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.

The pattern is similar in working life. By and large, women now get ‘equal pay for equal work’, but they don’t get equal work. They are heavily concentrated in certain ‘women’s’ lines of employment, where the going rates are relatively low, at least contrasted with work of comparable skill and responsibility done by men. Women are cleaners, canteen workers, secretaries, nurses and teachers of younger children. They do not get apprenticeships (except as hairdressers); they do not form part of any ‘aristocracy of labour’; they run small businesses but are almost absent from the boards of large ones; their promotions are fewer than those of their male co-workers; so few women rise to the apex of their professions that a woman judge or senior civil servant or professor still strikes most people as anomalous. At the same time, women generally retain their traditional domestic responsibilities, while no more onerously employed men make only occasional or emergency contributions to the tasks of their households. Given this dual economic role, it is unsurprising that women earn less money (one job is after all unpaid and the other often ill-paid), and that they have less success, status or security, and dramatically less leisure, than men. This picture of unremitting ill-paid labour is outlined with particular reference to underdeveloped and socialist countries in Woman’s Worth; chapters of both Women in Society and Subject Women discuss the pattern of women’s work in the UK. While much that goes on, especially in Third World countries, reflects straightforward discrimination against women, it is clear enough that the acute differences between men’s and women’s contributions to the world’s work and their relative benefits reflect far more than the impact of formal discrimination.

The political picture has the same outline. The Politics of the Second Electorate describes the situation in 13 developed countries, where women have equal political rights, but participate in politics at a much lower level. Women are often as likely to vote as men are, and indeed in many countries are as likely to be members of political parties: but in most Western countries, as in developed socialist countries, there are relatively few women at or near the top in politics. In this country, after fifty years of enfranchisement, women provide only a scattering of MPs and at any given moment a sparse presence in the Cabinet and in the upper echelons of public life.

The evidence of women’s lesser success in these various areas is overwhelming: its significance still deeply obscure. Is this failure evidence for continued, if less obvious, forms of discrimination? Or of differential aptitudes for success in education, work and politics? While the answers to these theoretical questions are elusive, the practical implications of this obscurity should encourage rather than depress feminists. For suppose that the answers to the theoretical questions turned out to be those which feminists would consider the worst possible case, and that the different worldly success of women and men was shown to reflect fundamental differences in their potentialities. Suppose, quite simply, that men are inherently better at most interesting worldly things. Even so, there would be no good reason for setting up laws or regulations to exclude women from any lines of endeavour. Nobody doubts that even less talented men should have the chance to seek forms of education, work or political participation: hence even if all women were among the less talented, this could not provide reason for their formal exclusion. To have reason for making sex the basis for exclusion from education or careers one would need to think not merely that the distribution of fundamental potentialities between men and women differed, but that no women had abilities within the relevant range for many types of work or education. Only then would gender reliably differentiate the indubitably incompetent from the possibly talented. But if this were the situation, not only would there be no notable women in these fields, but there would be no need for excluding laws or regulations, for these only show, if perversely, a recognition that members of the excluded group are serious contenders for some opportunity. Privilege reveals its insecurity and lack of justification when it resorts to formal disqualification in order to hobble the rest of the field. Even under the most dismal hypothesis about women’s abilities formal discrimination cannot be justified.

This liberal argument from the worst possible case was advanced long since by John Stuart Mill. It affords insufficient comfort to most contemporary feminists, many of whom want an answer to the theoretical questions about the relative potentialities of the two sexes, and provides no guidance to those feminists and others who think that the serious practical issues of our own day have little to do with ending formal discrimination and much to do with overcoming subtler hindrances which impede women’s achievements. To identify these subtler hindrances it seems that some answer must be given to the theoretical questions about the fundamental nature and potentialities of the two sexes. Here feminists themselves are deeply divided. Some – notably Marxist feminists – hold that differences of attainment reflect the differing social and economic positions of the two sexes. Some radical feminists hold that differences of attainment indeed reflect fundamental differences of potential, but differ from male chauvinists in regarding female rather than male potentialities as superior. Seen in this perspective, the problem is not that women do not achieve enough but that we have been counting the wrong sorts of things as achievements. Liberal feminists for their part interpret differences of attainment as due in part to relics of discrimination (to be eliminated) and in part to the acceptable results of differing patterns of choice in taking up available opportunities.

