The most threatening spectacle to the patriarchy is a woman staring into space.
I do not mean in the metaphorical sense, as in a woman doing astronomy or astrophysics (or maths or philosophy), though all of these help, too. Just plainly sitting, looking into some vague mid-point of the horizon, for stretches of time.
I perform this little ‘experiment’ at least once per week (more often, if possible; I like staring into space). I wholly recommend it. There are a few simple rules:
- You can look at the passers-by (a.k.a. ‘people-watching’), but try to avoid eye contact longer than a few seconds: people should not feel that they are particular objects of attention.
- If you are sitting in a café, or a restaurant, you can have a drink, ideally a tea or coffee. That’s not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Martini cocktails or glasses of Chardonnay, but images of women cradling tall glasses of alcoholic drink of choice have been very succesfully appropriated by both capitalism and patriarchy, for distinct though compatible purposes.
- Don’t look at your phone. If you must check the time or messages it’s fine, but don’t start staring at it, texting, or browsing.
- Don’t read (a book, a magazine, a newspaper). If you have a particularly interesting or important thought feel free to scribble it down, but don’t bury your gaze behind a notebook, book, or a laptop.
Try doing this for an hour.
What this ‘experiment’ achieves is that it renders visible the simple fact of existing. As a woman. Even worse, it renders visible the process of thinking. Simultaneously inhabiting an inner space (thinking) and public space (sitting), while doing little else to justify your existence.
NOT thinking-while-minding-children, as in ‘oh isn’t it admirrrrable that she manages being both an academic and a mom’.
NOT any other form of ‘thinking on our feet’ that, as Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret (and Virginia Woolf) noted, was the constitutive condition for most thinking done by women throughout history.
The important thing is to claim space to think, unapologetically and in public.
Depending on place and context, this usually produces at least one of the following reactions:
- Waiting staff, especially if male, will become increasingly attentive, repeatedly inquiring whether (a) I am alright (b) everything was alright (c) I would like anything else (yes, even if they are not trying to get you to leave, and yes, I have sat in the same place with friends, and this didn’t happen)
- Men will try to catch my eye
- Random strangers will start repeatedly glancing and sometimes staring in my direction.
I don’t think my experience in this regard is particularly exceptional. Yes, there are many places where women couldn’t even dream of sitting alone in public without risking things much worse than uncomfortable stares (I don’t advise attempting this experiment in such places). Yes, there are places where staring into a book/laptop/phone, ideally with headphones on, is the only way to avoid being approached, chatted up, or harassed by men. Yet, even in wealthy, white, urban, middle-class, ‘liberal’ contexts, women who display signs of being afflicted by ‘the life of the mind’ are still somehow suspect. For what this signals is that it is, actually, possible for women to have an inner life not defined by relation to men, if not particular men, then at least in the abstract.
‘Is it possible to not be in relation to white men?’, asks Sara Ahmed, in a brilliant essay on intellectual genealogies and institutional racism. The short answer is yes, of course, but not as long as men are in charge of drawing the family tree. Philosophy is a clear example. Two of my favourite philosophers, De Beauvoir and Arendt, are routinely positioned in relation to, respectively, Sartre and Heidegger (and, in Arendt’s case, to a lesser degree, Jaspers). While, in the case of De Beauvoir, this could be, to a degree, justified – after all, they were intellectual and writing partners for most of Sartre’s life – the narrative is hardly balanced: it is always Simone who is seen in relation to Jean-Paul, not the other way round*.
In a bit of an ironic twist, De Beauvoir’s argument in the Second Sex that a woman exists only in relation to a man seems to have been adopted as a stylistic prescription for narrating intellectual history (I recently downloaded an episode of In Our Time on De Beauvoir only to discover, in frustration, that it repeats exactly this pattern). Another example is the philosopher GEM Anscombe, whose work is almost uniquely described in terms of her interpretation of Wittgenstein (she was also married to the philosopher Peter Geach, which doesn’t help). A great deal of Anscombe’s writing does not deal with Wittgenstein, but that is, somehow, passed over, at least in non-specialist circles. What also gets passed over is that, in any intellectual partnership or friendship, ideas flow in both directions. In this case, the honesty and generosity of women’s acknowledgments (and occasional overstatements) of intellectual debt tends to be taken for evidence of incompleteness of female thinking; as if there couldn’t, possibly, be a thought in their ‘pretty heads’ that had not been placed there by a man.
