If anyone has to write about women it has to be a man. That is because women, to women, are normal human beings who do not need the written word to understand each other. Where women have written about women, it is usually to set out how women are and have been treated by men in life and literature. [See Simone de Beauvoir: “Le Seconde Sexe”.] That does not stop women writing millions of words every day telling other women what they should wear and eat, how they should decorate their homes, etc. These are matters on which no man with any sense of self-preservation would venture an opinion. These female columnists generally exude incredible snobbishness, bad taste, cattishness, ignorance, and plain malice.
Young men naturally have little understanding of women, for the very simple reason:
Car l'esprit ne sent rien que par l'ayde du corps
“The spirit feels with what the body's got”
- Ronsard: Sonnets pour Hélène, Book I, XX (verse translation JGW).
This leaves it incumbent on an old man to broach the subject, and in doing so, to reveal his embarrassing and potentially comical ignorance. In the process, however, some enlightening observations may percolate through. Simone de Beauvoir says (op. cit.) that women tend not to trust men who understand them. She gives a few examples drawn from artistic and literary sources so that the reader can share her ideas. Mozart, whose operatic women are superlative and whose writing for the female voice is unsurpassed, was described by his wife Constanze as “a difficult husband”. Stendhal in France and Thackeray in England are upheld as male writers who create convincing female characters. But there are plenty of male writers whose ignorance is compounded by the most appalling arrogance. One such is D.H.Lawrence. It is amusing to remember that his wife Frieda used to bully him into writing yet another novel about masculine supremacy when the housekeeping ran short.
As for Nietzsche, words fail me:
Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiẞ die Peische nicht! - Also Sprach Zarathustra.
(You are off to visit women? Don't forget your whip!)
This has the same level of boorishness as my native Hertfordshire:
“A wife, a dog and a walnut tree,
The more your beat them, the better they be.”
(I have often wondered about beating walnut trees.)
There is a long and dismal history of men maltreating women. This would appear to be not only immoral, but anti-Darwinian (if that is not the same thing). Such behaviour seems to be based on fear, though why men should fear women is not immediately obvious. Perhaps what men are afraid of, ultimately, is their own inability to cope with women. Organised religion through the ages often seems to be a device for keeping women suppressed, which is odd seeing that in the early days of Christianity and Islam there is no doubt that those religions would not have got established without considerable input from their female adherents.
The ancient Greeks, being avid students of what we call psychology, put a lot of effort into imagining how the other sex thinks and feels. To comment on the matter they invented, as a theatrical device, a character called Tiresias, who has been both dead and alive, both male and female. Tiresias would comment on the action of the drama using his special wisdom.
“And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who sat by Thebes beneath the wall
Or walked among the spirits of the dead.” - T.S.Eliot – The Waste Land.
As for me, I shall just have to stick my neck out and run the risk of having it cut off. I would contend that in any species of mammal the female is the basic type. That is because mammalian existence places nearly all the responsibility for reproduction on the female. A woman's beauty of skin texture, hair, shape, posture, carriage, have all been crafted by Darwinian forces to maximise reproductive potential. Even the pitch and timbre of the voice are designed to communicate with her baby, which, being small, has smaller organs of hearing receptive to higher frequency sounds. Men have adapted, following the same Darwinian principles, to admire those female characteristics that promote successful reproduction. Let me emphasise here: just because an outside observer is giving a rational explanation for their behaviour, that does not mean that men behave rationally. As regards men's relations with women, there is no evidence that reason plays any part whatever.
There is, however, a sense in which women do behave rationally when choosing a mate; at any rate more rationally than men do. Having found a suitable mate, Belinda (to keep calling her “the woman” makes it sound as if I am writing a sex manual; Belinda was good enough for Alexander Pope so it should be good enough for me) makes an emotional investment in him. If the man does not betray her trust too severely, she is capable of sticking to him until the end of his days. If he loses her trust, she may simply withdraw her investment. This may sound cynical or even cruel, but I am trying to act as an outside observer, which is not the usual role of a human being.
I think that an important aspect of Belinda's development is that it proceeds in discrete stages. A man's does not. It is not important in a Darwinian sense how and when a man comes to maturity. After a process during which the body reshapes and the brain reorganises itself, the man gradually gains in physical strength until his mid-twenties, after which he gradually fades away:
Lugubrement bâiller vers un trépas obscur - Stéphane Mallarmé
“Yawning dolefully towards an obscure death”.
He does not lose his interest in collecting engine numbers or making model aeroplanes. Women think that men retain something of the childish. A wise young man, if there ever were such a person, would look for a woman that little children run to; she will be good at looking after him, too. Additionally, a woman's skin has a healing power. The initial coolness of touch, followed up by the subcutaneous warmth, has a healing effect, no doubt honed by Darwinism, to repair children's minor injuries, but it is just as efficacious when applied to the adult male.
The staged development of Belinda comes down to the simple observation that a woman who is only half able to have babies is going to end up dead. The sudden development of pelvis and
breasts and the menarche, that usually happens during the school holidays, always takes her parents and others by surprise. The first stage of Belinda's maturity is marked, psychologically, by all girls in the same age group trying to be alike. They adopt the same fashions in clothes and hairstyle, squeal at the same epicene pop singers, and so on. The ones who develop first adopt a position of leadership, while the later developers feel a sense of inferiority that never quite deserts them.
The next stage in Belinda's life involves testing out her new-found feminine power. Added to bullying her father, an art which she has practised since she was a toddler, she now starts to compete with her mother. The competition is over reproductive rights. This phase coincides, roughly, with her mother's awareness of the fading of her own reproductive powers. Her mother is hampered in two ways: her love for her daughter induces her to wish her every success in her progress into full adulthood; and she remembers perfectly well how she used to treat her own mother exactly one generation ago.