Like other nature-nurture disputes, this one remains murky, despite quantities of empirical spadework. For the evidence brought to light by that spadework is nearly always of ambiguous significance. A glance back at the studies of girls’ education provides a good example of this ambiguity. Empirical studies have established clearly that most who go on to take engineering degrees are boys. But they have not shown why this is the case. Some suggest that it is because of subtle forms of discouragement which girls meet, both from their teachers and fellow pupils and from their families, if they try to do ‘boys’ subjects’, such as technical drawing or physics. Others suggest that the underlying reality is that girls’ abilities in these areas are less strong. Certainly girls themselves express preferences for other activities. However, these preferences might to a greater or lesser extent reflect or accommodate surrounding prejudices. No experimental determination of girls’ true potentialities and preferences in this area seems possible. We cannot, after all, isolate any group of girls from their society – and if we did their isolation would then become the salient feature of their lives, rather than an opening through which to detect inherent potentialities. At best we can note variations which show that not everything is determined by inherent potential. The available evidence about attainments can establish that certain attainments are within the capacities of each sex, but cannot show the limits of what is possible for either sex.

There are two ways in which this theoretical impasse might be overcome. On the one hand, there is the tempting thought that we might somehow acquire direct knowledge of what men and women are like independently of their social and cultural setting. Perhaps sociobiology or comparative ethology may lead us in this direction. On the other hand, there is the thought that if we can devise a system to peel away the onion layers of social and cultural formation, we will eventually come to see the basic range of human potentialities, and so the differences, if there are any other than the strictly biological, between men and women. This latter enterprise amounts to the construction of a theory of social and cultural formation and change. If we were to acquire direct knowledge of underlying human nature, a theory of social and cultural formation would be within our grasp, and vice versa. Lacking both, the theorist is left solving for too many unknowns. Like Rousseau, she or he may end up with no more than a hypothetical history, one of many possible stories which leads from a hypothetical starting-point, via a hypothetical theory of social and cultural formation, to a set of possibilities which includes the social arrangements and the distribution of abilities which we find in the present and in the historical record. Still, hypothetical histories may have their point: even if we cannot refute all alternative accounts, we may perhaps achieve a plausible and coherent vision across a wide angle. If the truth about human nature eludes us, a consistent story is not to be sniffed at – however, it might turn out that both feminists and male chauvinists can tell us consistent stories.

One of the most interesting debates about the nature of women and of men within modern feminism is conducted among those who would like to be both feminists and Marxists and their critics. Women’s Oppression Today, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, The Politics of Reproduction all make it clear that the marriage is indeed a difficult one, mainly because, as Barrett observes, ‘Marxism, constituted as it is around relations of appropriation and exploitation, is grounded in concepts that do not and could not address directly the gender of the exploiters and those whose labour is appropriated.’ Attempts to improve the union depend upon developing the thought that bourgeois marriage is a means of ensuring unique access to a woman, hence certainty of paternity and so of inheritance. This picture is incomplete, given the frequency with which monogamy has arisen without capitalism, and most Marxist feminists attempt to explain not bourgeois marriage but a more general form of domination, patriarchy, of which bourgeois marriage is but one instance. ‘Patriarchy’ is supposed to be a gender rather than a class-based mode of domination which explains the persistence of male domination over women in terms of women’s ties to ‘reproductive’ work. One difficulty in making this thought determinate is that patriarchy, unlike, say, capitalism or feudalism, has not been connected to any fundamental feature of the material basis. The sense in which women’s work, unlike men’s, is reproductive is often left unclear. Only a small fraction of women’s work, in which the labour is prominent, is literally reproductive of human beings. Marxist feminists have often argued that a great deal of other work of maintenance and socialisation is also reproductive of human beings: but they have also often assumed, rather than demonstrated, that this must be women’s work. If there is to be a division of labour between those who ‘reproduce’ the human fabric of society and those who reproduce its commodities, it is not clear why this should be a sexual division; even if it is a sexual division, it is not clear why the maintenance of domestic life should fall to women. The material basis of the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’ remains obscure, in spite of some of the most thoughtful discussions in contemporary feminism.

