Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society by Dorothy Sayers, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1971.
This book was #39 of the 40 books I read in 2018. I’d long wanted to read it, and finally got myself a copy. I should have read it before now! After the book list post, someone left this comment: “Of all the many (not to mention great) books on your list I’m the most excited to see that you read…Are Women Human? – I keep buying copies of this book to give to others!”
I’ll assume you are familiar with Sayers, but quickly…She was a British Christian, scholar, author, and friends with some of the Inklings such as CS Lewis. She is known for writing both non-fiction and fiction, the later would be the detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.
Are Women Human? is only 69 pages long, and that includes a 15 page introduction and then 2 chapters which are essays. The first chapter begins “When I was asked to come and speak to you” so it was apparently originally a talk. With the book’s brevity, I don’t want to reveal too much to you, as it deserves to be read in its entirety. Her writing is easy to read, witty at times, as she covers this thoughtful topic and offers keen analysis.
Essentially Sayers peels back the layers to get to the underlying reasons for women (and sometimes men too) being treated in a certain way. I’ve shared my frustrating experiences and observations in this regard on the blog, but I was only sharing the symptom not the root cause.
As a woman with certain proclivities and a seminary degree, it was/is assumed that I want to do women’s ministry. Why is this the assumption?! Especially since working exclusively with women does NOT appeal to me at all. I prefer mixed-sex settings, or using my gifts more broadly in the church. A man in the church with similar proclivities as me does NOT have everyone assume he wants to do exclusive men’s ministry!!!!
Dorothy Sayers gets to the heart of this. Women are viewed as women FIRST, and as human beings SECOND. Thus the book’s title: Are women human?
“What is repugnant to every human being is being reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” – Yes! Yes! Yes!
Sayers has critique on both sides here. This is not only about Christians or conservatives backing women into small corners. Certain types of secular feminists can fall into the same problem, in that they want to do whatever a man can do. That is not the point. Doing something that does not fit you as an individual, just to prove something, is not what this is about. This is about letting human beings be human beings! If a woman is mechanically inclined or has a knack for engineering, she should be able to fulfill her potential in this area. If a woman has more stereotypical female proclivities, great, she can pursue that. And men too! The best human being for the job should do it.
My husband is a nurse. Too often the word male is put before that. He is a “male nurse.” No. He is just a nurse. Men can be caring and have proclivities that make them good nurses too. By the way, I do substitute preaching. I am not a female preacher, just a preacher. Women can have preaching gifts too.
Conservative Christians, and secular folks as well, can treat men and women almost like they are two different species. (Think…men are from Mars and women are from Venus.) The church has less excuse because we believe in the Imago Dei (image of God). In reference to women being referred to as the opposite sex, Sayers says:
“But the fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world. They are human beings. Vir is male and femina is female, but homo is male and female.” Yet… “Man is always dealt with as both homo and vir, but woman only as femina.”
We sadly limit the beautiful image of God in this world when we don’t see:
men as homo and vir -and-
women as homo and femina.
Even sadder is when women themselves do not see their own humanity! It is a real problem in my area of the Bible Belt. A large local church has this…troubling…book and curriculum. (More here.)
I can’t do this brief book justice. If you don’t think my thoughts are logical or properly explanatory, Sayers is thorough. I’ll end with a well-known statement by Sayers from the end of the book. I actually did not know it was from this book, and pleased when I reached the end and came to it:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.”
More on Jesus’ treatment of women here.
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