Anscombe, incidentally, had a predilection for staring at things in public. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the Vol. 2 of her collected philosophical papers, Metaphysics and the philosophy of mind:
“The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without realising it was philosophy, was perception (…) For years I would spend time in cafés, for instance, staring at objects saying to myself: ‘I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?’” (1981: viii).
But Wittgenstein, sure.
Nature abhors a vacuum, if by ‘nature’ we mean the rationalisation of patriarchy, and if by ‘vacuum’ we mean the horrifying prospect of women occupied by their own interiority, irrespectively of how mundane or elevated its contents. In Jane Austen’s novels, young women are regularly reminded that they should seem usefully occupied – embroidering, reading (but not too much, and ideally out loud, for everyone’s enjoyment), playing an instrument, singing – whenever young gentlemen came for a visit. The underlying message is that, of course, young gentlemen are not going to want to marry ‘idle’ women. The only justification for women’s existence, of course, is their value as (future) wives, and thus their reproductive capital: everything else – including forms of internal life that do not serve this purpose – is worthless.
Clearly, one should expect things to improve once women are no longer reduced to men’s property, or the function of wives and mothers. Clearly, they haven’t. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti offers a brilliant diagnosis of how the very question of having children bears down differently on women:
It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all (2018: 98).
Rebecca Solnit points out the same problem in The Mother of All Questions: no matter what a woman does, she is still evaluated in relation to her performance as a reproductive engine. One of the messages of the insidious ‘lean-in’ kind of feminism is that it’s OK to not be a wife and a mother, as long as you are remarkably successful, as a businesswoman, a political leader, or an author. Obviously, ‘ideally’, both. This keeps women stressed, overworked, and so predictably willing to tolerate absolutely horrendous working conditions (hello, academia) and partnerships. Men can be mediocre and still successful (again, hello, academia); women, in order to succeed, have to be outstanding. Worse, they have to keep proving their oustandingness; ‘pure’ existence is never enough.
To refuse this – to refuse to justify one’s existence through a retrospective or prospective contribution to either particular men (wife of, mother of, daughter of), their institutions (corporation, family, country), or the vaguely defined ‘humankind’ (which, more often than not, is an extrapolation of these categories) – is thus to challenge the washed-out but seemingly undying assumption that a woman is somehow less-worthy version of a man. It is to subvert the myth that shaped and constrained so many, from Austen’s characters to Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister: that to exist a woman has to be useful; that inhabiting an interiority is to be performed in secret (which meant away from the eyes of the patriarchy); that, ultimately, women’s existence needs to be justified. If not by providing sex, childbearing, and domestic labour, then at least indirectly, by consuming stuff and services that rely on underpaid (including domestic) labour of other women, from fashion to IPhones and from babysitting to nail salons. Sometimes, if necessary, also by writing Big Books: but only so they could be used by men who see in them the reflection of their own (imagined) glory.
Heti recounts another story, about her maternal grandmother, Magda, imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII. One day, Nazi soldiers came to the women’s barracks and asked for volunteers to help with cooking, cleaning and scrubbing in the officers’ kitchen. Magda stepped forward; as Heti writes, ‘they all did’. Magda was not selected; she was lucky, as it soon transpired that those women were not taken to the kitchen, but rather raped by the officers and then killed.
I lingered over the sentence ‘they all did’ for a long time. What would it mean for more women to not volunteer? To not accept endlessly proving one’s own usefulness, in cover letters, job interviews, student feedback forms? To simply exist, in space?
I think I’ll just sit and think about it for a while.
(The photo is by the British photographer Hannah Starkey, who has a particular penchant for capturing women inhabiting their own interiority. Thank you to my partner who first introduced me to her work, the slight irony being that he interrupted me in precisely one such moment of contemplation to tell me this).
*I used to make a point of asking the students taking Social Theory to change ‘Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir’ in their essays to ‘de Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre’ and see if it begins to read differently.