Insofar as the discussions of Marxist feminists put forward plausible accounts of the division of labour between men and women, these accounts are piecemeal and local. They point to historical transformations, such as the exclusion of middle-class women from productive (and most reproductive?) labour when the Industrial Revolution moved such work out of the home; to the repeated absorption of women into the labour force in times of national need and their expulsion in lean times; to the irreconcilability of the mobility of labour with careers for women as well as men, and to the impact of child-care responsibilities on women’s choice of work. All these explanations of the differences between men’s and women’s work presuppose a situation in which child-care and domestic responsibilities are already the task of women. They explain the marginal and vulnerable economic and social position of women through history only by assuming an original division of labour between the sexes in which women were the losers from the start, placed in a position of subordination which led on to pervasive and entrenched differentiation of the lives of men and women. Behind the debates on patriarchy and on changes in socio-economic formation there has to be some claim about women’s nature: only an original asymmetry of situation, it seems, could have led us to where we are. Even Marxist feminists must wonder whether there is some ultimate biological reason why men are the dominant sex in so many different socio-economic formations and why there are no matriarchies around. Hypothetical histories remain unconvincing if they contain only a theory of transformation and none of origins.

A traditional answer to the question of origin has been an appeal to biology, which may provide us with a chart of the fundamental features of men’s and women’s nature. Women are, after all, generally smaller and less strong than men and are burdened at times by pregnancies and lactation. Even if they have no other biologically-based handicaps these, coupled with a theory of social and cultural change and differentiation, may be enough to explain the discrepancies between men’s and women’s lives. Biology may be a large part of destiny even if history determines the variations on the underlying theme.

Until quite recently many feminists would have been loath to find that biology played any considerable part in determining the condition of women. Historical determinism might, after all, lead to a different future: but human biology remains largely unchanged through history, so offers no prospect of a better future. Sociobiology has thus acquired the reputation of being the most dismal and chauvinist of sciences – if indeed it is a science at all, and not, as many feminists suspect, merely chauvinism. This conception of the import of sociobiology is challenged in The Woman that Never Evolved. Hrdy claims that sociobiology can ‘dispel long-held myths about the nature of females’ by showing us ‘the most fundamental aspects of our own situation’ – provided we are willing to accept the fundamental evolutionist claim that the truest picture of our long extinct pre-cultural ancestors is to be found by studying surviving non-human primates. These primates, like ourselves, are the survivors of a competition for survival and reproduction which weighed as heavily on females as on males. It is therefore to be expected that the females of these species will reveal the adaptations which made their mothers the winners of the fiercest competition of all. The enterprise of being a primate involves rearing infants with prolonged dependency and fragility but high potential. Any strategy which secures the involvement or protection of more adults than the mother in an infant’s life is highly adaptive. One such strategy is clearly monogamy, which enables some primate mothers to cope with big babies and scant resources. But most primates are not monogamous, and most male primates do not provide food for dependent infants. Their contribution is usually limited to protection – or depredation. In these circumstances, Hrdy argues, the successful female is the one who protects her infant by securing the ultimate insurance policy against infanticide – the benevolent involvement of powerful males. To secure this, she may need to forge sexual relationships with these males, thereby confusing the issue of paternity. If females with multiple sexual liaisons thus have a reproductive advantage, this may explain why primate sexuality is not limited to brief and evidently discernible breeding seasons. The optimal reproductive strategy for primates exploits the uncertainty of paternity by enlisting many possible fathers on the infant’s behalf. Female primates in these circumstances must compete not just for food and so for territory, but for sexual bonds. Seen in this light, human monogamy and the consequent certainty of paternity has ‘eroded age-old female advantages’, and, unlike other female primates, women appear uncompetitive and submissive. Hrdy finds it ironic that feminists should ever have held sociobiology suspect: on her reading of the primate evidence, the well-adapted female primate is sexually competitive and economically independent, securing the survival of her offspring by competing successfully for food and males.

