The Fairer Sex

Barbara Taylor examines the history of the archetypal kind-hearted female and asks whether women are the answer to our current economic woes.

Women have been recruited to rescue Iceland. In October the Icelandic government nationalised two of the country’s desperately over-leveraged banks. The male bosses were slung out and replaced by women. Before they crashed, these banks had one woman executive between them. There wasn’t enough ‘femininity’ in their boardrooms, the Financial Times reported. “Now women are taking over,” a government minister commented. “It’s typical, men make the mess, then women come in to clean it up.”

In November the Icelandic singer Björk announced the creation of a women-run investment fund to help restore the country’s fortunes. Now a woman, Johanna Sigurdardottir, has become Iceland’s first female prime minister, presiding over a cabinet half of whose members are women. Sigurdardottir – ‘Saint Johanna’ as some call her – is a gay Social Democrat who is very popular with the electorate. “It’s a question of trust, people believe she actually cares about people,” an Icelandic political analyst told the Guardian.

These are significant developments. As the financial crisis deepens, increasing numbers of people, and not just in Iceland, are blaming it on men. Politicians and media commentators finger ‘piratical male egos’ for the meltdown. Newspapers report a recent Harvard study of investment practices showing a strong correlation between high testosterone levels and ‘irrational risk-taking’. Even male-authored economic commentary is lambasted (by the Observer’s business editor) as “dehumanising, aggressive and militaristic”. The blogosphere rings with fierce debates over whether men are greedier than women, likelier to put their own interests ahead of company or nation. One exasperated Icelander wants all male politicians replaced by women. “Women are more altruistic than men; they’re likelier to get us back on our feet.”

Are women more caring than men? Certainly they have long been associated with the warmer emotions. The kind-hearted woman is a familiar character in western culture. But she is also an ambiguous figure with an uncertain reality status and a complex history.

Pre-modern European attitudes to female kindness were highly equivocal. The Judaeo-Christian celebration of the virtuous woman in whose “tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31) was offset by contemptuous representations of feminine kindness as mindlessly emotive and narrowly ‘partial’, that is, directed solely at family and other intimates. Male kindness, by contrast, was depicted as a judicious magnanimity capable of encompassing humanity at large as well as one’s immediate circle. Moderate affection and compassion were regarded as excellent in both sexes, but to be overwhelmed by sympathetic feelings was a feminine failing. “For one’s mind to yield to pity is an effect of affability, gentleness and softness,” the French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote in 1580. “That is why weaker natures such as women are more subject to them.”

This negative attitude to women’s kindness was part of a wider hostility to the emotions – the ‘passions’ as they were known – that characterised post-Augustinian Christianity. Dogmas about mankind’s fallen, depraved state made all spontaneous feelings appear inherently vicious, female feelings above all. To be kind was to transcend human nature, not to express it. Kindness was not a natural virtue but a divine bestowal: people were kind only by God’s grace.

But the coming of Enlightenment brought a sea change. Enlightenment philosophers took a much more benign view of human nature than their predecessors. Eschewing doctrines of original sin, they portrayed humanity as naturally inclined to virtue and benevolence. People were sociable, sympathetic creatures whose greatest happiness lay in promoting the wellbeing of others. Enlightened scientists provided physical evidence for this, describing people’s nervous systems as responding sensitively to the feelings of those around them, while philosophers such as Lord Shaftesbury and Frances Hutcheson posited the existence of an altruistic instinct or sense on par with the other natural senses. ‘Sensibility’ became the cardinal virtue of the age, giving rise to a vogue for empathic emotionality (‘sentimentality’), which by the mid 18th century had permeated British intellectual culture. Novels and poems were crammed with tenderhearted individuals. Conduct books sang the praises of ‘complaisance’ (the desire to please others), while arguments for political rights were couched in terms of the natural sympathies that bound individuals together in political communities.  

This cult of kindness encompassed both sexes, but its feminine bias was widely acknowledged. Soon women moved to the forefront, and by the end of the 18th century kindness had become a largely female prerogative. Historians have attributed this to the rise of ‘domestic ideology’, which in consigning women to the home foisted on them all those kinder emotions associated with family life. But the story is more complicated than this. What was at stake in the figure of the kindly woman was not just a normative femininity, but the fate of kindness under capitalism. Could kindness survive in a competitive market society?

The rise of ‘commercial society’, as capitalism was known in the 18th century, was accompanied by intense anxieties about the cultural and moral impact of possessive individualism. Old-guard moralists thundered against avarice and ‘luxury’, and warned that a tide of acquisitive selfishness was swamping the nation. New-wave theorists like David Hume and Adam Smith sought to allay these fears by insisting on the resilience of human benevolence. “How selfish soever man may be supposed,” Smith wrote in the famous opening lines to his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” These ‘principles’ – pity, compassion, sympathy – were ones traditionally associated with women and, although philosophers like Smith and Hume tried hard to purge such associations, the recourse to femininity as a social adhesive was easily detectable.

