...We've Never Asked a Woman Before

For thirty years I have been writing about lawyers and the law. And for almost as many years I have been the recipient of invitations to stand on platforms and address large assemblies of legal experts. I enjoy receiving these invitations; it shows that people are reading my books. Yet I often hesitate; the program means serious preparation. A non-lawyer—and a non-man—cannot stand up and talk drivel for thirty minutes or fifty (as specified) to a hall bristling with five hundred or so hard-minded professional gentlemen. Therefore I hold off, saying into the telephone that I haven’t the time; I am writing a new book and must stay home by myself, where writers belong. Perhaps the committee will send a letter, giving details? “Mrs. Bowen!” says an urgent voice from Houston or San Francisco. “This is our law society’s big annual celebration. We’ve had Senator Fulbright as speaker, and Wechsler of Columbia, and the Lord Chief Justice of England [and God and Santa Claus]. But we’ve never asked a woman before.”

At this moment all my latent feminism rises up. Why haven’t they asked a woman before—aren’t there any women lawyers? Impossible to refuse this challenge! In Washington there exists a prestigious group called the American Law Institute. The cream of the profession belongs to it; the work they do is significant to the country at large. After I spoke at the Institute’s annual dinner, women lawyers crowded to shake my hand. They said they had sat for years watching those men at the head table; they wanted me to know what it meant to see a woman sitting there. It made me very glad that I had come.

The word feminism is outmoded. “The movement,” young women call it today. We know of the ferocity with which the goal is pursued. We have heard of the extremists—ten thousand strongcalled Women’s Liberation, how they crop their hair short, wear baggy trousers and loose sweaters to conceal the more notable evidences of sex. “Abolish sexism!” is their slogan. Brassieres must go, and beauty contests. “Miss America!” say their banners. “Men make money off your body too. Pornography, Bunnies, Playboy Magazine are as degrading to women as racism is to blacks.”

But of course! And why, one asks oneself, has it taken the sisters so long to find this out, so long to proclaim that for women sex is neither cute nor funny and can result in pain, disgrace, or years of virtual—though respectable—servitude? Sex jokes are a male invention. It is indeed a naïve girl who grows up in our society unaware of what her world considers the primary function of women. To suggest that women don’t have to be beautiful is the worst kind of heresy; it means women have more important functions than pleasing men.

How does all this affect women writers? The answer is, profoundly. Nobody writes from a vacuum; writers compose from their life experience. They use what they know and feel in the environment round about, the stuff of life as it has been handed out or as they have been able to grasp it, hold it up and look at it with courage and with truth. For many centuries girls have been told that their business is wifehood, motherhood—and nothing else. “When children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary,” said John Langdon Davis in A Short History of Women. I once had a husband who liked to say that nothing is expected of a wife-and-mother but respectability. Yet writers, male and female, belong in the category artist. (Muriel Rukeyser, the poet, puts women into four classes: whores, saints, wives, and artists.) No artist can operate lacking belief in his mission. His mission; the very pronoun confesses an age-old situation. I hope the young activists in the movement wipe out that generalized pronoun, so bland, so denigrating to the woman professional in any field.

by Catherine Drinker Bowen

Without a clear view of their capabilities, men and women cannot function. Convince a twolegged man that he has but one leg, and he will not be able to walk. A writer must know her horizon, how wide is the circle within which she, as artist, extends. The world still professes to wonder why there has been no female Shakespeare or Dante, no woman Plato or Isaiah. Yet people do what society looks for them to do. The Quaker Meeting House has existed for centuries, but it has produced no Bach and no B Minor Mass. Music was not desired by Quakers, it was frowned on. Poetry, fiction, playwriting have been expected from women only recently, as history counts time. Of the brilliant, erratic Margaret Cavendish, her husband, the Duke of Newcastle, remarked, circa 1660, “A very wise woman is a very foolish thing.” As lately as 1922, Christina Rossetti’s biographer wrote of her, that “like most poetesses, she was purely subjective, and in no sense creative.” What a beautiful triple sneer, and how it encompasses the entire second sex! One recalls the fiery poetess, Lady Winchelsea, born 1661, said to be “lost in melancholy”—and small wonder:

Debarred from all improvements of the mind [site wrote],
And to be dull, expected and designed. . . .
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play.
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time.
And interrupt the conquests of our prime,
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our utmost art and use.

