The One Where D.H. Lawrence and Dorothy Sayers Told Me That I Am Human

by Stephanie Nicole Nordby

Each month Blogos features an article created in partnership with the Logos Institute’s Logia initiative. This month’s Logia post is by Stephanie Nicole Nordby. More information about Logia and additional articles are available here.

To the younger among us in the academy, Dorothy Sayers’ ‘Are Women Human?’ seems at times to have been written today and at others to be written on another planet. Sayers was a novelist, poet, and classicist; she was not a philosopher or social theorist. ‘Are Women Human?’, however, is not a lecture on writing, poetry, or classics. Instead, it contains Sayers’ (rather begrudging) reflections on the nature of womanhood and the relationship between women and their occupations.

Much of what Sayers says is anachronistic: Sayers’ famous 1938 address to a women’s society includes language that shocks millennials like myself and belies current epistemological trends relating to the embodied nature of knowledge. At one point, Sayers remarks,

I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands, one can only say, “Go away and don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.”[1]

Some feminist epistemologists would disagree with what the aforementioned assessment entails about the nature of knowledge. Still other readers might object to the way Sayers’ essay presumes the dualisms and binaries that have so long permeated discussions of gender: Increased attention to underrepresented groups and improvements in our understanding of human biology has complicated our understanding of what it means to be male or female, man or woman, and shown that there is still so much discussion to be had about terms we have so long taken for granted.

Still, I find Sayers’ frankness and insight remarkable, especially considering that the address is 80 years old as of this year. When I stumbled across this little talk a few months into my entrée into graduate school, I was struck by the sensibleness of her central observation:

Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general. And though for certain purposes it may still be necessary, as it undoubtedly was in the immediate past, for women to band themselves together, as women, to secure recognition of their requirements as a sex, I am sure that the time has now come to insist more strongly on each woman’s—and indeed each man’s—requirements as an individual person.[2]

Sayers’ comments were not so much directed at the feminist program of the day or what manner of activism is best.[3] Rather, the central claim of her address is simply the unexceptional proposition that women are human beings. Sayers proceeds to give extended examples in which sexist statements or questions of gender propriety are rendered preposterous, strange, and even flatly ridiculous once individual women are considered qua human rather than, to quote D.H. Lawrence, ‘as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, a machine, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopædia, an ideal or an obscenity.’[4]

The idea that I could consider myself, my interests, and my abilities as a human being, and not only as a woman, had never occurred to me. I personally cannot blame Christian teaching or even ecclesial culture since the idea that my entire existence was encompassed by this thing called ‘womanhood’ pre-existed exposure to either. (I was not raised in a particular religious tradition.) So far as I can tell, the strange philosophy that women are not quite human—at least, not the way men are human—was ambient in my surroundings, and it was absorbed by me—and at that, unquestioningly.

When I then revisited the Bible, the book that had been my favourite since I first laid my hands on one at age 11, you can imagine how differently I read it. As a young Christian, I had always related to the men in Scripture, much to my frustration. Now it made sense: They were human, like me. That, perhaps, is the appeal of my religion’s strange book, and it is an appeal that is sometimes robbed from women in a way it is given freely to men: It is God’s revelation, wrapped up in the fragile threads of human experience. It was this quality that long ago wooed me but had never before been apparent. Women are human, and the Bible speaks to us, too.

What we women do with this book is likely as varied as human beings themselves. Women are a diverse group of creatures, just as men are. They have unique experiences, ideas, and ways of interpreting the world. Their stories are multifaceted and curious, and I would not expect anything less from individuals belonging to the human race. The remark by D.H. Lawrence referenced above is quoted by Sayers in regard to this very phenomenon:

“Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, a machine, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopædia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.”[5]

“Accepted as a human being!”—yes; not as an inferior class and not, I beg and pray all feminists, as a superior class—not, in fact, as a class at all, except in a useful context. We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served. There is a fundamental difference between men and women, but it is not the only fundamental difference in the world. There is a sense in which my charwoman [cleaner] and I have more in common than either of us has with, say, Mr. Bernard Shaw; on the other hand, in a discussion about art and literature, Mr. Shaw and I should probably find we had more fundamental interests in common than either of us had with my charwoman. I grant that, even so, he and I should disagree ferociously about the eating of meat—but that is not a difference between the sexes—on that point, that late Mr. G. K. Chesterton would have sided with me against the representative of his own sex. Then there are points on which I, and many of my own generation of both sexes, should find ourselves heartily in agreement; but on which the rising generation of young men and women would find us too incomprehensibly stupid for words.[6]

Sayers’ last statement is right. I might be reticent to share her essay with my colleagues in philosophy if they were looking for a rigorous argument on the subject of a woman’s right to education and occupation, as her writing would likely seem too archaic to be useful. I, too, did not draw upon Sayers’ work when contemplating whether or not to study philosophy. Perhaps this is naïve, but I hope that most American women do not need to make conscious recourse to their humanity to legitimize their pursuit of philosophy or history or many subjects in the academy nowadays.[7]

Sayers’ words did come flowing back to me, though, when I found myself faced with the decision to study theology and the New Testament at the postdoctoral level. For all the times I turned to Scripture, relished in studying it, and was exhorted to continue sharing what I was learning with others, I had never realized that these profoundly human experiences were the most pivotal in determining whether or not I should pursue further study. My confusion about my femaleness and all that it entailed loomed so large that I risked missing the greater point. I, for one, had to remind myself that all humans stand to benefit from close engagement with theology, church history, and (for me, most of all) the Scriptures, should they be so inclined. For women like myself who eventually found their respective ways to a divinity school, of all places, Sayers’ words may still ring fresh: I find myself in graduate school because I had the good fortune to realize that I am human.

Stephanie Nicole Nordby is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Lee University. Nordby received a Ph.D. in philosophy under the supervision of Linda Zagzebski at the University of Oklahoma. Her dissertation focused on divine predication and attributes, biblical genres and philosophy of language, and classical theism and the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition to her interest in analytic and exegetical theology, Nordby is interested in metaphysics, animal ethics, and virtue ethics. She is also working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Logos Institute, working under supervisors Oliver Crisp and Christoph Schwoebel. Her dissertation project is a book on the philosophical and systematic implications of the early high Christology movement.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers. “Are Women Human?: Address Given to a Women’s Society, 1938.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8, no. 4 (2005): 174.

[2] Ibid. 177.

[3] Sayers gives some passing thoughts on the status of feminist activism in 1938, and I imagine most will find her ideas relatively controversial. However, her talk is brief, and I’m sure a more thorough-going and interesting debate about the status of feminism in the 1930s can be found by more capable authors elsewhere. In any case, it is not my intent to assess the feminist movement one way or another in this short post (nor do I feel qualified to do so), so Sayers’ thoughts on the matter are not worth recounting here.

[4] Lawrence, D.H. “Give Her a Pattern.” 1968. In Delphi Complete Works of D.H. Lawrence. Kindle Edition ed. Hastings: Delphi Publishing, 2015. Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works.

[5] As I hope is obvious, by including this quote, I by no means endorse the idea that Lawrence’s characterization applies to all or even most men. (I imagine Sayers did not mean to imply this, either, but I suppose you can judge this for yourself.)

[6] Sayers, 175-76.

[7] This is not to make light of the unique challenges women face in these fields; as a woman who has completed a PhD in philosophy, I can vouch these fields are fraught with their own obstacles.