Women in Power
Mary Beard wants to explore the unconscious cultural supports of women’s exclusion from power, but her recourse to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland strikes me as a mistake (LRB, 16 March). She commends the fictional community of Gilman’s novel as a ‘magnificent utopia: clean and tidy, collaborative, peaceful (the cats have stopped killing the birds), brilliantly organised in everything from its sustainable agriculture and delicious food to its social services and education.’ This ‘exemplary state’, Beard notes, is located ‘in some remote, still unexplored part of the globe’ – but the novel in fact tells us a little more. Herland exists on a plateau at the top of a mountain in a jungle region inhabited by black savages who function in the book as primitive racial foils to the ideal civilisation that has established its superiority in the most literal way possible. ‘Women are still perceived as belonging outside power,’ Beard argues. ‘The shared metaphors we use of female access to power – knocking on the door, storming the citadel, smashing the glass ceiling, or just giving them a leg up – underline female exteriority.’ Gilman’s novel expels white men from the citadel only to repopulate it with white women, a project fully in line with Gilman’s evolutionary feminism, which is additionally compromised by a social and genetic, as well as a cultural and sexual, supremacism: the primary aim of the Herland community is the ‘progress of the race’, to which end women considered ‘bad stock’ are not permitted to reproduce.
University of York
Mary Beard may be doing Charlotte Perkins Gilman a disservice when she interprets the ending of With Her in Ourland, the sequel to Herland, as a capitulation to patriarchy. It would be an odd change of heart on Gilman’s part, even if the final sentence to the sequel (‘In due time a son was born to us’) does imply a male future for the parthenogenetic Herlanders, who have developed the capacity to conceive girls without male intervention. Beard is right, of course, to recognise the ‘mastery’ of Terry by the women of Herland, following his attempted marital rape of Alima, as a key event in the earlier novel. But the tendency to see female autonomy and strength as the only utopian aspiration eclipses the fact that what constitutes progress in the novel is gradual male improvement – an evolutionary pathway that brutes like Terry fall away from.
In her much earlier work, Women and Economics, Gilman (then Stetson) deplores the ‘morbid’ development of sex distinction, which in her view created a social environment that led women to depend on men for their survival. Other contemporary commentators thought the same, but Gilman was distinctive in believing the solution to this problem lay not in female liberation, but male progress. She cites the 19th-century American sociologist Lester Ward’s reference to ‘the millions and millions of years when puny, pygmy, parasitic males struggled for existence’, and presents the long current phase of male dominance as a strategic policy on the part of the female sex to bring males up to their level. Women, in Gilman’s scheme, have been playing a long evolutionary game: ‘With a full knowledge of the initial superiority of her sex and the sociological necessity for its temporary subversion, she should feel only a deep and tender pride in the long patient ages during which she has waited and suffered, that man might slowly rise to full racial equality with her.’
Like the Greek myths, the Christian foundational story of power ‘serves to keep women out of it’. It gives the supporting role of mother of God to a virgin who conceives without sex and gives birth without labour. What is less well known than it used to be is that Mary was attended by midwives. The apocryphal Legend of the Doubting Midwife tells how Joseph finds two midwives, who arrive after the birth. One falls to her knees and worships, but the other, the true professional, insists on a post-partum examination. On touching the sacred vagina, her hand is withered and blasted. Healed by touching the baby, she is portrayed in early modern paintings as sad, puzzled and chastened. Such is the fate of the uppity female professional.
These midwives appeared in countless representations and retellings of the Nativity down the centuries. Yet while male art historians have analysed the iconography of the Magi, the shepherds, even the ox and the ass, they have tended not to notice the women also present. If mentioned at all, they have usually been dismissed as ‘servants’ or ‘handmaidens’. Their rediscovery has been left to feminist scholars.
From Florence Nightingale on, we female professionals in nursing and midwifery have slowly raised our status by being nice girls. We burnish our lamps and keep smiling as we obey the doctors and managers. We play the game while trying to change the rules, and where that isn’t possible, to subvert them. We hate patronising politicians and Carry On stereotypes. Investment in high-quality nursing and midwifery is a neglected solution to the NHS crisis, but to empower nurses and midwives further goes against the cultural grain. The higher up the hierarchy one rises in the health system, the fewer women one meets, though the majority of health workers are women. We continue to be excluded from many top tables, and find when we get there that our talk of birth, death and caring makes the chaps uncomfortable.
