Blackstone’s Sister

BOOK  the First.  Chapter the Fourth.  Of the KING’s Royal FAMILY.

This short chapter is mostly about queens.  Blackstone explains that there are three kinds.  Most of the chapter is about the queen consort —  the wife of the king.  The others are the queen dowager (the king’s widow) and the queen regent, regnant or sovereign, who holds the crown in her own right and “has the same powers, prerogatives, rights, dignities, and duties, as if she had been a king” (p. 212).  Blackstone describes some of the ways queens’ legal status differs from that of ordinary women — and why.  He explains, for instance, that unlike other married women the queen consort is allowed to own property, in order not to burden the king with her affairs (pp. 212-13). But he doesn’t offer a reason why at a time when ordinary married women lost all public and legal identity, the queen regnant actually got to be the most public person of all — that is, the king.  

Maybe it’s because in some ways a king is more like a girl than a man.  Both kings and girls live life more from the outside in, more as the object of knowledge, curiosity and reverance than the one who knows, inquires or reveres — more seen than seeing.  To paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon’s famous line, one’s body is, for both girls and kings, that which is at once most one’s self and least one’s own.  

I’m speaking, of course, in generalities — skipping over individual differences and, maybe more important, centuries of change.  Still, ruminating on the Queen Regnant, I find myself in a place where I seem to end up again and again — staring in disbelief at how little change there seems to have been, really, about this business of women’s bodies.  Whatever else has changed for girls and women since Blackstone’s time, and whatever we individually choose to make of those changed opportunities, our appearance is invested with meaning.  Like kings, from infancy our bodies are the subject of much more attention than the average man’s– both other people’s and our own.

Eight years ago (can it really be that long now?), when my daughter was a new baby girl, I was struck by the intensity and persistence of our society’s attention to feminine appearance.  Over forty myself, and thus having stepped well out of the spotlight shown on young women’s bodies, I was shocked by the extremity of the responses my curly-headed tot elicited. Strangers would drop to their knees before her stroller on the sidewalk and cry “oh, what a beautiful little girl.”  (I should explain here that while my daughter is a perfectly nice-looking little girl, she is in no sense spectacularly or even unusually beautiful.  And, indeed, I soon noticed that most little girls receive these accolades.)  Every piece of clothing and physical attribute is ritually catalogued and celebrated — “that’s a pretty dress,” “ooh, look at those sparkly shoes,” “what long lashes she has. . .  those cheeks, her smile . . . .” Or the whole package may be lauded together.  To this day a neighbor, himself a strikingly tall, white-haired man reputed to have once been Mayor Lindsay’s bodyguard, hails my daughter from his yard as she walks by on her way to school — “Hello, Miss Lovely”!   

He seems like a really nice man.  And I feel churlish for even suggesting there’s anything wrong with the well-intentioned appreciation he and other well meaning people have lavished on my child.  One of the great joys of having a child is the way the quotidian world cracks opens and serves up this amazing outpouring of appreciation and, yes, love.  But isn’t it obvious that being showered with this kind of  attention before you can even speak is going to set you on a course quite different from the one you would be inclined to take if you were not constantly being reminded of how important your appearance is?  

Not to everyone, apparently.  At the same time all this was going on I was having conversations at the swing set with other 21st-century liberal moms who were saying things like, “you know, it really is amazing how different they [i.e., boys and girls] are; we’re always trying to give her trucks, but she really is only interested in dolls.”   The idea that girls “have naturally, that is from their birth, independent of education, a fondness for dolls, dressing, and talking” was already subject to critique in Blackstone’s time. Mary Wollstonecraft (quoted in the previous sentence), considered this viewpoint, which she attributed to Rousseau, among others, “so puerile as not to merit a serious refutation.”  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  (Ch. III) (1791).  Noting that she “probably had an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy than J.J. Rousseau,” she contended that girls’ fondness for dressing up their dolls basically reflected the interest all the grown ups around them showed in dressing up the girls. Id. Two hundred years later on the playground in Brooklyn I had nothing to add to that argument, and it was just about as effective as it had been in Blackstone’s and Wollstonecraft’s England.