Because I write about the law and the Constitution I am often asked why I entered “a man’s field.” Men tell me I write like a man. “Mrs. Bowen,” they say with pleased smiles, “you think like a man.” No, gentlemen, thank you, I do not, I write like a woman. I enjoy being a woman and thinking like a woman, which means using my mind and using it hard. Women have an advantage as writers because they are trained from childhood to notice the relationships between people. Upon such perceptions all their later welfare can depend. Is it not a mother’s business, a wife’s business to soothe hurt feelings, pacify the male, keep peace within her household? She is vitally concerned therefore with human motivation, what trial lawyers call intent. In my own field, intent lies at the base of the entire structure; the motivation of mankind makes up the plot of every biography that is written.

Women writers do not think like men. It is when I am told so that I remember Lady Winchelsea, remember also the ladies who had to use men’s names on their books: George Eliot, George Sand, Currer Bell and her sisters, the Brontës.

I have used the word ladies in speaking of artists. I ask their forgiveness. No writer, no artist, is a lady. She can’t afford to be. The novelist, biographer, historian, looks bleakly at life, lingers to squint at its sorrier aspects, reaches out to touch the dirty places, and raises the hand to the nostrils to make sure. Charles Beard once told me, “You have to have a strong stomach to study history.” Happily, I was early indoctrinated against being a lady. At sixteen, the family decided to send me to boarding school, in order to correct certain provincialisms of speech and deportment picked up from schoolmates in the Lehigh Valley town where we lived. I didn’t want to go, and protested furiously. A brother, Cecil, ten years my senior, protested also. “That place,” he told me morosely, “is called a finishing school. They want to make a lady of you, Katz. But you’re born for something better, and don’t you ever forget it.”

I did not forget it. I was the youngest of six; the four brothers were considerably older. They taught me their skills; in fact, they insisted that I learn. “Push out, Katz, with that right skate. Don’t be scared! Get your whole body into it.” I grew up believing that girls were supposed to compete with boys, not just compete for boys. Our mother devoted herself wholly to domesticity. Yet she told my sister and me that a girl could be just as independent and well educated as a boy, there was no reason not. My Aunt Cecilia Beaux was earning a living painting portraits by the time she was twenty-five, though Cecilia, my mother said, resented being referred to in the newspapers as a woman painter. “They don’t talk about a man painter,” Cecilia Beaux said. Aunt Beaux made money enough to buy six acres in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and build a house and studio there called Green Alley.

It would be hard to exaggerate the effect this had on a girl of twelve, fourteen, eighteen. I have been told that women feel guilty competing intellectually with men. Anaïs Nin, the writer, so confesses in her diary, and I have seen graphs drawn by psychologists, showing that girls do badly in what the professors call “achievement-orientated situations vis-à-vis boys.” Guilt at competing? To me it is a contradiction in terms. I would have thought myself guilty in not competing. My parents expected high marks at school examinations, and if I brought home a bad paper, “What’s wrong?” my brother Cecil would ask, “lose your nerve this time, Katz, or just lazy?” As for Beaux’s Green Alley, it has become the family summer place. I have written four books there, in Aunt Beaux’s studio by the bay; her spirit sustained me while I wrote. “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” It was Virginia Woolf who said it.

Nevertheless, the female brain does not reside in the uterus, though women as well as men try their best so to persuade us. A recent newspaper showed Grace Kelly on a platform receiving an award from the YWCA. Glittering in sequins, she announced complacently that today’s women, pushing into a man’s world, were sacrificing their femininity.

