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The Real Life of Women

A woman's place is on a pedestal.

I must be clear about the terms that I will use.

By female I mean the biological, what is given with the gender. The dictionary leaves no doubt about this. The female is the bearer of the young, of which the male is the begetter. No definition of the female will bear scrutiny if it does not center on the biological function of carrying the young or the egg.

By feminine I mean, not what is given, but what is acquired: What is cultivated, not what is biological. The feminine is the attributes and properties which, in differing ways in different cultures, women and men regard as necessary to establish, protect, and five expression to the female. Unlike the female, the feminine can be redefined.

By womanly I mean the whole human being who is formed by the play of the female and the feminine in natures that are otherwise common to us. Womanliness is our common human nature given a particular scope, bent, and expression by what is not male or manly. The womanly is indeed what we ought to mean by the person.

All of these could be restated to apply to the other sex. If I concentrate on our concepts of the feminine, it is because this is where the redefinitions are taking place, compelling the masculine to be redefined as well. For better or for worse—we do not know yet how it will turn out—this redefinition is altering the relationship between the sexes. These changes ought to be debated with strenuousness.

There is a conspiracy of silence among "liberals" and "progressives" about the results, not so far altogether encouraging, of some of the attitudes that are nourished by the women's movement. These people are then surprised that there has been a backlash against that silence in the unexpectedly strong tide of resentment against the Equal Rights Amendment. This conspiracy of silence is sustained by the accusation and innuendo which meet any criticisms of the objectives or methods of the women's movement. Innuendo, especially. Those I am criticizing are adept at it. Any woman who does not entirely go along with them, any man who raises a doubt about their hectoring, is immediately said to feel threatened by the liberated woman. Only they, the women of propaganda, are strong.

But let us turn aside, to find a footing. Art should not be confused with life, least of all in a context such as this. But we should let art inform our lives, now and then, because our lives after all informed it first. In his study of The Nude, published more than 20 years ago, Kenneth Clark uses Plato's distinction between the two Aphrodites, the Celestial and the Vulgar, later to be called the Venus Coelestis and the Venus Naturalis. The burden of his theme is that from Praxiteles to Renoir the artists "looked with such eagerness at Venus Naturalis because they had caught a glimpse of her inaccessible twin sister." They were profoundly moved by "their belief that the female body was the token of harmonious natural order." This did not prevent them from finding it human and sensuous, desirable and touching. But as he says of The Three Graces of Botticelli, it is "transposed into a melody of celestial beauty; celestial but humanly touching"; whether in the "lovable perfection" that Raphael gave to the human race in his female nude, or in the "sensuous weight" of a woman's body that is given such full expression by Rubens or Renoir, there are also "shadowy invitations" and "poetic mystery."

Such beliefs cannot and should not be transported directly into our lives, but it would be absurd to deny that the love of man and woman, which even our age must allow to be exceptional in its aspiring, is informed in some degree by intimations such as this. If woman's body is a "symbol of creative and regenerative life," in art, this symbol is not altogether absent from the approaches of man and woman in real life. Men and women are not the same as each other in each other's eyes, with the mere exception of one or two organs and their functions. The biology dictates more than the biological functions. The "sensuous weight" of a woman's body carries with it more than a merely physical apprehension. Women are pulled down below the surface of life, said Rilke, by reason of the weight of the life that is in them. To deny such complexities in our sexual differences is merely not to live very deeply.

Because it is not quite a Raphael or a Rubens, the Rokeby Venus on the cover of this issue is worth our attention. It is generally regarded as one of the most satisfying pictures of a woman ever painted, and there are some matters in which the general regard is worth following. It stands at the head of Kenneth Clark's book, as it should, even though in the text he curiously describes it as "that strange, dispassionate work." It is merely unexpected in its depth. Here is a picture of womanhood.

Lovely and aware of her loveliness; but tentative with her beauty and grave. It seems that her body could not be more at ease. It rests not on the single mass of her own weight, flopped down on the bed, but on a series of separate points of balance, from her elbow to her foot. One feels she could turn on any one of these at the next second. Yet the whole of her body is also questioning. Cover the Cupid and the mirror and, with her face all but hidden from us, her body is still full of question. To catch the fleeting moment and be absorbed in it, absorbed in herself and yet detached, intimate with her own beauty and yet inquiring of it: this is the gift and the care of women. Restore the mirror to the picture, and one knows at once why the mirror is the property and the necessity of woman, for it is not just a thing of vanity. Her gaze into the mirror is deep—Velasquez has emphasized this by setting the image far back in the glass—honest and penetrating and unremitting. The beautiful, held, half-profile in the flesh becomes in the mirror a warm, sensual, confused face, even a little scared. In the mirror we barely see the arm and the hand that hold her head so poised; we see a face that seems alone and vulnerable and so open with its revelations. She asks a lot as she gazes, but one thing she is not asking is: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"

