Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Smart Girls

with 3 comments

So, I was looking over the scant comments from yesterday, and a couple of things occured to me, plus one big issue, which comes sort of on the side.

1) To say that some women at a given time and place were able to achieve is not the same thing as saying that that given time and place were open to women achieving.

It just means that some women were able to beat the odds, and in most cases they weren’t able to do that absolutely.

A world in which I am a writer is a very different one than a world in which I am a “woman writer.”

I know that, because I lived through the tail end of the “woman writer” thing.  The implication is that the woman in question, although she writes, is of course not exactly a real writer, and probably needs to be judged by a different (and less stringent) standard.

(Much the same sort of thing these days is implied in calling a writer a “mystery writer” or a “romance writer” or a “science fiction writer.”)

And that designation has consequences both for the work of the writer in question and for the way in which she is read, that make what she does off-side, not exactly mainstream, not relevant to the larger culture in the way the work of a writer (no qualifier allowed) would be.

2) The phenomenon of there being ONE female on the staff of intellectual publications in New York lasted into the early 1970s.  And no, it wasn’t necessarily a question of sleeping your way to the top. 

It was just a fact that there could be only one–any other females would be secretaries, not writers or editors–and that one would be brought on board by one of the male writers or editors. 

Whether the woman in question was sleeping with the man who championed her is actually more complicated than it looks.  I’d say the answer to that was, until the Sixties,

My guess is that the answer to that would be–not always, and probably not often.

That’s because the women who served on these publications very often had Smart Girl Syndrome (see below).

I think that that was at the root of the great and lasting antipathy between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.  Hellman had Smart Girl Syndrome.  McCarthy definitely did not.

3) I never said that all men were exploitative.  In fact, I didn’t say any man was.

In some circumstances, it’s quite obvious that the woman was the user–it’s the case with McCarthy certainly, and might have been with Hellman as well.

Okay,  It was the case with Hellman as well, toward the end of Hammett’s life.

But the problem in George Eliot’s case has nothing to do with her being exploited by men.

It’s a function of–Smart Girl Syndrome.

4) Smart Girl syndrome requires a particular cultural atmosphere to take effect.

This is a cultural atmosphere that says the most important thing about a woman is that she be attractive to men, and specifically attractive to men in such a way that they will be willing to marry her.

If she is not attractive to men, anything else she does is suspect–it’s not a real vocation, it’s “compensating.”

This was the cultural atmosphere of my childhood just as much as it was the cultural atmosphere of George Eliot’s. 

It goes along with another cultural assumption–that women can be very smart and very intellectually talented, but when they do that they are “thinking like a man,” and that isn’t attractive to men. 

What’s worse, it almost always goes along with sheer physical plainness. 

Smart girls and not very pretty, and pretty girls know better than to let anybody think they are smart.

5) Please note–I’m talking about INTELLECTUALISM, not any of the vast variety of “smartness” human beings can exhibit.

The old-fashioned term for it is “bookishness.”  Old lady librarians.  The spinster professor in the Chemistry department.  The lady principal and the lady executive with their horse faces and stiff black suits.

6) Young women who wanted intellectual careers were therefore presented with a dilemma, especially if they were not particularly attractive:  nothing counted if they were unsuccessful “as women” (if they didn’t end up married); and they were not the kind of woman men tended to want to marry.

Finding someone to marry them, then, became crucial. 

7) Yes, of course there were exceptions.  Mary McCarthy was one.  She was a very beautiful woman well into middle age.  Lots of men wanted to marry her.  She was married at least three times (it might have been four, I’m blanking a little).  One of her husbands was Edmund Wilson, and at the very height of his literary success.  The last of her husbands was the US Ambassador to France.

8) The exceptions tended to have some things in common, and not just their looks.

In this context, it’s interesting to bring up Lady Caroline Lamb. 

If you’re going to make a comparison between Lady Caroline Lamb and another writer, that writer shouldn’t be George Eliot, but Mary McCarthy.

Both Lamb and McCarthy were beautiful women.  Both were from aristocratic families.  Both were more than a little Bohemian by temperament.

9) If you’re going to compare George Eliot to another writer, it should be Dorothy L. Sayers.

Neither Sayers nor Eliot was aristocratic.  Both came from solidly middle class families with deep religious convictions for whom respectability was essential.

Neither Sayers nor Eliot was particularly “pretty,” and both were bookish in the extreme.  They even shared a lot of the same interests.  Both translated significant works from antiquity.  Sayers’s translation of the Divinia Comedia is still considered among the best ever done.  Both were interested in the Middle Ages.  Both wrote works of theology, Sayers as a mainstream Anglican, Eliot as an Anglican Evangelical.

Sayers seems to have one brief Bohemian moment, giving birth to a son out of wedlock when she was very young.  The child was raised by cousins and her reputataion was very carefully protected. 