(Nothing was said about the twenty-nine million American women who work for their living.) A day or so later, a woman newspaper columnist eagerly affirmed this by recounting at length the joys of motherhood, ending with the dictum that once the children grow up and depart the scene, mothers never again experience a like happiness and sense of fulfillment. Wives too come forward with proud claims: the self-sacrifice, the best years given. “There is no career more exciting or exacting for a woman than marriage to a great man.” So writes a recent biographer of Mrs. Gladstone, and a female biographer at that.

Against this flood of bilge water I am fortified by a line in my great-great-grandmother’s diary. Elizabeth Drinker, having given birth to nine and reared five, wrote in the year 1790 that she had often thought a woman’s best years came after she left off bearing and rearing. I myself happen to be the mother of two and grandmother of four. I always expected to be married and looked forward to it—but not as sole career; never, never as sole career. It is not the maternal chores that oppress but the looming of that altar which has been erected to motherhood, its sacro-sanctity, the assumption that nothing but motherhood is important. For the woman artist this ideal can prove as bewildering as the onset of a national war. Nothing matters but this patriotism, this motherhood. One is praised and petted for being a mother, all other values put in the discard. When the baby comes: “You have joined the human race!” women cry, bringing gifts, adding gleefully that you won’t have time now for writing (or sculpting or painting or playing the violin). When my two children, a girl and then a boy, came along, I had already published two small books and twelve magazine articles. A local newspaper, the Easton Daily Express, paid me a dollar a day for a three-hundred-word column, handsomely boxed in. I looked on the pay as munificent and was terrified that I wouldn’t be worth it. When time came for the first baby to be born I wrote two weeks’ columns ahead, told the editor, a redheaded Irishman, that I’d be back in a fortnight, received his blessing, and never wrote another line until both children were in nursery school, five years later, and the mornings were once more my own. It was about this time that I came on Katherine Mansfield’s thrice-blessed words: “Mothers of children grow on every bush.”

A writer’s regimen can reduce certain nagging moralisms to dust—the notion, for instance, that housework is ennobling to women, or at least instinctive to them as scuffing leaves to clean his bed is instinctive to a dog. Love of cooking is thought by many to be a secondary female sex characteristic. So is the exercise of following little children interminably about the yard. If I had not been a writer, these moralistic conceptions would have defeated me before I reached the age of thirty. Writing saved me. The housework still had to be done and done cheerfully. The children still had to be followed around the yard. But these activities, repeated day after day for years, were no longer defeating because they were no longer the be-all and end-all of existence.

How fortunate, dear, that you have this hobby of writing to occupy you while your husband is away!” Thus my mother-inlaw in September of the year 1941. I was two years along with Yankee from Olympus. My husband, a surgeon and member of the Naval Reserve, had gone to Honolulu on a hospital ship. By this time I had published six books and become inured to married women’s attitudes toward the professional writer, so I merely told my mother-in-law, yes, it was lucky, and I had better get upstairs to my typewriter. Back and forth in the family the question raged: Should I take our daughter out of college, our son from school, and migrate to Honolulu? Hawaii was paradise! people said. We’d all love it, and what an opportunity! I could do my Holmes research in the Honolulu University’s splendid library. Palm trees and warm sea—a paradise!

The notion of Oliver Wendell Holmes of New England revealing himself at the University of Honolulu belonged, of course, in the realms of fantasy. Also, my daughter loved Radcliffe and my son Haverford School. I listened to women spelling out my duty (what today they call a husband-supportive program) , and I developed stomachaches, a pain in the lower back. Then one night I had a dream that settled everything, so vivid I can see it today.

I sat in a room fdled with people; my father, whitehaired, white-whiskered, and long since dead, stood across the carpet. He raised an arm and pointed at me. “Thou shall not go to Paradise!” he said.

Next morning I announced we were staying home, and went on with Yankee from Olympus. Nor did I stiller further qualms, Dr. Freud notwithstanding.

