The real trouble about women is that they must always go on to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women, as they always have done. When a woman is thoroughly herself, she is being what her type of man wants her to be. When a woman is hysterical it’s because she doesn’t quite know what to be, which pattern to follow, which man’s picture of woman to live up to.
For, of course, just as there are many men in the world, there are many masculine theories of what women should be. But men run to type, and it is the type, not the individual, that produces the theory, or “ideal” of woman. Those very grasping gentry, the Romans, produced a theory or ideal of the matron, which fitted in very nicely with the Roman property lust. “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion.” – So Caesar’s wife kindly proceeded to be above it, no matter how far below it the Caesar fell. Later gentlemen like Nero produced the “fast” theory of woman, and later ladies were fast enough for everybody. Dante arrived with a chaste and untouched Beatrice, and chaste and untouched Beatrices began to march self-importantly through the centuries. The Renaissance discovered the learned woman, and learned women buzzed mildly into verse and prose. Dickens invented the child-wife, so child-wives have swarmed ever since. He also fished out his version of the chaste Beatrice, a chaste but marriageable Agnes. George Eliot imitated this pattern, and it became confirmed. The noble woman, the pure spouse, the devoted mother took the field, and was simply worked to death. Our own poor mothers were this sort. So we younger men, having been a bit frightened of our noble mothers, tended to revert to the child-wife. We weren’t very inventive. Only the child-wife must be a boyish little thing – that was the new touch we added. Because young men are definitely frightened of the real female. She’s too risky a quantity. She is too untidy, like David’s Dora. No, let her be a boyish little thing, it’s safer. So a boyish little thing she is.
There are, of course, other types. Capable men produce the capable woman ideal. Doctors produce the capable nurse. Business men produce the capable secretary. And so you get all sorts. You can produce the masculine sense of honour (whatever that highly mysterious quantity may be) in women, if you want to.
There is, also, the eternal secret ideal of men – the prostitute. Lots of women live up to this idea: just because men want them to.
And so, poor woman, destiny makes away with her. It isn’t that she hasn’t got a mind – she has. She’s got everything that man has. The only difference is that she asks for a pattern. Give me a pattern to follow! That will always be woman’s cry. Unless of course she has already chosen her pattern quite young, then she will declare she is herself absolutely, and no man’s idea of women has any influence over her.
Now the real tragedy is not that women ask and must ask for a pattern of womanhood. The tragedy is not, even, that men give them such abominable patterns, child-wives, little-boy-baby-face girls, perfect secretaries, noble spouses, self-sacrificing mothers, pure women who bring forth children in virgin coldness, prostitutes who just make themselves low, to please the men; all the atrocious patterns of womanhood that men have supplied to woman; patterns all perverted from any real natural fullness of a human being. Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, a machine, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopaedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.
And, of course, women love living up to strange patterns, weird patterns – the more uncanny the better. What could be more uncanny than the present pattern of the Eton-boy girl with flower-like artificial complexion? It is just weird. And for its very weirdness women like living up to it. What can be more gruesome than the little-boy-baby-face pattern? Yet the girls take it on with avidity.
But even that isn’t the real root of the tragedy. The absurdity, and often, as in the Dante-Beatrice business, the inhuman nastiness of the pattern – for Beatrice had to go on being chaste and untouched all her life, according to Dante’s pattern, while Dante had a cosy wife and kids at home – even that isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is, as soon as a woman has really lived up to the man’s pattern, the man dislikes her for it. There is intense secret dislike for the Eton-young-man girl, among the boys, now that she is actually produced. Of course, she’s very nice to show in public, absolutely the thing. But the very young men who have brought about her production detest her in private and in their private hearts are appalled by her.
When it comes to marrying, the pattern goes all to pieces. The boy marries the Eton-boy girl, and instantly he hates the type. Instantly his mind begins to play hysterically with all the other types, noble Agneses, chaste Beatrices, clinging Doras and lurid filles de joie. He is in a wild welter of confusion. Whatever pattern the poor woman tries to live up to, he’ll want another. And that’s the condition of modern marriage.
Modern woman isn’t really a fool. But modern man is. That seems to me the only plain way of putting it. The modern man is a fool, and the modern young man a prize fool. He makes a greater mess of his women than men have ever made. Because he absolutely doesn’t know what he wants her to be. We shall see the changes in the woman-pattern follow one another fast and furious now, because the young men hysterically don’t know what they want. Two years hence women may be in crinolines – there was a pattern for you! – or a bead flap, like naked negresses in mid-Africa – or they may be wearing brass armour, or the uniform of the Horse Guards. They may be anything. Because the young men are off their heads, and don’t know what they want.
The women aren’t fools, but they must live up to some pattern or other. They know the men are the fools. They don’t really respect the pattern. Yet a pattern they must have, or they can’t exist.
Women are not fools. They have their own logic, even if it’s not the masculine sort. Women have the logic of emotion, men have the logic of reason. The two are complementary and mostly in opposition. But the woman’s logic of emotion is no less real and inexorable than the man’s logic of reason. It only works differently.
And the woman never really loses it. She may spend years living up to a masculine pattern. But in the end, the strange and terrible logic of emotion will work out the smashing of that pattern, if it has not been emotionally satisfactory. This is the partial explanation of the astonishing changes in women. For years they go on being chaste Beatrices or child-wives. Then on a sudden – bash! The chaste Beatrice becomes something quite different, the child-wife becomes a roaring lioness! The pattern didn’t suffice, emotionally.
Whereas men are fools. They are based on a logic of reason or are supposed to be. And then they go and behave, especially with regard to women, in a more-than-feminine unreasonableness. They spend years training up the little-boy-baby-face type, till they’ve got her perfect. Then the moment they marry her, they want something else. Oh, beware, young women, of the young men who adore you! The moment they’ve got you they’ll want something utterly different. The moment they marry the little-boy-baby face, instantly they begin to pine for the noble Agnes, pure and majestic, or the infinite mother with deep bosom of consolation, or the perfect business woman, or the lurid prostitute on black silk sheets: or, most idiotic of all, a combination of all the lot of them at once. And that is the logic of reason! When it comes to women, modern men are idiots. They don’t know what they want, and so they never want, permanently, what they get. They want cream cake that is at the same time ham and eggs and at the same time porridge. They are fools. If only women weren’t bound by fate to play up to them!
For the fact of life is that women must play up to man’s pattern. And she only gives her best to a man when he gives her a satisfactory pattern to play up to. But today, with a stock of ready-made, worn-out idiotic patterns to live up to, what can women give to men but the trashy side of their emotions? What could a woman possibly give to a man who wanted her to be a boy-baby face? What could she possibly give him but the dribblings of an idiot? – And, because women aren’t fools, and aren’t fooled even for very long at a time, she gives him some nasty cruel digs with her claws, and makes him cry for mother dear! – abruptly changing his pattern.
Bah! Men are fools. If they want anything from women, let them give women a decent, satisfying idea of womanhood – not these trick patterns of washed-out idiots.
Give Her a Pattern (1929)
Collected in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works
Photo by Hans Bauer: Madonna/Whore Complex