Women and Failure

Onora O’Neill

St Bridget of Sweden had eight children and 700 mystical visions. She wrote prolifically, travelled repeatedly, a strenuous pilgrim across 14th-century Europe, founded a religious order in Sweden and nursed the poor in Rome for many years. The format of an illustrated dictionary of biography excuses the authors of Women in History from explaining how she organised her many lives into one. Her achievements, public and familial, are crisply presented with hundreds of other notable lives as a ‘record of 35 centuries of feminine [sic] achievement’: an agreeable and browsable work of reference, an unpretentious corrective to some no doubt persisting gender stereotypes. If there are occasional exaggerations – Von Lawick-Goodall the ‘founding mother of ecology’? – there is also no attempt to veil unheroic moments. Not all achieving women are as omnicompetent as St Bridget.

In the continuing spate of books on women and women’s issues, straightforward works of record stand out as unambitious yet surprisingly impressive. It is easy to suppose that the debate has moved on, that everyone acknowledges that some women have achieved notably, that the area for present concern must be to understand the remaining and perhaps subtler hindrances which affect many women’s lives. Yet the record of great women needs retelling, if only so that no further generations of girls are held back by the belief that there have never been women who were accomplished scientists or artists or explorers.

In the monotheistic traditions we may also still need straightforward reminders that divinities need not be male. Goddesses and heroines may not be career models, yet a retelling of myths which emphasises heroic women and female deities casts a surprising new light on a record which has been there immemorially. Women in Myth and Legend is a dictionary of mythology which ranges eclectically, but enthusiastically, from the most ancient mother goddesses to the fully historical, notoriously heroic Grainne ni Malley. It aims to redress the bias of mythographers who record mainly gods and heroes, and their frequently nameless female relatives and dependents, by assembling an equally, but less standardly selective record. Unexpected intellectual jolts produce a fresh picture of the sense of some familiar tales. A more scholarly and systematic presentation of parts of the same record is given by The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine. Here Ochshorn contrasts ancient Near Eastern polytheism, with its goddesses and priestesses and its cults of fertility, with the all-male world of the Biblical tradition which the monotheistic religions have inherited. Her aim is not just to record but also to recover an alternative vision of the connections between gender and the divine.

Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology also aims to recover female achievements which have become obscured. To record the achievements of women artists needs more than a dictionary format, since these achievements have so often been not merely neglected but trivialised by those who insist that women artists can produce only work that is pretty, but not deep, and derivative rather’ than original. Pollard and Parker query such assumptions. They remind us that the formal disabilities suffered by women artists in the past (for example, exclusion from study of the nude), the continuing social difficulties suffered by women who make a deep commitment to painting or sculpting, as well as the persistence of male chauvinism in art criticism and history, may be sufficient to explain disparities, real or supposed, in the achievements of men and women artists. These theoretical skirmishes are undertaken in order to open the way for the main task of the book, which is to invite us to look again at the work of some old and little-esteemed mistresses and so recover an appreciation of their achievements.

A solid reason for the success of these straightforward works of encouragement and enlightenment is no doubt that they do not ask the most unsettling questions. Old Mistresses engages very briefly with the question of why there have been no female Leonardos, and finds answer enough not merely in the paucity of Leonardos but in the sheer difficulties faced by women who pursue any but ancillary lives. None of these records of female achievement dwells on the question of what would constitute the removal of obstacles for women, nor whether, if this were achieved, we should expect a matching of male and female achievements, nor what we should think if no such matching emerged. These are the concerns which inform the numerous studies of women’s lack of achievements rather than of their achievements. They are questions which cut close to the quick both for feminists and for male chauvinists of either sex. For if women are given equal rights and opportunities in some area, in substantive and not merely in formal respects, yet do not produce the patterns of achievement that men produce, does this not perhaps suggest that those who hold that biology is destiny were right all along? And if this is the case, may it not be misguided, or at best irrelevant, to seek genuine equality of rights and opportunities and parity of education, work and pay for women and men?

Maintaining the record has this second, less encouraging side. For the record, when set out comprehensively, is mainly one not of women’s achievements but of their continuing lack of success in most worldly pursuits. Once the record-keeping is actuarial, rather than a matter of spotting winners, it is failure that dominates the scene. Now that women’s lives are industriously charted, we can see a strikingly similar pattern in one field after another. Increasingly, women have at least formal and legal equality with men, yet systematic and major discrepancies persist between the actual lives of women and of men. This record of failure and disability predominates even in writing which focuses mainly on the struggles and successes of the women’s movement. Even the enthusiastic progress report given by Coote and Campbell in Sweet Freedom has more to say about persisting failure than about failures overcome. Progress so far is often as much a matter of problems unmasked as of problems solved, a matter of consciousness raised rather than changes consolidated. Even where success has been achieved it remains fragile: Coote and Campbell record numerous instances of ground lost in the harsher economic climate of the last two years. The persisting pattern of women’s relative lack of success first emerges at school. In most advanced societies educational opportunities are formally equal, but while girls are the most successful pupils at the primary level, they achieve a steadily decreasing proportion of educational successes as they move up the educational ladder, especially in science and technical subjects. Two anthologies present detailed pictures: Learning to Lose attends more to girls’ experience of their schooling, and The Missing Half takes a rather less discursive, intermittently statistical look mainly at science education in the UK.

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