Lewes, East Sussex
Mary Beard wonders ‘if, in some places, the presence of large numbers of women in the national legislature means that that is where the power is not’. The latest United Nations Human Development Report gives statistics for 2015 on women’s development as a proportion of men’s and women’s share of seats in national parliaments. The data indicate that many countries with relatively high proportions of women MPs also have low women’s development compared with men’s, measured in terms of life expectancy, years of schooling and income. For example, Bolivia, Senegal and Ethiopia rank second (52 per cent), fifth (43 per cent) and 20th (37 per cent) when the measure is the number of women in parliament. (Rankings are from the 157 countries for which both sets of data are available.) But they rank only 98th, 122nd and 139th when it comes to women’s development.
At the other extreme, the parliaments of Russia, Brazil and Thailand are only 15 per cent (113th), 11 per cent (133rd) and 6 per cent (146th) female. But in each of these countries women’s development is better than men’s: they rank eighth, 14th and 18th respectively. Qatar, which has no female MPs, ranks 30th for women’s development.
The figures for the UK and the US are 26.7 per cent (49th) and 19.5 per cent (83rd) as to women in their parliaments, but they are ranked 69th and 27th for women’s development. Kenya, whose president was publicly chided by Barack Obama last year for its women’s lowly status, has more female MPs than the US, with 20.8 per cent (70th), despite ranking 113th in women’s development. And Afghanistan has more female MPs than the UK and the US, at 27.4 per cent (46th), but lies bottom (157th) for women’s development.
The world average for women MPs is 22.5 per cent. On the UN index of human development, women’s development is at parity with or greater than men’s in 20 countries. Overall there is only a 21 per cent positive correlation between women’s share of parliamentary seats and the level of their human development compared with men’s, and only a 19 per cent correlation with human development in general.
What isn’t clear is what Beard sees as the purpose of women having greater power.
Draw what you see
‘The hostility of the 1960s is palpable,’ Rosemary Hill writes of Gerald Scarfe’s drawing of Winston Churchill on his last day in the House of Commons in 1964 (LRB, 30 March). Scarfe himself takes a different view: recently, on the Radio 3 programme Essential Classics, he mentioned the drawing as one of his more sympathetic, sad rather than aggressive. He described how, sent by the Times to draw Churchill, he was shocked to see ‘this shambling wreck of a man’. As an artist, Scarfe said, he was obliged to draw what he saw. The Times refused to print it, out of respect for Lady Churchill’s feelings; instead, it appeared on the cover of Private Eye. The drawing now hangs in the House of Commons.
The Last London
I enjoyed reading Iain Sinclair’s ‘The Last London’, as I’ve enjoyed reading about his other dérives through the city I walk in every day (LRB, 30 March). The only thing about his city I don’t recognise is that it appears to have only ever been described by, appreciated by, and mostly populated by men. The only mentions of women are a ‘Polish policewoman’, ‘two young mothers … texting and being yapped at by older kids while the youngest child circled on her scooter’, ‘my wife’ (with a great quip), and in a final quote the poet Tom Raworth’s mention that ‘air hostesses of all nationalities have served me and remember my face.’
Nameless young mothers, a policewoman and air hostesses. There is some hope for the girl on the scooter. Every single artist, writer, labourer, hawker, shopkeeper, ghost and ghoul who haunts Sinclair’s London is male. I was taught at school how to put myself in the shoes of male writers, to appreciate what appeals to them (feminine beauty especially). But I am sick of those shoes. There are plenty of women who have made a mark on London, who have tramped the streets, and watched and changed them: architects, suffragists, women writers, artists, performers and film-makers, not to mention all the women who live in the city now, many of whom marched a few weeks ago, displaying humour and determination, to show that we are here and paying attention. It seems defensive to list the women I am thinking of: there are so many, and certainly every writer and artist has their own canon to call on, so why should Sinclair mention any from mine? But to repopulate the city, here is a very short selection of women who have written about the ever changing experience of living in London: Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Angela Carter, Zadie Smith. Among the artists who have shown us various sides of London: Gillian Wearing, Janet Cardiff, Rachel Whiteread, Ruth Ewan, Oreet Ashery. I am angry and sad about what is happening to London (and to the rest of the country), and about many of the same things Sinclair is angry about. But I feel shut out of his city.
Like Iain Sinclair, I too walk on the canal path between Victoria Park and Broadway Market, but in many years of doing so I’ve never seen anybody fall into the canal. Sinclair, on the other hand, reports witnessing two such episodes, apparently within a short interval of time. Correlation doesn’t entail causation, but I can’t help asking whether these incidents might be correlated with the presence of a psychogeographer wandering dreamily in search of evocative connections in the middle of the path.
