War Between the Sexes

For the past few months, I have participated in an online reading group with the Libertia Society.  We have been reading from Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), and last night we read an excerpt from Jane Anger’s Her Protection for Women, published in 1589.

Anger was writing to contribute to male-dominated debates on the “natural condition of women.”

Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a-madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing.  Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women?

First: I love the prose in this piece.  I read most of it out loud to myself, because it reminded me of Shakespeare.  It was immediately clear that this was not philosophy, and the vibrant language was part of that.  It’s more like a 16th Century op-ed– written to incite debate, not to reveal metaphysical truths.

Anger builds her argument that the cause for the war between the sexes (my term, not hers) is that women are essentially good and men are essentially bad.  Men love women for their goodness, but resent feeling the pressure to suppress their bad natures.  Because women are so good and humble and virtuous, they don’t enter the debate to defend themselves, and that’s why the men have built up such a library of work that rail against women.  Anger agrees that:

it is most manifest that the man is the head of the woman and that therefore we ought to be guided by them

But just because the men are the boss, doesn’t mean women aren’t superior:

The gods, knowing that the minds of mankind would be aspiring, and having thoroughly viewed the wonderful virtues wherewith women are enriched, lest they should provoke us to pride and so confound us with Lucifer, they bestowed the supremacy over us to man,that of the coxcomb he might only boast, and therefore for God’s sake let them keep it.

So, basically, women have all the virtues, but men have the ability to boast about them–because the gods didn’t want to tempt women with pride.  A Shakespeare-dork like me loves this kind of comedy.

We are contrary to men because they are contrary to that which is good.  Because they are spurblind they cannot see into our natures, and we too well, though we had but half an eye, into their conditions because they are so bad; our behaviours alter daily because men’s virtues decay hourly.

Confession time: I sincerely do not believe that all men are bad and that all women are good.  As one of our discussion partners stated at the very beginning: these are gross generalizations, and, therefore, useless.  But I did enjoy reading this; I delighted in it.  It reminded me of moments in college, while reading Aristotle or Shakespeare who describe women as stupid, animal, slavish.  My male classmates grinned at each other and the females bristled.  It was unfair to hear the male philosophers ignorantly describe women, so I loved seeing the counter-argument.  But that’s the whole problem with the war between the sexes–even as it’s perpetuated in the media today.  When we pick a side and make judgments on a collective of humans, whether it’s based on race, gender, age, ability, etc, we distance ourselves from real human relationships.  The problem Anger identifies, that men resent having their vices corrected by the goodness of women, is a refusal to be vulnerable.  Every one of us needs to open and vulnerable, to be humble enough to acknowledge when we are wrong.

I’m not saying anything new.

The purpose of Anger’s article is to respond to a book about the Surfeit in Love.  The male author of that book wants to warn men not to enjoy the company of women too much, because then they will suffer the discomfort of surfeit (excess or uncomfortably full due to excessive eating or drinking).  Anger responds with advice to women to protect themselves, “A goose standing before a ravenous fox is in as good case as the woman that trusteth to a man’s fidelity.”  She cites an author, Tibellus, who set rules for women to follow so that they don’t create lust in the men who look at them:

Tibellus, setting down a rule for women to follow, might have proportioned this platform for men to rest in and might have said: every honest man ought to shun that which detracteth both health and safety from his own person, and strive to bridle his slanderous tongue.  Then must he be modest and show his modesty by his virtuous and civil behaviours, and not display his beastliness through his wicked and filthy words.

Change the wording a little, and you have a modern argument against street harassment.  We still blame women for wearing short skirts or low-cut blouses when they get harassed, yet most of the women on the Stop Street Harassment blog note that they were not wearing provocative clothing when they were harassed.  Anger’s argument is that the men should be taught how to control their own behavior, instead of placing the responsibility on the women.

If we clothe ourselves in sackcloth and truss up our hair in [dishcloths], [vulgar men] will nevertheless pursue their pastime.  If we hide our breasts it must be with leather, for no cloth can keep their long nails out of our bosoms.