Of course some things are different now, among them the fact that women can be lawyers and law professors and publish writing about law.  (Although, I note that in a recent survey of the top 10 most cited law professors, not one is a woman.) I wonder how our different treatment of little girls and boys physical appearance is implicated in the ongoing professional gender divide.  In particular I wonder if it is part of why we are not producing more women mathematicians, scientists and engineers.  It strikes me that in the quantitative world of lab science, hard drives, and pure math, there is so little narrativity that the presentational self all but disappears, at least until the point at which a few stars emerge to win prizes. In professions women have entered in large numbers — doctor, lawyer, professor — physical presentation of self is definitely part of the game.  To be sure, that presentation is a source of conflict and confusion for professional women. (Must I wear a skirt for that appellate argument or do I chance the pants suit?) But it may be even harder and more confusing to find one’s way in a profession that virtually does away with physical image.    The sheer anonymity may be too hard for women to accept.  It may be impossible for most young women to imagine themselves into these disembodied roles — both because they sense they will fail at the requirement of corporeal invisibility and because they are afraid that if they do succeed, they will be totally erased. 

So far, I’ve been writing as if I lived somewhere apart from the feminine attachment to physical appearance that I’ve been describing. Of course it is not so.  Nor is it the case that I always experience that attachment as onerous.  Sometimes it seems like this life on the outside gives women an opportunity that men lack to connect more readily with other people. Actually, it can really cheer you up.

On my way home recently from a meeting in Washington, D.C.  I stepped up to the Amtrak counter, to change my ticket for an earlier train.  The ticket agent looked weary, already yawning at nine in the morning.  He punched up the numbers for my exchange, took my credit card and asked me for the obligatory post 9/11 picture ID, which I produced.  Glancing at it, he remarked, “good looking.”  I was feeling depressed.  “It’s an old picture,” I said.  At this, something in this man woke up.  Looking me in the eye he said, “Well, now that’s something they can’t take away from you.  If you got it, you got it.”  The kindness of his statement was all the more apparent because the statement was so obviously untrue.  After all, physical beauty is quintessentially, paradigmatically transient — the part of one’s self that time most certainly does carry away.  For some reason it makes me think of something I only just found out about physical identity — that it is not in fact only skin deep.  A friend who is having to go through a slew of internal medical examinations tells me that one of her too many doctors explained that people’s insides are as different from one another as their faces.  It turns out that the shape and spatial relationship of a person’s heart, lungs and liver are as much her own as the parts of her that are more routinely visible.  I find this comforting.

8 thoughts on “Blackstone’s Sister

  1. I think your discussion of “this business of women’s bodies”, and, implicitly, the difference between women and men in society is based on some basic flaws.
    Consider, for one thing, language learning. Most linguists (at least since Chomsky) think that there is a substantial genetic structure that we are born with that enables us to acquire language. In the brief period it takes us to learn to speak there simply isn’t enough time for our surroundings to teach us by the Skinnerian stimulus-response method.
    Here’s another example: we have a female cat who was abandoned at the age of about four weeks. she grew up with humans and a grouchy older cat who hated her. Yet when the time came she knew exactly how to get pregnant (well that doesn’t take much) and when the kittens were born she did everything exactly right, and was a perfect mother, although none of us had told her anything.
    I have a son who is nineteen years old, and it has always amazed me (at least until I got used to it) that he has very specific preferences. Some are gender specific (trucks and guns) and others just specific to that individual. Of course there is an environmental component in that, but I simply cannot believe that that is all.
    So if you want to say that kids’ preferences do not have a gender component I think the burden of proof is on you, Mary Wollstonecraft notwithstanding. And since it is difficult to say what the proportion of nature to nurture there is in our origins I think it’s equally impossible to say where it leaves us as adults.
    Does this mean that women (and men too by that token) are more suited to some occupations than others? I have no idea, but I don’t think there’s any simple answer.
    Also, I think you are also selling people short who complement you and your daughter. I have gotten a lot of complements for my son too, and got used to them.