Peter M. Smith lists the ‘fight against … illegal drugs’ among Richard Nixon’s achievements as president (Letters, 16 March). Intended to stop the cultivation of, trade in, and use of illegal drugs, the ‘war on drugs’ has, this last forty years, had the opposite effect. The trade in illegal drugs is one of the most valuable and profitable international markets; the quantities available are greater now than they were then; the quality of the substances traded is higher; prices have been stable or have fallen; and the number of drug users globally hasn’t significantly changed. The illegality of the trade has led to conflict in many countries and regions, with tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of deaths, in South America in particular. Currently, the government of the Philippines is mounting a campaign of mass murder and judicial killing, using drugs as its justification.
The war on drugs has become a war on drug users, as the size and demography of the present US prison population shows. The concentration of efforts in South America can be seen as a continuation of the imperialist policy of regional interference, while the refusal of successive US administrations to look closer to home for the drivers of the drugs trade – the demand for illegal drugs in the US and other ‘advanced’ nations’, and their failure to act to reduce that demand – has left the trade in illegal drugs virtually unchanged since Nixon took his ill-advised decision.
If one Peter Smith may comment on another Peter Smith’s letter, please allow me to point out that where Donald Trump plans to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts altogether, Richard Nixon’s funding of the arts was very substantial – at least by American standards. (This is another letter written by a male about a letter about a male written by a male.)
Peter D. Smith
Take as much as you like
Craig Sams has reversed his chemistry (Letters, 30 March). It is heroin (diacetylmorphine) which, when boiled in water (or metabolised in the liver), is converted into morphine (via 6-acetylmorphine). It was successfully marketed by Bayer, but was first synthesised in England, by Charles Alder Wright in 1874.
I grew up on a remote farm in Finland in the 1950s. My grandmother was in charge of the medicine chest, where she kept supplies of various potions and powders. There were camphor drops that consisted of one part camphor, three parts ether and six parts spirits, that were taken on a lump of sugar and were good for ‘a weak heart’ and for earache in children. The powders or pulveri came in little envelopes and were for headache and low moods in adults. In the village lore, repeated in hushed tones, a farmer’s wife became addicted to the powders and was once found sleeping it off in a pigsty. In view of the previous correspondence about the heroin in circulation in Finland I wonder what was in those little envelopes.
Neither an MP nor a Peer
Stephen Sedley and David Elstein suggest Frank Cousins and Patrick Gordon Walker respectively as examples of ministers holding office while neither an MP nor a peer (LRB, 2 March and Letters, 30 March). But Alec Douglas-Home is the best example. He was appointed prime minister on 19 October 1963 while a member of the House of Lords; he disclaimed his peerage on 23 October and, following a by-election, became an MP on 8 November. So for twenty days he was prime minister without a seat in the Commons and for 16 days without a seat in either house.
To Know the King
Jane Wong Yeang Chui comments interestingly on John Watts’s review of my book Henry V: The Conscience of a King (Letters, 30 March). But I must take issue with her assumption that my purpose was ‘to know Henry, less as a king than as an individual’. On the contrary, I tried to explain and understand a specific individual’s behaviour as a later medieval ruler. But her argument that Henry V’s personal and unique characteristics ‘tell us more about the period than … about Henry himself’ raises important methodological questions. This kind of thinking can sometimes reduce individuals to the role of mouthpieces, or reflectors, of their ‘period’. Or they can be seen to be at the mercy of ill-defined impersonal forces, depriving them of the capacity for independent action. This latter-day determinism may also deny significance to the eccentric and unconventional (Edward II of England, Louis XI of France) and risks imposing a drab uniformity on a class of whom certain common qualities and characteristics were undoubtedly expected, but who, like Henry V, could choose – within the constraints imposed by law, custom, power relationships and convention – to interpret and apply those qualities in different ways.
We are also told that ‘people’ in the later Middle Ages saw their kings as bad, good or weak. They had no interest in them as individuals, even less in their consciences. But some 15th-century ‘people’ – confessors, intellectuals, political and moral theorists, advisers, counsellors and others among their influential, literate subjects – were certainly exercised about the workings of the ruler’s conscience. A ruler’s first duty, it was thought, besides his responsibility for the welfare of his subjects, was to himself – that is, to listen to the dictates of his own conscience. And the simplistic categories of ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘weak’ kings won’t wash any more. Abstract judgments on rulers can be very blunt instruments, informed, as they often are, by criteria of success, failure, capability or incapacity, themselves essentially time-bound.
We will never come to ‘know’ Henry V as a human being, but the fact remains that we can ‘hear the king himself speaking’, and begin to understand some of ‘his thoughts, beliefs and actions’ as expressed in his own dictated letters and other sources. And why should that not be a legitimate – and in this case arguably feasible – object of historical inquiry?