Anger declares that a man’s motive is never for love, but only for lust.  He will imagine that every woman he desires also desires him, and he will tell her anything and everything to sleep with her.  Sound familiar?

At the end of men’s fair promises there is a labyrinth, and therefore ever hereafter stop your ears when they protest friendship, lest they come to an end before you are aware, whereby you fall without redemption.  The path which leadeth thereunto is man’s wit, and the miles-ends are marked with these trees: folly, vice, mischief, lust, deceit, and pride.  These to deceive you shall be clothed in the raiments of fancy, virtue, modesty, love, true-meaning, and handsomeness.

Why do we continue to repeat these lies about each other?  They are repeated constantly in TV shows, blogs, articles, academic studies…

It’s tempting to believe that all men are liars, rather than deal with the painful misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of any relationship.  Women tell each other lies, tell themselves lies, to feel better about rejection.  For me, this article was like candy, and once the sugar-high wore off, I felt sick.


Just this morning I read another obituary for my favorite author, Terry Pratchett.  I have been reading Wintersmith, the third Tiffany Aching story.  Tiffany is a witch-in-training, living with 113-year-old Miss Treason.  In Discworld, magical people like witches and wizards always know when they’re going to die.  Miss Treason  has time to plan a “Going Away Party” where she can give away her things and the witches decide who will take over her cottage.  The witches act like unofficial magistrates and country doctors.  They get their authority by being clever, odd, and even scary.  Tiffany learns that Miss Treason has made up most of the rumors about herself, e.g. that she has a demon living in her basement, that her heart died years ago and she replaced it with a clock that she wears around her belt, that she eats spiders.

This is where Terry Pratchett brilliantly illustrates those illusive things called human relationships.  The villagers are afraid of Miss Treason, but they’re also proud of her.  She keeps skulls on her mantle, but Tiffany discovered that they’re fake, from “Boffo Novelty and Joke Shop.”

Miss Treason sighed.  ‘Oh, my silly people.  Anything they don’t understand is magic.  They think I can see into their hearts, but no witch can do that. Not without surgery, at least.  No magic is needed to read their little minds, though.  I’ve known them since they were babies.  I remember when their grandparents were babes!  They think they’re so grown up!  But they’re still no better than babies in the sandpit, squabbling over mud pies.  I see their lies and excuses and fears.  They never grow up, not really.  They never look up and open their eyes.   They stay children their whole lives.’

It’s a witch’s job to care for the silly people, and also be smarter than them.  Witches can only be honest with other witches.  But witches have to keep an eye on each other, to keep them from going batty:

You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap.  But you didn’t because, as Miss Tick had once explained: a) it would only make the world a better place for a very short time; b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and c) you’re not supposed to be as stupid as they are.

Tiffany stays up with Miss Treason the night before she is supposed to die.  Miss Treason teaches her how to play cards.  Then they get up and discover the whole town is waiting out front to say good-bye to their witch.  Miss Treason has had a grave dug already, and Tiffany is horrified when she realizes that Miss Treason is going to march into her own grave.

Miss Treason had stopped to organize the crowd.  “The custom is to give that one to the owner of the dog.  You should have kept the bitch in, after all, and minded your fences.  And your question, Mister Blinkhorn?”

Tiffany stood up straight.  They were bothering her!  Even this morning!  But she … wanted to be bothered.  Being bothered was her life.

So despite all the pettiness and annoyance, a witch needs her people, like a shepherd needs his sheep.  Even in the last moments before death, you can imagine even a witch as old as Miss Treason is scared of what happens next, but she spends those minutes caring for her people, taking full advantage of their small-mindedness.

I thought writing this blog post would help me articulate what I find so fascinating about the Discworld witches.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel this moral is vitally important.  I certainly have my interactions foolish, lazy, and untruthful people– we all do.  So why is it vitally important that we don’t simply slap them?  It has something to do with love and need and community.

Pratchett touches on this concept again in my favorite Discworld novel: Night Watch:

People on the side of The People always ended up disapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

Perhaps it’s a simple as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”