Sex & Sensibility

Thinking About Women.
by Mary Ellmann.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 229 pp. $4.95.

Mary Ellmann's book, Thinking About Women, is a diatribe against a stereotype. She is evidently subtly and humorously against all stereotypes and might have wittily written against the concept of the Jew, the New Englander, the Negro, the Southerner, but instead she chose to inveigh against the woman, or rather what various fine minds have written on the subject. The tone is light, a little self-consciously clever, but with many good jibes and bright points made. How may one take hold of it? One wonders, in particular, how will the male reviewer take hold of this sticky, tricky subject. For with her female deadliness (there I go playing the game she derides), she has convicted him out of his own mouth ahead of time. But in this case, the reviewer comfortably at home with the writer in the family of woman's fate, finds herself in a familiar battleground, recognizing the strategems, the few victories, and the many defeats of the scene.

Mary Ellmann begins with what she calls “the sexual analogy,” by which she means the false sexual analogy. It has been, she says, a handy device used readily, even eagerly, to delimit woman's emotional and intellectual nature, for it has been assumed that her larger character somehow corresponds to her sexual character. The parallel assumption was that man's attainments (superior, of course) somehow comfortably corresponded to his own sexual nature.

It is a temptation to quote:

The same fixed mode of thought runs uninterruptedly beneath the seeming expansion of our modern intellectual opinions. For example, when Bruno Bettelheim characterizes the male mind as expansive and exploratory and the female mind as interiorizing, it is ludicrously clear that he envisages a mental copulation between the two. So too when Louis Auchincloss characterizes several American women novelists as conservers or caretakers. And when Norman Mailer pronounces that “Temples are for women.” The female mind is repeatedly seen as an enclosed space in which what other and (as we always say) seminal minds have provided is stored away or tended or worshipped.

She then turns the tables, or at least turns things convincingly upside down in a most modern instance showing the nonsense of strict sexual parallels: the “astronaut's body [is] as awkward . . . as the body of a pregnant woman.” “Like a woman being carted to a delivery room, the astronaut must sit (or lie) still, and go where he is sent. Even the nerve, the genuine courage it takes simply not to run away, is much the same in both situations—to say nothing of the shared sense of having gone too far to be able to change one's mind.”

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The writer spares neither of her protagonists, the man who preens himself on the simple superiority of being male, or the woman who dramatizes herself simply as a woman. What she is against in either case is pomposity. She cites with wicked delight in having found an apt illustration Robert Lowell's fatuous praise of Marianne Moore: “She is the best woman poet in English.” She is equally devastating about women congratulating themselves portentously on the creativity of giving birth: “They are, I think, slowly persuaded to befuddle the issue (in every sense) with creativity.”

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Following “the sexual analogy,” Miss Ellmann discusses what she calls “phallic criticism,” the way men (mostly men) misread women's writing because they cannot think of women as anything but women. She puts it nicely: “With a kind of inverted fidelity, the discussion of women's books by men will arrive punctually at the point of preoccupation, which is the fact of femininity. Books by women are treated as though they themselves were women, and criticism embarks, at its happiest, upon an intellectual measuring of busts and hips.”

The book continues with a section on “feminine stereotypes,” as formlessness, passivity, instability, materiality, and spirituality, etc. etc., ending with two types she rather relishes as woman's revenge: “The Shrew and the Witch.” Miss Ellmann shows how, as one century melts into another, the mode of feeling changes, and what was one generation's stereotype is rejected by the next, or passed rather freely back and forth among the sexes. She makes the point that the fashionable kind of American male protagonist of today's novels is no longer heroic but anti-heroic, no longer strong, but weak, in fact, rather congratulated by present-day criticism for feminine virtues, on being so feeling as to be unstable, so sensitive as to be rather a mess emotionally. She seems to be thinking of some of Saul Bellow's characters, who trample all the proprieties in their splendid abandon of uncontrolled emotion. She is witty here too: “Ours is preeminently a literature of disturbed men in mechanical motion (Chevrolets, Dodges and Volkswagens predominate).”

Her examples in fact are most often taken not from life but from literature. Thinking About Women is a book of attitudes culled from the prose that literate men and women read and is, therefore, fashionable rather than profound. One might compare it with Octavio Paz's study of what it is to be Mexican in The Labyrinth of Solitude. In his narrowings of focus he closes in upon irreducible traits of character taken from life not literature, and so has spoken truth. Mary Ellmann merely hits a glancing blow in the direction of truth. She does not go beyond certain entertaining readings and glosses upon other writers who chime in with their delicious ineptitudes or consensuses. She might have, but did not, wonder at and make a study of woman as she converts herself into a stereotype to please or to suit herself to society. She does not take up the case of the writer of gifts, who is a woman, making first-rate literature out of woman's particular place in the social order: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, etc. This would be to walk beyond the boundaries of her agreeable study.

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Toward the end of the book there is a section of “responses,” in which attitudes on the perpetual question beg to be cited from the reading the author has done. In this section literary criticism gets the better of social analysis, and her original subject gets lost in the very fineness of her attention to her examples. These are not simply men and women, but writers. The stereotype which Mary Ellmann has been dragging like a heavy and expensive piece of luggage on her trek through the wilds of modern literature is lost in the tall grass, and she reverts to being what she undoubtedly is by nature, a keen literary critic. For the stereotype, even when ridiculed, has ended at last in becoming a bore. That is what it is in life, even to its victims. Anyone who is a woman, especially one who reads or writes, is used to men's (or women's) printed prejudices. They are like a bad climate. But you go on living under that sun, for luckily there are other things: real love and hate, real men, real women.

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