This is a book which succinctly summarises – and satirises – what everyone who’s studied nineteenth-century history or literature knows: a woman can’t be a genius, because that’s a man’s job, and besides, she’s too hysterical. Women are bound by their biology, with brains too small to think and bodies to weak to work, so it’s no wonder they had to leave everything to men (well, except the light, untaxing work of cleaning, childcare and running a household).
It’s a cliché of teaching nineteenth-century literature and culture that ‘the Woman Question’ is a focal point (and a popular essay topic for students). There is much talk about how women were restricted to ‘the domestic sphere’ (represented by the picture on the cover, left); how they weren’t encouraged to be educated, to write or paint, to have careers or, basically, to do anything that ‘ought’ to be Man’s Work. Of course, one also ends up spending time carefully explaining that not all women were uneducated; that some women could and did write and publish, or paint, or pursue careers, even if they weren’t the norm. Nonetheless, every now and again one comes across something which reminds us just how women were viewed historically, such as Ruskin’s comment in Of Queen’s Gardens:
[Woman’s] intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation.
Ruskin wasn’t unusually sexist, in my view, and was supportive of some women writers and painters; he is expressing a common view here (though he comes in for some flak concerning his wedding night in the book). Famously, Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.’ And it was a common view of doctors that if a woman studied too much, her uterus would shrivel up, and consequently she would become mad and unable to have children (that is, she would be no use at all).
All these ideas are drawn together in the delightful cartoons of Jacky Fleming’s book, and with the combination of the words and pictures these ideas are rendered even dafter than before. As Fleming writes, she was inspired by Darwin’s ‘proof’ that women were intellectually inferior:
His evidence was this: that if you wrote two lists, one of eminent men, and the other of eminent women, the list of men was longer. It’s an experiment you might like to try at home. It was his contribution to making gender inequality look normal, and inspired me to write a book in response – exactly what women have been doing for centuries. The body of work referred to as The Woman Question, or if you go back to the Middle Ages the Querelles des Femmes, has a format which often goes like this: a man writes (with wit) about why education is wasted on women who are fickle, lascivious, money-grabbing lightweights incapable of thinking rationally. Then a woman gets very angry, and writes something in response (also with wit). She then gets showered with abuse or ridicule. I didn’t realise, until I’d done a lot of research, that The Trouble with Women fits into such a long tradition.
Such gender questions have a long and troubled history, then, and perhaps not as much as changed as we like to think. By satirising it, though, Fleming is putting misogynistic views in the right place: the butt of jokes. I shared this book with some of my colleagues yesterday and there was much laughter, as well as a few nods of agreement. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to speak for the voiceless women of the past, Fleming slyly suggests that perhaps women weren’t as helpless as history makes them appear, and she invites the reader to think about those women whose lives were confined to a bubble of domesticity, through which they could only watch clever men with large beards pontificate about why women weren’t that bright, really.
I’m exhausted after writing that, so I think I shall have to go and lie down on the chaise longue and weep hysterically for a while now, before recommencing my domestic duties.