  2. I have also marveled at the extent to which children manifest individual differences from the git-go, and if anything, that is part of what makes me so deeply suspicious of the ironing out of those differences along gender lines that seems to occur as childhood progresses. About burden of proof — I disagree completely. And I take it that is Mary Wollstonecraft’s point: as long as the way girls and boys are treated, and expected to behave — is so different (across gender lines) and so much the same (along those lines), the presumption that behavioral gender differences are primarily biology seems totally unjustified to me. That doesn’t mean that I think biology has no role at all. One thing you and I surely agree about — it doesn’t look like there’s any easy answer.

  3. It’s certainly a provocative hypothesis: From the time they are girls, women are showered with attention upon their physical appearance and it comes to define them. We see more female doctors, lawyers, and professors because these professions feature physical presentation as part of the game. We see fewer female mathematicians and scientists because these professions shun the physical image and enforce anonymity. Though an elegant take on the evidence, I can’t say I buy the hypothesis.

    First, I’ve known glamorous mathematicians and dowdy lawyers (male and female in both categories) and I’m unconvinced that the “physical presentation” divide between the professions exists as strongly as suggested. An interesting experiment to test this would be to see whether there are significantly more male versus female appellate lawyers (where work is done by and large on anonymous briefs) as compared to trial lawyers (where work is very public). As it stands now, prior to careful study, I suspect men and women are drawn to or repulsed from maths and science for reasons that have little to do with opportunity to preen.

    Second, I think the hypothesis rests too much on the idea that “little has changed” with respect to “this business of women’s bodies.” Surely, that glosses over too much meaty chance from suffrage struggles to Hilary Clinton’s 2008 run. Protest over the objectifying, madonna-whorifying, and exploiting of women and their bodies has played a part in all of these struggles. Cat calls still exist, but they are problematized; it ain’t the 70s or 80s or even 90s any more.

    In my view, the relative lack of female mathematicians or scientists just shows the long fight for liberation and equality continues. These citadels of the patriarchy have proved harder to storm. After millennia of gender-based oppression, it’s remarkable how much has changed in areas of law, medicine, and the academy. But the struggle ain’t over by any means.

    I recognize that the question why law and why not maths remains unanswered. I imagine numerous causes exist — and concede that the “physical presentation” hypothesis could play a contributing role. Perhaps too the more obviously social/group nature of law and medicine is more vulnerable to admit the use and usefulness of stereotypically female characteristics of cooperation, listening, and facilitation. Perhaps the longstanding stereotype that girls don’t do math means they get less necessary attention from teachers so that they succeed in numbers at higher levels. Perhaps…

    In the end, I agree that many of the same problems and ironies of Blackstone’s day trouble us today. But our ability to recognize and respond to this trouble has changed drastically. And that’s worth something.

  4. First off, I am intrigued by your almost throwaway mention of glamorous mathematicians — I would love to meet these fabulous folks. Not that I doubt their existence — I just think that a truly glamourous mathematician would be pretty irresistable. But I digress. I admit that my suggested connection between girls’ underrepresentation in math and lab science and our early and continuous attention to girls’ appearance is wild speculation. But I deny completely that “our ability to recognize and respond to this trouble has changed drastically.” Indeed, my point is that we continue to act as though the source of our different treatment of boys and girls is a natural difference, and pretty much deny that the different treatment might instead be a source of the behavioral differences that we remark. I don’t call that drastic change.

  5. Do we really deny that different treatment exists and and a source of behavior difference? This conversation seems prima facie evidence to the contrary. We both question “natural” explanations for gender disparity. Odds are, we aren’t the only ones seeing eye-to-eye on this. Not how common that was in Blackstone’s day.

  6. I think something of a controlled experiment is possible on how much gender difference is inborn. I’m remembering this from high school bio, and I’m too tired to look it up. But some people are born with a female appearance – and so are treated as such – while having male levels of testosterone in their systems. They have XY chromosomes and therefore form testes, and the testes put testosterone into the bloodstream, but they’re missing the gene that makes the receptor that picks it up and signals the rest of the body to develop as male. So they wind up as sterile females, atypically tall and with hairless legs and with a pair of testes that nobody can see. The most famous one right now is Jaimie Lee Curtis.

    Anyone seen any actual research on androgen-insensitive women and their career choices as compared to regular women? Are they more likely to pursue math?

  7. My husband and I went to a realtor’s open house the other day, and the realtor stopped talking to another couple just to ask me when the baby was coming.

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