During this stage Belinda asks herself “Can I attract a man?” She spends a lot of time grooming herself and trying to look different from other girls. The answer to her question is invariably “Yes”. The problem is, she is likely to try to attract just such a young man as her mother would not like, usually because he is dirty, lazy, untrustworthy, drunken, loutish, etc. Society (which means Older People) puts a lot of effort into getting Belinda past this phase. Drastic solutions, taken from history, include: temple prostitution; forced marriage; Higher Education...
Once Belinda has matured mentally as well as physically, she will spend a lot of time and effort investigating men. What she is looking for is a man who will cherish her and her babies. Here is more evidence of the greater rationality of women. A man of similar years is likely to behave purely instinctively; that is, if he is not looking for a woman to mind the shop or feed the pigs. So Belinda will test her potential mate's temperament by deliberately infuriating him. She will be in the bath when he calls to take her out; she sends him on ridiculous errands; she makes frivolous demands at inopportune times. If he comes through these tests, he might be judged to be a reliable partner when the going gets tough.
Society finds it expedient to intervene at this stage, too. Older people have formed their own ideas, not necessarily justly, of what sort of man will make a good husband. If not, they certainly know what sort of man will make a bad one. The Jews of Eastern Europe used to list three categories of men who are bound to make their wives' lives miserable:
#1. The Schlemiel, or no-good. (Chico Marx's character).
#2. The Schlimazel, or bad luck for those he comes into contact with. (Harpo).
#3. The Schnorrer, or scrounger. (Groucho).
The next phase in Belinda's life comes when she has acquired a husband and secure living accommodation. Once these conditions are met, the next question arises: “Can I have a baby?” This can be a terrifying obsession; it is marked by frenzied redecorating, furniture moving, and sexual ferocity. [It must be clearly stated here and now that a woman who chooses not to have babies, or who cannot, must be totally respected. The world is overpopulated, and there are many other responsibilities for a woman to adopt. As usual, it will be other women, not men, who will try to belittle the childless wife.] This stage in the progress of the young woman is probably that which gave rise to the Welsh proverb:
Bychan y tâl cyngor gwraig, ond gwae i ŵr nas cymero.
“A wife's advice is worth little, but woe to the husband who does not take it.”
The lead up to having a baby involves making a lot of mental adjustments, which the man is not equipped to understand. Remember that even today childbirth is a dangerous event. The ancient Mexicans used to equate the courage of women in labour with the courage of men in battle. Death in either event was honoured identically; both men and women became huitziloc om nahui xihuitl (hummingbirds for four years), then took their places as stars in the sky. The order in which people become aware that Belinda is pregnant is as follows:
#1. Belinda's female friends.
#2. Belinda's female friends' husbands.
#4. Belinda's husband.
This curious sequence needs explanation for all readers who have not been Belinda:
#1. The female friends, possibly alerted unconsciously, initially, by changes in her personal body scent, have spotted significant changes in Belinda's behaviour that only women with women's special sensitivity to other people are equipped to spot. This matter will be discussed at great length over tea and cakes.
#2. The wives will tell their husbands, thus:
“Belinda's going to have a baby”.
“But it's her first!”
“Oh”. And he carries on watching the snooker.
#3. Belinda has just worked out that missing a couple of periods may betoken something and has got herself checked out at the G.P.'s surgery.
#4. “Darling, I've got such wonderful news!”
“Your mother isn't coming round after all?”
A new mother joins an exclusive club, the club of women who have had children. They have long discussions about their children's welfare, their husbands' shortcomings, and other domestic matters. Their discussions include a tremendous mutual understanding that outsiders are not competent to imagine. Overall, there is a sense of satisfaction that life is being lived as it ought to be lived.
There is yet another phase in the life of our Belinda, that has been of great importance in our species' development. That is the phase of Grandmother. Our species is the only one that has a menopause. In Darwinian terms, this allows the mother a good chance of bringing up the latest additions to her brood. But there is more to it than that. The role of Grandmother is that of wise woman, the one who seen and done it all, who is available to help her daughters with advice and practical assistance. This role has considerable status in some societies. Among the Zulus she is ndlovukati, the great she-elephant, who leads the herd, knows where food and water are to be found, protects the young, and avoids danger. Compare this role with that of Grandfather. Grandfather lets the little ones play with his train set, then takes them to the fairground and lets them stuff themselves with candy-floss and ice cream until they are sick, then hands them back muddied and uncontrollable to their mother. The man has not developed in the way that a woman has.
This series of phases in Belinda's development is rather complex, and every now and then we come across a woman who has got stuck in one of the phases without progressing. We can observe, for example, Brigitte Bardot with four husbands but no loving relationships, or Elizabeth Taylor with eight marriages and still anxious to know if men found her attractive. Or take the recent case (2017) of two senior policewomen at an important constabulary conference, who bared their breasts at each other, cast aspersions on each other's mammaries, and rolled about on the floor tugging at each other's hair and screeching. There is no male equivalent of this.
When I was a little boy I used to love the Burns and Allen Show on the old black-and-white 405-lines BBC single channel television. It was a situation comedy. George Burns and Gracie Allen played man and wife (which they were in real life), and the rest of the cast was the next door neighbours Von Zell and his wife Blanche. Gracie and Blanche were always doing unpredictable and irrational things to the bemusement of George and Von Zell. George, unlike the other characters, was allowed to come out of the stage set, smoke a huge cigar, and give a commentary directly to the audience. What I learned was: it is neither possible or necessary to understand women; all that matters is to love them.
And it is true: the love of a woman is the greatest happiness that a man can experience.
And a footnote: although the stage Gracie Allen was what the Americans call “ditzy”, in real life she produced and directed the programmes and managed the finances.