In this enjoyable short essay, philosopher Susan Haack discusses the feminism of Dorothy Sayers with special reference to Sayers' novel Gaudy Night.
My own feelings about Gaudy Night are ambivalent. On the one hand, Sayers seems more ideological and, as a result, less good a mystery writer in this novel than in most of her others. Her feminism gets the better of her when it comes to her characterization of the would-be murderer and to her approval of Lord Peter's rather nauseatingly submissive behavior toward Harriet Vane. On the other hand, a fan of Sayers or of mysteries will enjoy the novel for its craftsmanship, its excellent and well-textured writing, and its interesting characters and plot. This is borne out by the fact that, despite my annoyance at some features, I have read it so many times as nearly to have it memorized.
But Gaudy Night is by the way. Haack's main point is to praise Sayers' brand of old-fashioned feminism and to contrast it with contemporary, "women's studies" feminism, of which Haack, quite rightly, disapproves.
Haack is an individualist and, in the old-fashioned sense, a humanist. She wants to study and to emphasize, on the one hand, what is common to mankind and, on the other hand, what is specific to a given individual (in terms of abilities and interests), not what is characteristic of groups and especially not of "interest groups." She is a self-designated feminist of Sayers' sort and an opponent (I have reason to believe) of affirmative action and of other aspects of the contemporary spoils system of group politics.
I, on the other hand, am a gender-role traditionalist. I believe that male-female differences make a much bigger difference to workforce activities than feminists of any stripe believe. I can well imagine many situations in which discriminating against a female (or, sometimes, for a female) would make perfect sense. These include the obvious ones--the military, on-the-beat police work (as we discussed here), and (for discrimination in favor of women) work with young children. I also would think it quite understandable if an employer, having found that every one of his carefully trained, white-collar, female assistants had a baby and left him to look for and train another assistant (after taking advantage of the federal law forcing him to hold the job open during three months' maternity leave), preferred in the future to hire a male. I think it unfortunate that an employer is not permitted under current law to make obvious, rational use of such inductive information. I think that most women will be happiest if they can make being a wife and mother a full-time vocation. It seems to me that it has caused a great deal of harm both to individuals and to society for all girls to be raised to intend a career. I think men should be expected to take on the responsibility of bringing home the bacon.
So it might seem that I would have little use for Haack's resolute individualism. As it happens, though, I heartily cheer her condemnation of what she delightfully calls the "pink-collar ghetto" of feminist philosophy and all its ilk. But I would give a slightly different reason from the one she emphasizes for rejecting it.
Haack criticizes the contemporary feminist approach to academic issues on the basis of the (correct) claim that such an approach is patronizing towards women. She also claims that such an approach "risks playing into the hands of the oppressors." About this statement I have more doubts, though a great deal depends on who the oppressors are supposed to be and what it means to play into their hands. If what Haack means is that for feminists to say that logic is masculinist gives an excuse to misogynistic curmudgeons to say that women are illogical, she is right. I'm not at all sure, however, that there are enough misogynistic curmudgeons out there being allowed to "oppress" women on the basis of their alleged illogic for this effect even to be worth mentioning.
If we say that encouraging, say, young women philosophers to go into "feminist philosophy" is bad for the young women, we need to be clear about what we mean by "bad for." I myself would certainly agree with the statement if it is taken in a philosophical sense (about which more in a moment). Taken at a practical level, the statement unfortunately is not true. Departments are usually only too happy to hire someone to teach feminist philosophy, are only too pathetically eager to hire a female, and are not infrequently encouraged by administration and by department evaluators deliberately to advertise in feminist philosophy because it will help them to "get a woman in the department." So from a careerist point of view, it emphatically is not bad for a young woman to enter the pink-collar ghetto. She will probably do only too well there, materially speaking, and have a much smoother and more secure career than her male colleagues who do such boring old stuff as logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. What said male colleagues think about her work in the privacy of their own minds may be another matter.
Which brings us to the real sense in which it is bad for women to enter the pink-collar ghetto: It is bad for them because they are going to be encouraged to do less rigorous work than they should be doing in philosophy. It will be bad for their professionalism. Group politics will become the very stuff of their "work" and "research," which is not good for the integrity of the work.
Which, in turn, brings us to the most important reason for disapproving of group politics as an academic discipline or sub-discipline: It's bad for the profession. When (as I am anecdotally told has happened) "math education" becomes a major sub-field in mathematics so that the female professors can get their quota of publications without having to publish in, say, statistics, this is not good for mathematics. And so forth. The women themselves may do very well, and may not really care if the old-fashioned think that their work is tiddly-winks compared to the real work of the profession. Don't waste too much worry on the feminists. It's the quality of the academy that has really suffered by the endless injection of feminist this, women's that, and the female perspective on the other thing. Of course, this is by now an old complaint; we have long since moved on to "queer studies" and everything else under the sun. So I suppose I'm about twenty years behind the times in writing this post, though Haack's essay was interesting enough to prompt it.
There is one other point: If we really believe in what we are doing in some profession, and especially in an academic area (about which I know the most), this may restrain our traditionalism as well. Were I on a hiring committee and, in some imaginary world, freed of all constraints from non-discrimination law, I would still have serious qualms about hiring a less qualified male philosopher with a family over a brilliant single female, an excellent teacher, etc. No doubt, traditionalist advocates of "affirmative action for family men" will say that they are more interested in "all else being equal" situations, but I'm here to say that, having watched many a hiring scenario over many years from the sidelines, such situations don't really arise. They are a fiction invented by affirmative action advocates, whether the more common sort on the left or the nearly non-existent sort on the right. So to this extent Haack's individualism and my emphasis on professionalism come together: When you are hiring in a field important in itself, getting the work done well must be a high priority and must take a great deal of weight. Am I saying that no other considerations could ever be relevant? No, that would be much too rigid. Moral considerations can be quite legitimate. And Christian institutions will rightly have special job criteria on top of ordinary professional qualifications. Each case must be considered on its specific merits. But I have a great deal of respect for the statement, however much it may need to be qualified, that one should hire the individual who is the best candidate. One owes a very high degree of professionalism to the students and to the parents who are paying tuition.
I think that at some level Haack's call for a focus on humanism shows a realization that, if specifically "female" perspectives are added to the academic professions, it can only be to the detriment of the professions. Why this should be is a matter for sociological speculation. It might indeed turn out to be the case that women, by and large and with individual exceptions, are less logical than men and are inclined to pull down the professions they join in order to make themselves feel less underqualified. Harsh on modern ears as that conjecture is, it is by no means beyond the realm of possibility. Whether or not there is as a matter of fact a typical "woman's way of thinking" should make no difference to, e.g., philosophy, because if there is, we are doubtless much better off without it, as attacks on "masculinist" logic and "linear thinking" make only too painfully clear. The feminists who want (as I once heard a female politician say) to "nurture the economy" would do much better to stay at home, nurture a few babies, and leave the economy strictly alone. (Gives a whole new resonance to the phrase "Nanny State," doesn't it?)
Practically speaking, it does not matter why women have flocked to the pseudo-disciplines. If the old-fashioned feminists like Haack agree with the old-fashioned traditionalists like me that such pseudo-disciplines are dreadful, we have a joint plan of action: Get rid of the pseudo-disciplines, and let the demographic chips fall where they may. If we lose women in the profession, then we should say with St. John, "They went out from among us because they were not of us."