Some historians and analysts of western modernity made it explicit. Tracing a path of human progress from barbarism to ‘civilisation’, writers such as John Millar and Antoine Thomas described it as an evolution away from male brutishness and egoism to female refinement and sympathy. As primary bearers of the ‘social affections’, it was women who civilised men, transforming that rude and bellicose sex into good citizens and polite gentlemen. In a rapidly commercialising age, feminine kindness was perceived as the great socialising force, repairing communal ties frayed by masculine greed and individualism. Women’s virtues, Thomas declared in his hugely influential 1772 Essay on Women, “are to ordinary life what ready money is to commerce… Generally speaking, one may say that women correct that which an excess of passions has made a bit hard in commerce among men. Their delicate hand softens, so to speak, and polishes society’s springs.” In an increasingly egoistic world, women had become the guardians of altruism.

Popularised by a host of moral didacts – conduct-book writers, pulp theologians, novelists, journalists – the idea gradually became cultural orthodoxy. Grossly idealised images of women, especially of mothers, proliferated until, by the Victorian period, the kindly woman had become the prototype of human sociality – as she has remained more or less ever since. Women themselves contributed to this development, including many feminists who framed their case in altruistic terms. For Josephine Butler, the leading women’s rights campaigner, the aim of feminism was to extend as widely as possible that “sympathy and insight which are peculiarly female”. Her fellow activist, Barbara Bodichon, advocated women’s political rights as a way of offsetting the selfishness prevalent in civic life. “I know of no better means … of counteracting the tendency to prefer narrow private ends to the public good,” Bodichon wrote in 1866, “than of giving to all women … a direct participation in political affairs.” The demand for the vote was constantly posed in these terms, as a method of bringing women’s ‘intelligent sympathy’ into the public domain, to militate against male individualism and create a kinder, fairer Britain. But by the end of the 20th century this altruistic agenda had weakened. The self-abnegating woman whose chief value lay in her utility to others was looked upon with increasing disfavour. The altruistic feminine ideal was condemned as a gender stereotype. Today attitudes are equivocal. The successful businesswoman is widely admired, yet mothers remain avatars of natural kindness, and women continue to dominate the caring professions. Some feminists dismiss talk of superior female empathy and kindness as ‘essentialist’ ideology, but others are not so sure. Women tend to be popularly perceived as nicer than men, although what this kindness amounts to is not very clear. Has the kind woman become a dispensable myth, or is there more to her than that?

The notion that women are always, everywhere, kinder than men is indeed a myth. But if we think about kindness in a way that is interesting rather than merely sentimental – that is, not just as people being nice to each other, but as the sympathetic relations that mould human subjectivity – then the possibility that women experience these relations differently from men is certainly worth considering. Human beings are interdependent; the self is no isolate but sociable to the core, originating and surviving through its attachments. No woman is an island. But this interdependence, this enmeshing of self with other, is a fraught affair, involving high levels of vulnerability and anxiety. Feeling with and for others can be acutely uncomfortable; the open heart is very exposed. Myths about gender are a way of imagining – and resisting – this interdependence. They are attempts to manage our needs and feelings for each other: by idealising them, denying them, parcelling them up in gender packages. These myths work for us because they are not just cultural impositions but feelings and fantasies with powerful personal and inter-personal effects. What are the private myths of which the myth of female kindness has been the public expression?

Every one of us, at the beginning of our lives, is wholly dependent on maternal kindness: a fantasy of perfect nurturance is part of everyone’s psychic inheritance. Every person, as she or he gets older, replaces an absolute dependence with relative dependence: a transition that is also a movement away from being exclusively an object of kindness to being a person capable of kindly feelings for others. Sympathetic identifications with care-givers are the pathway to this transition, but each sex follows this route differently. A little girl’s identification with her mother’s maternal capacities provides a foundation for feminine subjectivity in which care-giving plays a major role. The same is true for little boys, but boys face a daunting challenge that girls do not: of eventually giving up their maternal identification while retaining its caring aspects. Many boys don’t manage this, and the legacies of this failure are everywhere apparent.

For both sexes, becoming kind entails confronting their own and other people’s hatred, greed and aggression, which is a difficult task – so difficult that both sexes, throughout life, are prone to retreating into sentimental fantasies of kindness for which the kindly woman is the prototype, leaving men stranded inside a defensive egoism while women struggle to reconcile their aggression and hate with mythic femininity. Nonetheless, the type of kindness involved in successful mothering – that complex blend of devotion and resentment, love and hate, aroused by infantile dependence – lends an unsentimental toughness to female kindness that is not merely mythical.

If the capacity for kindness, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once put it, depends on the ability to imagine oneself in someone else’s shoes, while still keeping one’s own feet on the ground, then women, one might suggest, are the demonstrably better-grounded sex. “Credibly compassionate” is how one political rival describes Iceland’s new female prime minister, which, unlike the sentimental feminine ideal of the past, has a definite ring of plausibility. So are Icelanders right to want women to run their country?

The notion that men qua men are responsible for our current economic predicament seems to me implausible – although certainly lots of individual men should be examining their consciences. I doubt that female bankers would have done much differently. Investment banking attracts people who like to spend their days making money with money, which is not in fact how most of us like to spend our time. The real issue is how much power we allow to such people, whatever their sex. People who enjoy caring about other people are possibly better people to have in charge. In Iceland many now seem to think so – maybe it’s time the rest of us started thinking so too.

Barbara Taylor is a historian. Her latest book, written with Adam Phillips, is On Kindness