April 3, 2014

Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers

I've long admired Dorothy Sayers' writing and knew right away that I would be reading one of her essays for The Classics Club event Feminist Literature in March. I'm going to be up front and honest with you: I don't define myself as a feminist. I don't define myself as a feminist mostly because I don't find the label particularly helpful nor clearly defined. I also tend to get tetchy if someone asks me for a woman's point of view about something. More often than not, the term "feminism" is polarizing when it doesn't need to be and I find that there are as many points of view as there are women. Ask me about my point of view on a particular topic and I will tell you my point of view on that topic. Sometimes my point of view will be recognizable as feminist, but other times it will not. I don't fit easily nor completely into most categories and I'm guessing most people do not.

Now that I've sent you all running for the hills, let me tell you a little bit about Dorothy Sayers and her essay, "Are Women Human?" Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University. She did not devote her time to talking or writing about feminism, but instead lived her life doing the work for which she was suited whether or not society understood her choices as feminine.

"Are Women Human?" is an address given to a Women's Society in 1938 and is one of the few times that Sayers wrote on the nature and function of women. In this essay, she puts forth her position on women with honesty and wit. Just look at the essay title and you'll get a taste of that sharp edged humor. As far as Sayers is concerned, "male" and "female" are adjectives qualifying the noun "human being," and as Mary McDermott Shideler says in her introduction, "the substantive governs the modifier." We are human beings first and foremost. This is not to make light of the difficulties experienced by women. Sayers was, after all, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University. I would imagine that she faced many challenges as a woman in that environment, yet she felt that she was suited to the type of work in that environment and lived it out in spite of the difficulties. I can just about hear her say that life is full of difficulties.

What Sayers most wanted was to be reckoned as an individual person and not always as a member of a class. "A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes… [but] [w]hat is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women -- and it is the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall about themselves."

I believe that Sayers' position fits into the spirit of feminism. She clearly believed in a woman's right to participate fully in the world however that woman is so suited. She did not align herself with a feminist movement since, I believe, she found that too confining. Instead, she lived feminism.


  1. I think living feminism is more important anyway...

    1. Just living it is my main focus now. Most of the time I don't even think to really talk about it nor do I view life primarily through that lens.