Are Women Human?

Mary Ellen Godfrey
Tuesday, May 1st 2012
May/Jun 2012

In my own experience in academia I have sometimes been asked, often in the context of an accreditation visit, “Are women’s voices being heard on campus?” or “Do you think that women’s issues are being addressed?” I have been puzzled by these questions. Do women speak with one voice? And what exactly are “women’s issues”?

In thinking about these questions, a book by Dorothy L. Sayers titled Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1971) gave me a more interesting question to contemplate. Sayers was a twentieth-century writer of detective fiction, essays, and plays, as well as a gifted translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the epic Song of Roland. She was one of the first women at Oxford University, graduating in 1915 with top honors in medieval literature. As one of the first women students in that all-male world, surely she must have something to say about women’s voices and women’s issues. She does. In an address given to a women’s society in 1938, she tackled questions about women in society and culture with astounding good sense, intelligence, and wit.

Her essay begins with a rejection of treating women as a class. “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” (24). In fact she finds it “repugnant” to be thought of as part of a class rather than as an individual person (24). In other words, when it comes to “women’s voices,” each individual woman speaks with her own voice as every human being does.

And what are “women’s issues”? Sayers prefers to think in terms of human issues. Is university education a “woman’s issue”? “I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle and there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him” (27). Education is for women and men with the desire for education. Not all young men, she reminds us, want to study Aristotle any more than all young women do. What about clothing? Women as much as men should be entitled to wear trousers, not to usurp the authority of men, but because they are comfortable and warm. Clothing is a human issue. What about work? Man’s work or woman’s work?

Sayers again points to the universal human dimension. “Every woman is a human being, and a human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance in the world” (33). She bristled at being asked about being a woman novelist. She preferred to be regarded as a good novelist, without reference to her gender.

Women, Sayers pointed out, have a place in politics, but what can be meant by “a woman’s point of view”? While a woman may have something unique to say about the education of children, or divorce, or town planning, on most issues women have different opinions just as other people do. “But what in thunder is the ‘woman’s point of view’ about the devaluation of the franc or the abolition of the Danzig Corridor?” (42). When asked how she could write such convincing male dialogue, she replied that men as well as women “talk very much like human beings also” (49).

Dorothy Sayers’ little book would be a thoughtful encouragement to readers of Modern Reformation, both men and women. Her essay helped me to realize that questions about women’s issues can be demeaning and misdirected, and that women’s voices are often expected to speak a single language that is not authentic or their own. I appreciated Sayers’ reminder that the important question is a question of our common humanity at the crown of God’s creation, a good place to begin any conversation about a woman’s place in the modern world.

Tuesday, May 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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