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“Where Are the Women?”

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

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