Book Reviews

Are Women Human?

Title: Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary McDermott Shideler (introduction)
Publisher: Eerdmans
Publication Date: November 30, 1970
Pages: 75
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

One of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, Dorothy Sayers pursued her goals whether or not what she wanted to do was ordinarily understood to be “feminine.” Sayers did not devote a great deal of time to talking or writing about feminism, but she did explicitly address the issue of women’s role in society in the two classic essays collected here.

Central to Sayers’s reflections is the conviction that both men and women are first of all human beings and must be regarded as essentially much more alike than different. We are to be true not so much to our sex as to our humanity. The proper role of both men and women, in her view, is to find the work for which they are suited and to do it.

Though written several decades ago, these essays still offer in Sayers’s piquant style a sensible and conciliatory approach to ongoing gender issues.

“They are human beings. Vir is male and Femina is female: but Homo is male and female.
This is the equality claimed and the fact that is persistently evaded and denied. No matter what arguments are used, the discussion is vitiated from the start, because Man is always dealt with as both Homo and Vir, but Woman only as Femina.”

There are three essays in this collection, two written in the 1930s by the author including the titular essay, Are Women Human? as well as an introduction by Mary McDermott Shideler about Dorothy L. Sayers’ career. Both of Sayers’ essays are brilliant, full of razor sharp wit and strong analysis of society, first wave feminism, and the church respectively.

While Sayers probably wouldn’t want her essays to be considered “feminist,” she was far ahead of her time with feminist theory. One of her core criticisms of feminism was that feminists at times make the same mistake that men do in treating women like another class of human. She outlines the importance of recognizing each person’s individuality and no trait being inherently male or female. While this train of thought is more common in the present day it was revolutionary at the time that Are Women Human? was written.

Sayers’ second essay was much stronger than the first and pulled no punches illustrating the ridiculousness of defining women by their femininity by reversing the narrative with stereotypes about men and masculinity. She also discusses how the roles of women have changed as many of the jobs that women had previously managed within the home had gone away, become part of the corporate world, yet still society expected women to remain within the home and out of direct competition with men. I found this last bit to be an interesting thought and one I hadn’t considered when placed in the context of history and progress.

Overall a great set of essays that I thoroughly enjoyed. It gave me some new concepts to think about and is an excellent study of gender roles in the early 20th century.

Strengths: Barbed commentary social attitudes toward women and femininity
Weaknesses: Getting to be a little bit dated, as feminism theory has changed considerably

Where to Buy

Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository


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