But we must look also at the boy Cupid as he holds the mirror to her. Hand held so firmly but not forcefully over hand, so manly a hold, the hold of the greatest archer of them all. He seems to take himself out of the picture, the mirror held at arm's length. The firm bent knee does not even touch the bed; in it is concentrated the balance that holds the frame to her. We look from his knee to hers, from his right foot to hers, each placed in line with the other, and in them is the different speech of the sexes. But especially we follow where his face is turned. He does not look at her. He is not such a fool as that, not at such a moment. He looks where she looks, and in his face is an expression only of attentiveness: again so manly a look. The re is not a hint of intrusion—he is not trying to get into the act—as he gazes with no word on a secret. Our eyes leave him, r e turn for a moment to the face in the mirror, and then trace back the body. The half-profile, the questioning, the tentativeness, the absorption, the self-intimacy, the sensuousness—to herself in that moment: is that what Clark found dispassionate?—the detachment, the wondering, the ease, the doubt, the stillness, the enrapture, the moment. The length of the moment. There is no way such a nude could be painted of a man.

No one in his or her senses would think of saying that the Rokeby Venus is feminine. The feminine plays in and about her, deliciously, but it is far too slight a word to describe her. She is not admiring her femininity, which she just takes for granted, her toilet exquisitely done, her hair swept back from the soft ear. Rather, she is discovering her femaleness, discovering it to herself in that moment, feeling the womanliness that is alive in her, tranquil but still pricking and a mystery. The feminine is not really to be found in the nude. For the feminine we must go to the nymphets of Fragonard on their swings. The nude takes us deeper and, however far it is removed from life, "a study in ideal form" as Clark puts it, it speaks to us of what is.

The feminine and the masculine are merely concepts that we invent. They are sources of satisfaction, attraction and delight, to ourselves and to others. But since we invent them, they should be distrusted. There have been many false concepts of the masculine that have distorted and even diminished the manly. The women's movement is rightly trying to clear away what it regards as many false concepts of the feminine. But if our past notions were invented for what now seem to us to be false reasons, our reasons for reinventing them today may be no less false. They also may be dictated by historical circumstances that are no more universally true than those from which we think we have escaped. What galls so many people today is the glibness with which the women's movement claims that its redefinitions are revelations of lasting truth. At least the chivalrous notion of woman was understood at the time to be in part a mere invention of fancy.

It is my contention here that the feminine is today being made the enemy of the female and the womanly; that the crucial flaw in the women's movement is its all-but-exclusive concern with feminineness; that the notion of what it can mean to be female and womanly is being narrowed and impoverished rather than widened and enriched; that the creation of the "female human being," to which Rilke looked forward in 1904 as the great work of this century, is farther off than ever; that with all this, the male and the manly, as distinct from the masculine, are being undone as well; and that as a result, a terrible desperation is creeping into relations between the sexes, clawing at them both. We have only to open our eyes and ears to be horrified.

On Bastille Day The New York Times published an article which no Frenchwoman or Frenchman would have understood. Its headline was “Single Women Over 30: ‘Where Are the Men Worthy of Us?’” Some male readers wrote back with the obvious answer: the worthy men are happily with the women worthy of them. But when we put aside that answer, to read the snappy quotations from the single women with care, what they tell of is desperation, even if it is concealed by arrogance and behind a stiff upper lip.

“There seem to be far more attractive, smart, witty, loving, giving women in New York than men. … We are feeling much better about ourselves, but it also means that we are limiting the supply of men acceptable to us by our own discrimination. … The men have not caught up with us yet. … I think men are frightened by strong, confident women. … I've found a lot of fear of my own sexuality. … [Men] are suffering from various dysfunctions, including impotence. … I don't know where they are, the men who seem to be caring and loving, kind and attentive." What must appall anyone who can hear a human shriek is that every sentence is the sheerest cry of desperation, that every "strong, confident" statement is a whimper that dies quivering on the lips even in print.

Perhaps the point should not be pushed too far on the basis of an Op-Ed article in The New York Times. These are New York women of a peculiar breed who are talking: a 42-year-old TV correspondent, a writer, a 42- year-old book editor, a 37-year-old top executive, a 50- year-old book editor; a former fashion model. Anyone who goes to New York and is beguiled into a cocktail party will meet them, and they look and behave exactly as they sound on the page. They are living on their nerves, as they are living on them in these quotations. They are New York. They are Ms. They are not representative of the rest of the country, except in the propaganda they distill in the place of any deep reflection.