Subject A, young women call it today, bringing me the age-old query: How to manage a career, a husband, and children. Despite “the movement” and the liberation fronts, the problem is still here, sharp and demanding. I am likely to give a twofold answer. “You manage it by doing double work, using twice the energy other wives use: housework and writing. Or you do what Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt told me. I quote her, verbatim: ‘If a woman wants to pursue her own interests after marriage, she must choose the right husband. Franklin stood back of me in everything I wanted to do.’ ”

Competition was bred in my bones. Yet I never wrote to rival men; such a thing would not have occurred to me. Actually it was a man—my first husband—who started me writing, in my twenties. And once I saw my product in print, nothing mattered but to get on with the work, get on with studying history and with learning how to write sentences that said what I wanted to say. Many writers hate writing. I happen to love it. With my hands on the typewriter I feel like the war-horse in the Bible that smells the battle far off and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha. Writers have in them a vast ambition . . . hunger . . . egotism—call it what you will. A writer wants to be read, wants to be known. If there is talent, it must come out or it will choke its host, be she three times wife-and-mother. Scholarship also is a hungry thing, the urge to know. A great legal historian, Maitland, spoke of “the blessing which awaits all those who have honestly taught themselves anything.”

A woman biographer must, like anybody else, earn her place in the sun. When I turned from writing about musical subjects to legal subjects, I entered a man’s world with a vengeance, though some time passed before I was fully aware of it. The Holmes’ Papers were guarded by two literary executors, John Gorham Palfrey (father of the tennis champion) and Felix Frankfurter, of the United States Supreme Court. In the six years since Holmes’s death, quite evidently the executors had expected hordes of hungry biographers to descend. It came as a shock that the first to approach was a nonBostonian, a non-lawyer, and a non-man. Nevertheless, Mr. Palfrey handed me five hundred of Holmes’s letters, neatly copied in typescript, saying I could take all the notes I wished. I procured four court stenographers—this was before the days of Xerox—who copied profusely. In Washington I saw Felix Frankfurter, who greeted me jovially (he was an old friend), said of course I didn’t plan to present the big cases, the Lochner dissent, Rosika Schwimmer, the Gitlow dissent—the great issues of free speech, the ten-hour day, and so on? I said of course I did, why else would I be writing the book?

I went home and back to work. Two months later a letter came from Mr. Palfrey, enclosing what he called “some of the more unfavorable replies” to his queries among Holmes’s legal friends and associates. Nothing in Mrs. Bowen’s previous experience, these said, qualified her to write about a lawyer, a New Englander, or indeed an American. In short, the executors had decided to deny access to all unpublished material, even for the purpose of establishing chronology or telling me where Holmes had been at a given time. My work and my Boston visits, Mr. Palfrey said, had spurred the executors to appoint the “definitive biographer,” Mark Howe of the Harvard Law School, secretary to the Justice the year before he died.

Plainly, the executors hoped to stop me from writing the book. I let the initial shock wear off and laid plans. Scores of men and women existed who had known Holmes. Whatever I needed from those letters I must get by legwork—even when letters had been sent me by recipients, like Rosika Schwimmer and others. I must persuade the writers to tell me what the Justice had said and done on the occasions their letters described. This exercise took perhaps an added year, but was well worth it. Meanwhile, Frankfurter wrote from time to time. He heard I had been at the Supreme Court building and had left some unsolved questions with the Marshal. Was I actually making an effort to attain accuracy, ceasing to be an artist and becoming merely a thinker? The letters were wonderful and awful. They kindled the anger that sends one on ever harder quests; Frankfurter could be a formidable antagonist. I talked with Irving Olds of United States Steel. Attorney General Francis Biddle, and ten other legal secretaries of Holmes’s, choosing them not because of their worldly prominence but because their particular secretarial year coincided with an important Supreme Court case. I think my book benefited from the program, rigorous though it was, and by the denial of those hundreds of letters. A biography can smother under too much quoted material.

When finally the Book-of-the-Month chose my manuscript, Frankfurter sent me a long congratulatory telegram; “I always knew you could do it.”I did not see him, however, until ten years and several biographies later. After my book on Sir Edward Coke was published, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Louis Wright, invited me to speak in their Washington theater. He said Justice Frankfurter had telephoned, asking to introduce me, and why was this? Frankfurter never made such requests, Louis said.