Sociobiology may have encouraging messages for female primates in general, but its implications for women seem far less reassuring. The contrast between the position of women and that of some of Hrdy’s favourite primates is wholly discouraging. Unfortunately this is where sociobiology ends, and Hrdy has only a few suggestions as to why, among humans, ‘females as a class are subjected to the sort of treatment that among other species would be rather randomly accorded to the more defenceless members of the group ... regardless of sex.’ Sociobiology, it seems, cannot account for women’s difficulties: if biology were destiny, women would not have those difficulties, unless indeed the human counterparts of successful female primates never evolved, despite the competition.

If Hrdy’s understanding of the implications of comparative biology and ethology for humans is plausible, the whole burden of explaining the differences between men’s and women’s lives must fall, not on biology, but on a theory of social and cultural transformation. Moreover, this theory would have to show, not merely how biologically-grounded differences may have been entrenched and exaggerated, but how the biological characteristics which make other female primates sexually assertive and economically independent have been eroded and replaced by mores of sexual deference and economic subordination. Hypothetical history would then have a larger task than Rousseau supposed: it must explain not merely the persistence of male domination but its emergence.

Whether or not sociobiology leaves us with an encouraging account of the underlying nature of women, an understanding of our present, vastly different situation would also need a general theory of social and cultural formation and transformation. Yet such theories can only be based on and make sense of the recorded differences between men and women in the small known range of social and cultural situations. They may be intellectually fascinating or maddening constructions, but are hardly convincing: we cannot peer behind the façade of social and cultural formation to discover which outward features mask or distort and which truly mirror or express an underlying nature. In spite of this difficulty, it is common, if epistemologically shaky, strategy to proceed as though we possessed accounts of women’s nature, and in particular of female sexuality, and so could not merely examine but also ‘unmask’ certain inaccurate and distorting views of women’s nature.

Feminist attempts to ‘unmask’ and discredit images of women which they hold to be misleading or oppressive have concentrated on the dismal and sordid views of women (and often enough of men) which have been advanced by pornographers, and the distressingly similar views expressed by some doctors, lawyers and sexologists. Pornography and Silence, Female Sexuality and the Law, The Myth of Masculinity, Pornography: Men Possessing Women and many of the contributions to Women: Sex and Sexuality are all devoted to this subject.

We can learn from these studies of ‘images of women’, and even from the discovery of women who match the images, at best that a certain possibility exists, but not whether that possibility is a distortion or a realisation of women’s nature. Similarly with images of masculinity and the discovery of men who match these images. There is no method by which we can demonstrate, even to the pornographer, that his picture of women distorts. Appeals to examples of women who have been accomplished thinkers or politically effective or personally independent do not on the whole settle arguments with chauvinists, who notoriously see such women as suffering pathology rather than success. Such women are said to think and live like men, and, more specifically, to negotiate or take sexual initiatives or drive bargains like men. (No doubt sex chauvinists put a parallel construction on the achievements of men who are graceful or unaggressive or nurturing.) The deep theory of male chauvinism cannot be refuted by counter-examples because it is a theory about the nature of women and men, and so allows that some denatured women may do male things (and conversely), just as some denatured dogs lead manicured lives. Counter-examples work only against those who have committed themselves to universal generalisations. It is then impossible for feminists to undermine male chauvinism by any recording of women’s achievements, however impressive. It is also impossible for male chauvinists to establish their views by any rehearsal of women’s failures and shortcomings, however dismal.

This theoretical impasse need not discourage feminists, for it entails no practical stalemate. If there are good reasons for thinking that diligent research cannot lay bare the inherent nature of either sex, nor establish that definitive theory of social formation and transformation which will reveal the limits of the possible for each sex, then we can establish no sufficient reasons for denying either opportunities or benefits on the basis of gender alone, and no sufficient reasons for holding that the patterns of gender differentiation with which we are familiar are the only possibilities. A more optimistic and less theoretical literature of gender studies might concentrate less on the record of insults and defeats and attend more closely to practical strategies for wresting local victories and enlarged possibilities from the world-historic defeat. Such gains may be achievable even if we cannot know whether they represent the recovery of an ancient domain or exploration beyond all settled frontiers.