What one hears in their voices is the feminine torn from its roots in the female. This is the meaning of the comment of one of the book editors. "I have married, I have had children. I have no reason to look for the one man in my life." Here is the female as we have defined it, the bearer of new life, but when that function has been performed, the female is struck out, as if the re is nothing else for it to do, nothing else for it to inform, and the feminine is left free to roam where it will, in what the article calls, in a phrase that rings none-too-convincingly, "the almost unalloyed happiness of the single life." Where are the men who are worthy? They are unlikely to be where the female is so withered, where it says "I have had children" as if it had won a diploma for reproduction, and need not worry any more about the meaning of this femaleness to its own character. Since a man does not bear children at all, why should he, by this accounting, "look for the single woman in his life?" Yet still he does, even in these days. The answer, of course, is that his maleness is extended, not merely to express itself in the masculine, which is a thing only of the surface, but above all to create and inform the manly. It is womanliness that one misses in the resumés in The New York Times.

The desire to place an unconditional value on one person of the opposite sex is deep in human nature. It is quite as strong in men and women of 25 to 35 years today, the survivors of the 1960s, as ever it was. This is one reason why they are constantly distracted by the lack of pattern in sexual relationships. It is the ultimate form of giving and, being that, no less the ultimate form of taking. It is as if the reciprocal functions of male and female, in the begetting and bearing of new life, have been transformed into the reciprocal caring of the womanly and the manly. This is surely what W.H. Auden meant when he said that any long marriage is more interesting than even the most turbulent love affair. There is no reciprocity in the feminine and the masculine. They are the armor and weapons of defense and aggression, which can be used delightingly in the war of the sexes, but if released as the only expressions of our sexual natures are deadly to man and woman.

Round about the age of 27, which is almost invariably the year that both men and women choose to make the point, the woman who is still single and childless begins to ask herself—as no man does—whether she will bear a child or not. To deny the pressure of this moment is knavishness. The female is staking its claim against the barrenness of the feminine. Young women who talk about this question, trying to face it openly and truthfully, even say that "twenty-seven for a woman is very different from twenty-six," thus emphasizing the acuteness of their own feelings. No man could say it of himself with such conviction, and it is not male propaganda which makes the woman say it. To say that the choice is easy, like choosing a dress, is a travesty of the reality that is felt.

It must be said at once that if the woman, in deciding not to bear a child, does not deny the female in her nature, but acknowledges that she is sacrificing its fulfillment, the feminine in her is not torn from its roots, and the womanly in her will still grow and be nourished. Most of us have known such women, who talk gravely of their decision, and are often singularly full human beings. An obvious example is the nun, who can be most womanly in her ways, even use some of the artifices of the feminine, not denying her femaleness but sublimating it. I personally do not understand the objection to the term spinster, since I associate it with aunts and schoolteachers in my childhood, who all brought a wholly womanly presence into my life, whom I remember as among the fullest people I have known, and who in their singleness and childlessness did not deny their femaleness. They did not slight their biology, or skimp the forms of nurture that are in its gift.

But if the woman makes the deliberate choice not to bear, without acknowledging its gravity for her whole personality, then the feminineness on which she must henceforth rely will be pinched. She must bring into play every artifice of the desert-liver who must survive without moisture. What should be only the foils of the feminine, to guard the female and nourish the womanly, become their own and their only purpose. It is not a whit different with the male. If the masculine is torn from its roots, as the begetter of new life, exactly the same thing happens, and it turns into the sterility of the macho. Wherever the ultimate object of generation and so of the regenerative life is placed apart, there one will find that sexual relationships have been reduced to a desert. This is the crisis at which we now stand.

If we reduce our natures to the merely feminine and merely masculine, the differences between the two will indeed seem trivial. We might as well be unisex. A friend who recently visited Sweden was struck by the fact that the place was overrun by ravishingly beautiful women who nevertheless aroused no sexual interest at all. He was baffled by the contradiction, until he noticed the way they walked. "They have become men," he exclaimed to me. The observation will be resisted by some, yet it carries below the surface. The differences between the sexes are ways of enriching each sex, even simply as the human persons which we strive to be.

