may strike home here: there are a significant number of people (particularly today) who believe – and vocally so – that our society empowers women via the cultural emphasis on sex as a criterion of value. Men’s Rights Activists such as Tom Martin, popular sociologists like Christine Hakim and the newspaper proponents of evolutionary psychology, all propose in different forms exactly what Sayers is inviting us to giggle at: not only that “women prefer cavemen”, but that this puts men as a social and economic disadvantage. This is a rhetorical problem, rather than a theoretical one, but it has an effect on the reader’s engagement with the text, since the riff depends on no-one ever having articulated such an idea before. It should rear up abruptly in her prose as a grotesquely amusing “through the looking-glass” notion: it’s less compelling if it just sounds like her rehashing the propaganda of her enemies.
It may also be a flaw in the argument on a tactical level, at least when the essay is read today. Feminism’s critique of a patriarchal society involves criticising the way it forces men into unpleasant and dangerous models of masculinity, though without claiming that this is a more compelling reason for reform than the far more serious damage it does to women. If there are drawbacks for many men in the results of patriarchy which look like a milder version of what Sayers sketches here (rather than looking like its exact opposite), they are less likely to make the empathetic leap to how women’s experience. This is not special pleading that “Patriarchy Hurts Men Too” or (in the internet’s memorable phrase) “What About Teh Menz??!?”, but a suggestion that the apparent lack of symmetry in Sayers’ analogy leaves it vulnerable to being dismissed at this point. Sayers herself wrote a nuanced examination of the position of men who find themselves forced to conform to an idealised romantic stereotype because of economic disadvantage in the character of Antoine in Have His Carcase – this is not a blindspot in her thinking, but in this particular conceit.
I’ll carry on examining Sayers’ argument in “The Human-Not-Quite-Human” in subsequent posts – in the meantime please leave your thoughts in the comments!
 I’m not framing Friedan as a modern feminist either, or suggesting that Feminine Mystique isn’t very problematic in places, merely making the connection between their thought.