on September 7, 1997
Your first association with the name Dorothy
Sayers will be, naturally, as the creator of the
urbane, noble sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. If
you've read the Peter Wimsey novels in order, you may have noticed that Sayers invested more and more humanity and depth in him as the series progressed.
Since she revealed so much depth as a mystery novelist, I decided to try her out as an essayist. "Are Women Human?" is a slight pamphlet with an introduction and two essays which can be read in one sitting. As you finish the last page you will find yourself wondering why so little has changed in the last sixty years!
Sayers applied intelligence and humor (excuse me, humour) to her seemingly rhetorical question "Are Women Human?". Her answer, like most wise answers, is simple. Beyond the obvious "of course", Sayers posits that "male" and "female" are only adjectives modifying the noun human. Therefore, humanity is the common denominator, and each human should be judged on the person's individual merits -- creative, lethargic, witty or plodding. Whatever the case may be.
This is a book that should be required reading for every high school student -- young people who are in the process of sorting out all kinds of identity issues. It may not be too late for most adults to benefit from this little gem, either!<P
on May 31, 2007
Are women human? That's the stark question the British writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) posed in two short essays written in 1938, and originally published in 1947 in a collection of her essays called Unpopular Opinions. She had more than an academic interest in the question. When she finished Somerville College, Oxford, with first class honors in modern languages in 1915, they didn't yet grant degrees to women.
The gist of Sayers' argument is captured in a quote she takes from DH Lawrence: "Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won't accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex." Such was her radically simple argument, that women be acknowledged as human beings, and only subsequently labeled as a subset of human beings qualified by biology, culture, ethnicity, age, economics, nationality, and so on.
Sayers also made an observation about the Gospels. Women, she noted, were "the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross." The many women who appear in the gospels, says Sayers, "had never known a man like Jesus--there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; 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 unselfconscious. 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 women's nature."
You can read this tiny volume in one sitting, and if you do you will be greatly rewarded. My Eerdmans edition has a short introduction by Mary McDermott Shideler.
on February 22, 2005
Containing Two Essays excerpted from Unpopular Opinions, Dorothy L. Sayers
Introduction by Mary McDermott Shideler
"Are Women Human?"
Dorothy Sayers, perhaps most famous for her detective novels, possessed a delightful wit and piercing discernment. This booklet contains a mere 47 pages, but the content inspires many moments of introspection afterwards.
I have seen her points from these essays excerpted most often in a feminist context, and this is unfortunate. As her reflections are primarily on the essence of humanity, and a defense of woman as belonging to that unique group, men would benefit as well as women in digesting her insights.
Sayers speaks to the dangers of "classing" women, whether in the historical repressive context, or the aggressive feminist movements. She talks about the importance and necessity of work, as it pertains to both the male and female. She gives lucid background on the myth of "women's work," while chastising the modern church for propagating an unfounded role distinction, and much more.
Despite the original copyright on the work being 1947, Sayers' essays are extremely relevant today, and more needed than ever. It is my desire to see a reprint that makes this work more accessible, but in the meantime, it is well worth the market price.
on June 8, 2009
Although Dorothy Sayers broke with tradition by being one of the first woman to graduate from Oxford, she did not self identify as a feminist. She claimed, "...the time for "feminism," in the old fashioned sense of the word had gone past," adding, "an aggressive feminism might do more harm than good."(21) Instead of waving placards and shouting slogans, she simply expressed a worldview that held women as human beings, and lived a life that was true, not to her gender, but to humanity. Miss Sayer believed that God created both men and women with gifts and talents suitable to specific work and it is the role of the individual to find the work that matches their makeup.
Sayers outlines her views on `women as human' in a manner that makes her reader smile and even laugh out loud. By cleverly reversing the stereotypical view of males and females, Miss Sayers uses her wit to point out the silliness of such stereotypes by making us laugh at the picture of man forced to view himself 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...not as a member of society, but merely as a virile member of society. If the center of his dress consciousness were the cod-piece, his education directed to making him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias; his interests to be held 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...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." (56-57)
Miss Sayers is not only witty, but erudite, pointing out that men have taken away all the interesting jobs women once had as the manager of a household:
"It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry,...the dying industry...the weaving industry...the whole catering industry and -- which would not please Lady Astor, perhaps - the whole of the nations brewing and distilling...And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the woman's jobs - and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is very well that a women's pl
on September 25, 2013
Dorothy L. Sayers states Jesus' treatment of women so eloquently and objectively. There is a unique relationship Jesus had with women, and as much as some sects of religion try to downplay it, it will always shine through. Jesus valued women for more than their bodies, more than their gender, more than their motherhood and more than their housekeeping abilities. The church tries to limit women in so many ways, but hopefully they will see how much Jesus valued women and stop their segregation, pigeonholing, and putting women in ineffective boxes.
on July 7, 2013
Even in 1938, she knew. Dorothy Sayers has given us two very provocative essays on her thoughts about humanism as opposed to feminism. It is remarkable that her insights and observations of her time were espoused 30 years later as almost miraculous epiphanies by those who wrote for "women's magazines" (yes that is how they described themselves) and after reading these essays you will understand why Miss Sayers would find that term an oxymoron.
Perhaps it is her knowledge of medieval history and scholastic thinking that allows her to frame this important topic in such a unique and concise way. Being one of the first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford she explains that in her mind the problem that men had this, is that it confounded their thinking concerning the "roles of women" in academia because it challenged their conception of the "roles of men" in general.
Brilliantly framed and studded with allusions to gender bigotry, this is simply the finest presentation of what it means to be a human, i.e. why are women the opposite sex as opposed to the "neighboring sex". If one wishes to engage in the discussion of sexism, feminism, misogyny, etc. let them begin by thinking about her unique concept of "vir, femina, and homo."
As I said she was a medievalist but one with a sense of humor. I would have bought this girl a drink anytime or perhaps she would have bought me one.
on June 3, 2013
Dorothy Sayers has become one of my favorite authors. She is a clear thinker with a quick wit. Her insights about the position of women in society are accurate and helpful. Her writing is kinetic. Reading this book was thought provoking and fun.
on June 29, 2014
Dorothy Sayers is an outstanding researcher and authority on the challenges and roles of women in society. She does a nice job of providing insights in a way that is factual. She is challenging without making the reader uncomfortable. Its a very satisfying publication on a topic that society, particularly U.S. society, is struggling with.
on January 24, 2013
Being a fan of Sayers' Lord Peter stories for many years, I decided to try her essays too. "Are Women Human?" consists of two essays--the title essay and another called "Human Not-Quite-Human." Both are well-written, and more importantly, well-reasoned. Reading her I found myself smacking my head more than once and thinking "Why did I never think of that? It makes such sense!" Sayers' arguments are both to the point and made with humor. She makes her points from history and from the Bible, and her warnings against generalizing are excellent. Not all men are the same. How can all women be? This is an easy, fun read from which one can take away a lot of excellent ideas.
on April 25, 2013
Without Dorothy L. Sayers where would we be as Christians and civilized human beings?
Read the book, send it to your female relatives, friends, acquaintances. Sayers asks the right question and answers it with wit, charm, and intelligence. Even if you disagree, you will have to give her credit for the best prose, the most elegant of styles, and the great debate. She smashes everyone's sacred cow and then some.
And, don't stumble over the examples from another generation. Apply the analogy to your time and circumstance. She gives you a tool of learning so use it.