Men are less serious than women, it has often been said. Women are more grave—for one thing they grow old more painfully, which has nothing to do with vanity—valuing reality more. As the mere begetters of new life, men think that the world can easily be made and remade, by a toss of their prowess. But as the bearers of new life, women have their eyes fixed on reality, on what is here and now, what can be relied on to succor and enfold. This women's attention to reality fascinates men, and it often drives them up the wall. Almost every day-to-day irritation of men at women is a complaint against their turning aside to give attention to some reality. This is what lies at the root of the war of the sexes, which is not some trivial engagement, but a profound and unending struggle between two approaches to life. Men fight with women to resist the overwhelming bearing down of reality on our lives, and women fight with men to give moment to the reality whose mystery they perceive more clearly and guard more fiercely.

Men do not need to apologize for the extravagance of their folly; they need to know only that they do not have much wisdom. They are always trying to fix something forever in some form that is not its own. Not content with the reality of the passing moment, they must turn it into centuries or eons. Not content to contemplate, they must be philosophers. Not content to see, they must paint. Not content with love, they must write love poems. "Stay! Thou art so beautiful!" Says Faust; and in that, among other things, he was a man. But the complexity of women is that, although they breathe naturally in the fleeting moment, knowing it will pass, they also gaze deeply to find what lasts. They do not have to make the surface stay, which is why on the surface the feminine moves so easily, because the female being in them is in the deepest communion with nature, with the endless cycle enacted in them, knowing what stays there and needs her long nurture.

Of course, 1 will be accused of (re)mystifying and (re)mysticizing our notion of women. So let it be. But it needs to be said that denying what all ages have found to be mystery in women comes near to denying that there is mystery in life. Take the smile from the face of the Mona Lisa, and you take away the play of sun and shadow in our lives. Try to fix her smile on the face of a man, and you have only a caricature. No male nude is ever smiling. It flies in the face of all the evidence in art and life to deny that men's attitudes to women are infused by an element of reverence. If this reverence has sometimes taken false and constricting forms, that has usually been the result of historical conditions, for which we cannot hold earlier ages to blame. But this does not alter the fact that reverence for the bearer of new life is itself a reality.

Almost all female nudes, even when they are most sensuously forthcoming, have an air of withholding. Even la baigneuse blonde of Renoir, as complete a celebration of the physical life as one could ask in paint, holds her gaze on one knows not what. But to turn again to an example that is less classical, one only has to look on Bonnard’s paintings of his wife, glimpsed through a bathroom door as she bathes or dries herself, as absorbed as the Rokeby Venus and reflective in a fleeting moment of self-intimacy, to know that in our lives also Venus Naturalis has her inaccessible twin sister.

We may approach the question from a different angle, where again there is a conspiracy of silence. The challenge presented by the gay movement is not that it is homosexual, but that homosexuality is not its essence. We have to ask why it was necessary to wrench the word gay from its meaning, and apply it to a movement whose members are not notable for their merriment. The answer is clear if one looks closely at the movement. The proportion of genuine homosexuals in it is small. The majority are women and men who are fleeing the war of the sexes, who will not engage in the complexity which a genuine relationship between the sexes will always ask, who refuse the depth of commitment which is demanded by such an engagement, who will not seriously consider the possibility of placing an unconditional value on one other person in their lives, who turn their backs on both the responsibilities and the mystery of generation which have to be deeply shared. They are not even homosexuals; they use homosexuality as an excuse. Theirs is the ultimate starving of life.

These gays are in fact—paradoxically enough—the feminine and the masculine at large—torn from their roots. There is a corruption at work here, which one must emphasize again has nothing essentially to do with homosexuality—and its source lies where we have been looking. No previous age has had so trivial a conception of our sexuality, has so failed to make clear the radical distinction between the female (and male), feminine (and masculine), womanly (and manly), and cared so little for the ways in which they are related, and can and should inform each other, in turn informing us of things about life which we would not otherwise know. Never has our sexuality been made to look so shallow, so unenchantingly for the taking as nothing but itself at its most common, so empty of the spirit but also so emptying of the flesh, and at the root of it all is the failure of the women's movement, of its sympathizers but no less of the loudest of its critics, to take gravely enough the task of redefinition on which it is irrevocably embarked. It is not women who are being liberated, one cannot say often enough, but only the feminine that is being released.

Men have a task before them; to restore women to some pedestal, even if it is a new one; to bring at least some reverence to their approaches, even if for a time it is awkward to express; to hold the mirror to Venus, so that she may contemplate her secret, while he gazes on it with his unlearned face; to take his stand among his follies, to romance the realist, to write his love poems once more. Then our societies may fall to enjoying themselves again—the worthy to find the worthy, the unworthy only to find themselves.

This article originally ran in the August 26, 1978, issue of the magazine.