Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

Sing It, Dorothy

(Getty Images/Topical Press Agency/Stringer)
A long-ago speech by Dorothy L. Sayers may be music to your ears

A friend of mine said that I would enjoy a speech by Dorothy L. Sayers, given in 1938. He was right. I found the speech unusual, insightful, nervy — even exciting. Before getting into it, I should provide a refresher on Sayers. Until just the other day, I could remember more about Gale Sayers (the running back for the Chicago Bears, whose book was the basis of Brian’s Song, the 1971 movie).

Dorothy L. Sayers was an English writer born in 1893. She was an outstanding student at Oxford. She went on to write poems, plays, novels, essays, all sorts of things. She was chiefly known for her crime fiction, whose star sleuth was Lord Peter Wimsey. She wrote an important translation of The Divine Comedy. In short, she was a woman of letters. Sayers died in 1957.

To be in her company is to experience a sharp mind, an independent spirit, and a pointed wit. In 1938, she was invited to speak to a women’s society. She delivered herself of a speech entitled “Are Women Human?” (Her answer: Yes, very much so.) The speech has a great deal to say to us today. I think Sayers would reply, “Of course it does. Why shouldn’t it? A truth is not true for a day, unless you’re talking about the price of eggs. And even then, economic truths remain.”

At the outset, she tells her audience that the organizers suggested she speak on the feminist movement. “I replied — a little irritably, I am afraid — that I was not sure I wanted to ‘identify myself,’ as the phrase goes, with feminism.” The 1930s are not even out, and it seems that Sayers is already tired of identity politics.

That is what the speech is about, essentially: identity politics, to use our modern phrase. I will quote snippets, but that does something like an injustice to the speech, which should be read in full to appreciate its range, subtlety, and impact.

“What is repugnant to every human being,” says Sayers, “is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” I might argue with her a little here, even though she uses that word “always”: “reckoned always.” In my observation, some people cling to class as to a lifeboat, or a security blanket. Be that as it may . . .

Sayers is by no means an extremist, or a reckless idealist. She knows that “a certain amount of classification” is right and necessary. For instance, there is no harm in saying that women in general “have smaller bones than men” or “have more patience with small and noisy babies.” Similarly, there is no harm in pointing out that “university dons of both sexes are more pedantic in their speech than agricultural laborers.”

What is “unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs.”

I think of Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, who is a conservative Republican. Her opponents tell her, in so many ways, that she is a traitor to her sex and her ethnicity. In last fall’s election campaign, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee said, “Susana Martinez does not have a Latino heart.” (He himself is an Anglo, by the way.) For better or worse, Martinez regards her heart as human.

In the 1930s, some people in Britain sniffed that women were trying to “copy” men. And in some respects the charge was true, according to Sayers. She speaks of female university students, who “have a foolish trick of imitating and outdoing the absurdities of male undergraduates. To climb in drunk after hours and get gated is silly and harmless if done out of pure high spirits.” (To be “gated,” incidentally, is to be punished by means of being confined to campus.) “If it is done ‘because the men do it,’ it is worse than silly, because it is not spontaneous and not even amusing.”

I think of a conservative complaint today: that equality is a shame if it means that women will be as debauched as men, with all the ensuing heartache and dislocation, after the revels are ended.

On the subject of employment, Sayers is highly interesting. The issue of women in the workplace was big in 1938. And Sayers explains that there are choices to make — as between career and family. If you can have it all, more power to you. But having it all can be chimerical. “When it comes to a choice,” says Sayers, “then every man or woman has to choose as an individual human being, and, like a human being, take the consequences.”

Some of us are not very good at taking the consequences. At the recent Oscar ceremony, the actress Patricia Arquette thrilled the crowd by saying, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America!” The Equal Pay Act became law in 1963. Nonethless, if you want to work fewer hours, or have a different kind of career, in order to make room for other things — there may be consequences.

“Life’s full o’ consequence, that old devil consequence.” That’s not Dorothy Sayers; that’s a song from Cabin in the Sky, the 1940 musical. But she would concur.

Don’t get her started on “the woman’s point of view.” Actually, do. Here is probably the tartest, tastiest passage of her speech: “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.’”

Much of our present society is devoted to the idea that there are different angles on the equilateral triangle: the white angle, the black angle, the Hispanic, gay, and transgendered angles. Humanness and universality seem increasingly pushed into the background.

“In the old days,” says Sayers, “it used to be said that women were unsuited to sit in Parliament, because they ‘would not be able to think imperially.’ That, if it meant anything, meant that their views would be cramped and domestic — in short, ‘the woman’s point of view.’ Now that they are in Parliament, people complain that they are a disappointment: They vote, like other people, with their party.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was a bumper sticker, referring to the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin: “She’s not a woman, she’s a Republican.” In an earlier day, Gloria Steinem, the feminist, called Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reagan appointee, a “female impersonator.”

Recently, I was accused of thinking the way I did because I was white and male. “So is Michael Moore,” I answered. He is a leftist filmmaker; I am a Reaganite who, sadly, has not made a film. “So what?” Furthermore, Moore and I are both from Michigan, and were born less than a decade apart. Again, so what?

Which reminds me: Two weeks ago, someone said to me, “What you say is fine, but we hear enough from people of your generation. We need to hear younger voices.” This startled me. I had never thought of myself as belonging to a generation. I was usually out of step with my peers, frankly. Yes, we all watched Three’s Company and The Jeffersons. But the idea that I represent my generation would shock my generation, trust me.

Sayers wants women to think of themselves as human beings, and to be accepted that way: “not as an inferior class and not, I beg and pray all feminists, as a superior class.”

At the moment, the Obama administration is engaged with the Castro dictatorship to establish full diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana. The chief negotiator on the American side is Roberta Jacobson and on the Cuban side Josefina Vidal. A U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), said, “Frankly, I’m optimistic because the negotiators are two women and we know how to get things done.”

That is one way to look at them. But I see them differently: One woman is the representative of a great liberal democracy; the other represents a totalitarian dictatorship. These negotiations are many things, but they are not a chick issue.

Sayers, to say it again, is not an extremist, and she is not a dolt. She knows that there are differences between men and women, and she would not blot out nature. But “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.”

So it is with races. I came of age after the civil-rights movement, and sort of envied the spirit of that day: the push for a common humanity, for E pluribus unum, for the acceptance of everyone into the human family. By the time I came of age, separatism and color consciousness were all the rage — even to the point of separate lounges for black students. Dixiecrats such as Lester Maddox would probably have approved.

Winding up, Sayers says, “To oppose one class perpetually to another — young against old, manual laborer against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man — is to split the foundations of the state; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship.” Dictatorships were gathering force when she gave this speech, a year before World War II.

She finishes, “If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it — not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian state, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick, and Harry, on the individual Jack and Jill — in fact, upon you and me.”

Is it any wonder that I am newly in love with Dorothy L. Sayers? Perhaps you feel a frisson, too.

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