On the appointed evening, the Justice sat on the platform with me; I had no notion of his intentions. He got up and told the audience that he had done all he could to stop Mrs. Bowen from writing Yankee from Olympus, but there were people who worked better under difficulties and I was one of them. He had not read the book, he would never read it, though he had read my other biographies. But he wished to make public apology, public amends. Then he bowed, grinned at me where I sat, and returned to his chair.

It was handsome of Frankfurter. Yet I had wondered how much of the entire feud, and its climax, could be laid to the fact of my sex. I do not know. But as time passed and I proceeded to other legal biographies—John Adams, Sir Edward Coke, Francis Bacon, Miracle at Philadelphia—I. know that the rigors I underwent with Yankee stood me in good stead, toughened me, made me ready for whatever might come. With John Adams I was again refused unpublished material and again went on my quest, though this time it had to be in research libraries and took five years. Sir Edward Coke’s college was Trinity, at Cambridge University. And even Bluebeard did not consider women more expendable than does a Cambridge don. All but one of the law and history professors I met there brushed aside my project and did it smiling, with the careless skill of the knowledgeable Englishman. “Are you planning to write a popular book about Coke?" they asked. I smiled in turn, and said by popular they no doubt meant cheap, and that only the finished manuscript could answer their question. “At least,” remarked another, “Mrs. Bowen has been shrewd enough to see that a book about Edward Coke will sell. And a person has to begin to learn somewhere.” After inquiring how many copies my other biographies had sold, one history professor looked glum. “Someday,”he said, snapping his fingers, “I’m going to take a year off and write a popular book.”

Seven years later the Acting Master of Trinity wrote to me in Philadelphia, saying he had read the English edition of my Coke biography, The Lion and the Throne. Did I recall how he had not, initially, been enthusiastic about the project? He went on to say kind things about the book, acknowledging that he had been mistaken. And next time I was in Cambridge, would I permit him to give a small celebration in my honor?

Again, I cannot know how much of the battle— the defeats and the victories—can be laid to my being a woman. I know only that I spent days of anger, of outrage, and that I enjoyed the challenge. How could one not enjoy it? “We never invited a woman before . . .”

One honors those who march in the streets for a cause; one knows that social liberation does not come peacefully. I have not taken part in the movement, though feminine activists greet me as a sister. I think they know that the woman writer who stays outside the movement by no means dodges the issue. She takes a risk too, though of another kind. Instead of the dangers of marching, she assumes the risks of lifelong dedication to her profession—a program that runs counter to many cherished slogans. As a young woman conversing with young men, I learned to caution myself: “Let him win! When a woman wins she loses.” Yet even as I said it I knew that such capitulation was merely for the purposes of flirtation, where a woman can afford the delicious indulgence of yielding. Only when men—or women—block and balk her progress in the professions must a woman strike back, and then she must use every weapon in her artillery.

To bear and rear a child is all that it is said to be; it is joy and sorrow, the very heart of living. There is no comparing it with a woman’s profession beyond the home. Simply, the two things do not bear comparison. It is false to say the home comes first, the career second. For the woman writer, there can be no first or second about these matters; even to think it is an offense. For myself I enjoy housekeeping, by which I mean I like living in an attractive house and entertaining my friends. I look on house and garden as the most delightful toys, and take pleasure in every facet. But I know also that if house-and-garden should interfere seriously with work, with writing, house-and-garden would go.

Women in the professions must make their choices. That many refuse, sidestepping to easy pursuits, is a reason why American women have not kept pace with their sisters in India and Russia. The United States Senate of 100 has one woman member.

Perhaps the real turn in the road will come—and I predict it is coming soon—when more than two children to a family will seem bad taste, like wearing mink in a starving village. No woman can ticvote a life to the rearing of two, she cannot even make a pretense of it. When the mother image loses its sanctity, something will take its place on the altar. And any writer knows that when the image of the heroine changes, the plot changes with her. Such an event could alter, for both men and women, the whole picture of American life. □