Eliot had Lewes, of course, but she insisted throughout their relationship that they live otherwise conventionally as man and wife. And in the end, she insisted on the marriage. 

10) One of the most striking similarities between Eliot and Sayers, though, is in their work.

Both women wrote themselves ideal husbands–Eliot under a bunch of different names in different novels, Sayers as Lord Peter Wimsey.

Both of them made the focus of several novels an idealized version of herself.  Sayers had Harriet Vane, as beautiful as she is accomplished, and attractive to every man in viewing distance.

Eliot’s Dorothea and Maggie Tulliver and the rest are all beautiful women.  Men may be put off by their brains, but they are always attracted to their looks.

11) And finally, both of them married men significantly inferior to them in terms of talent, intellect and ambition.

I don’t know enough about Sayers’s Mac to say anything more detailed than that, but with Eliot’s Lewes, all that’s possible in response is–really?  that one?  WHY?

But the why is simple.  In a word where “success as a woman” was the ultimate bottom line, not marrying anybody was more than they were psychologically able to handle.

12) What has disappeared, in the culture, in the wake of 1960s feminism, is Smart Girl Syndrome. 

If a woman achieves and does not marry, nobody says she’s “compensating” for not being able to. 

If a woman writes, she is a writer, not just a “woman” one. 

And I am not sorry to see any of that go.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2012 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Smart Girls'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Smart Girls'.

  1. George Eliot first:

    The point of the women mentioned–writing under their own names, being taken seriously and having affairs–was that they pre-dated Eliot, who was at least 50 years too late to be a pioneer. Many women have been deprived of careers by prejudice, not been taken as seriously as their ideas deserved or have suffered serious societal repercussions from their choice of mates. George Eliot was not one of those women. (Oh, and she never married Lewes. After Lewes died, she married a commission agent. She was 60. He was 40. This is not generally taken as a path to respectability.)

    I’m a little puzzled by the comparison to Sayers, who really was a Christian apologist and a good one. I understood it to be Eliot’s specific denial of Christianity that got her married over near Marx in Highgate Cemetery and not in Westminster Abbey. She did translate some German freethinker’s Life of Jesus, but that’s a little different.

    As for George Henry Lewes, he was a philosopher, novelist, drama critic and naturalist with about 15 books to his credit. The proof of his intellectual inferiority seems to be that Eliot used dim-witted husbands in her novels, so (a) she must mean them to represent Lewes, and (b) she must be right. I hold no brief for Lewes. I’m just tired of seeing the man picked on.

    On the main point, I’m not sure replacing a quota for women with a quota for everyone is a substantial improvement. I could also happily begin criticism of a work without discussion of the author’s “gender” race, sex habits (if any) religious beliefs and socio-economic status. Perhaps this would free up space to discuss facts and reasoning. But the pigeonholing of authors seems to be getting worse rather than better.

    In a very real sense, we are all woman writers now.


    13 Jun 12 at 5:47 pm

  2. I can remember when marriage was considered the main aim in life for women, and I’ve known and known of a few women back in the day who took that ideal so much to heart that they considered themselves failures if they hadn’t married someone – anyone – by some arbitrary age. 25 seemed to come up a lot.

    I think one difference is that in my circles back then, most people wanted their daughters educated, but they weren’t usually thinking about intellectual careers for either their daughters or their sons – or, for that matter, the expression of the kind of ambition it takes to reach the top of some national magazine or business or government office. It was all more practical. We can manage to send you to get this or that type of education. If you’re not staying in school, you’re working and paying your way (adult children living at home don’t seem to do that any more!) Yes, you’ll probably get married, but you never know what will happen in life and it’s good to have your (degree /certificate/etc) ‘just in case’. At this time and place, divorce was almost unheard-of, so ‘ just in case’ meant death, illness, disability or disappearance of the breadearner.

    There were respected hardworking maiden ladies around – my primary/elementary principal was an example – and while young women hoping for marriage wouldn’t have wanted to emulate them, they did have a respected position in the community. And the desperate-to-wed might have accepted husbands who weren’t quite who they wanted. But I think most of the young women wanted to work, worked hard at their studies and jobs, hoped for a congenial husband while acknowleging maybe the perfect match didn’t exist, and didn’t agonize over the possibility of never marrying.

    The culture you are describing sounds quite different.


    13 Jun 12 at 10:26 pm

  3. Just a little nitpicking:
    ” Sayers had Harriet Vane, as beautiful as she is accomplished, and attractive to every man in viewing distance.”

    Harriet is always described as “striking”, not beautiful. I visualize her as having strong features, “good bones”, but not “pretty”. And it always seemed to me that she attracted her few admirers (Reggie what’s-his-name, Peter’s nephew Jerry, etc.) because of her personality, not her looks. The members of Peter’s “set” seemed quite puzzled that this rich man had not chosen a more attractive woman.


    13 Jun 12 at 10:32 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 246 access attempts in the last 7 days.