When women rule the world… What a promising first sentence, and what a utopian image. But when women do rule – and let’s suspend our incredulity for the space of this short article – what kind of world might we expect? “One built on kindness, humility, selflessness and toleration,” you may be mumbling under your breath. And you’d be in good company – it’s something countless others have mumbled before you. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps some mixture of hormones, evolution, destiny and whatever else comes under the lazy heading of “wiring” these days has indeed made women into semi-saints.
But we should acknowledge the chance that this seemingly benign piece of inverse sexism could in fact be masking a toxic assumption: that women are somehow more pure, and more embodying of Christian virtues, than men. To attribute this to our nature is to affirm all of its correlates in contemporary culture. These days, women’s apparent lack of aggression in the business world is seen as a sign of their weakness, even as they are praised as being experts at slightly despised traits like organisation, mediation and caring. Women are better off in low-paid, low-status jobs, or clinging precipitously to the halfway point of the career ladder, because nature has made us kinder, less aggressive and more humble. The myth of idealised Judeo-Christian womanhood is toxic and it’s holding us back.
There are obvious parallels here between Nietzsche’s understanding of slave morality and the natural characteristics that are attributed to women. Nietzsche wrote: “Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility” in that “qualities are brought out […] which serve to ease existence for those who suffer” and “pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility and friendliness are honoured.” These are attributes which make them “tame, easy to get along with, and useful to the herd”. What does that remind you of? Could it be coincidence that a mind-set developed – according to Nietzsche, who admittedly isn’t exactly reliable as far as sources go – by the oppressed and enslaved thousands of years ago should be reflected back to us in our conception of femininity? Or is there something far more meaningful afoot?
In one of the cruellest things Nietzsche said about women, he argues that women rely on “a religion of weakness that glorifies being weak, loving, and being humble as divine: or better, she makes the strong weak – she rules when she succeeds in overcoming the strong... Woman has always conspired with the types of decadence, the priests, against the ‘powerful’, the ‘strong’, the men.” In other words, Nietzsche is very much on my side. The stereotype of woman is the epitome of the slave morality.
This is not just about women more enthusiastically grasping at the Judeo-Christian code of ethics and behaviour which is our cultural heritage, but about us supposedly having in-built character traits which go beyond morality entirely. When a woman fails to ask for a pay rise because she’s too retiring, or because she feels uncomfortable bragging, this is not a moral act. It is the reflection in her of an overriding cultural pressure which has defined femininity in terms of this greater obedience to Judeo-Christian ideals.
But who has done the defining? This is where the correspondence with Nietzsche’s historical story disappears. According to him, the slaves created their own moral system in contrast to that of their masters. They took the concepts valued by their masters, and categorised them as evil (a concept which hadn’t previously existed). In opposition to these values came an idea of what was “good”. In essence, this was everything that ran counter to “evil”. So where a master might value a sense of self-worth, the slave might make pride into a sin and humility into a virtue. By doing this – and by creating the concept of free will and the self – they managed to create a context in which the actions they were being coerced into taking anyway were suddenly choices. Not only this, they were the right, good choices.
This isn’t a narrative that makes much sense in the history of feminine oppression, if only because we largely weren’t the originators of the “good woman” story. Nietzsche is still useful to us, however. The way that the slaves create their morality is through “transvaluation” – that is, they subvert what is good into being their group’s evil – and they then react to this evil by creating a new good in opposition to it. If women aren’t the ones imposing this slave morality on themselves, then who is?
The answer lies in the opposition between male and female. Maleness can be defined in a broad sense as “that which is not female”. By imposing on women all of the restrictive elements of the slave morality which is our culture’s heritage, men come away with a stellar excuse to shrug it off themselves. And so it is a sort of transvaluation: by making what is morally good for everyone (but not actually healthy for anyone) into something which is “hardwired” into women, men get to set themselves up in opposition to this.
So how do we deal with this? The answer – I’m sorry to say – is not that we go on a rampage of amoral behaviour in retaliation. If we can find ways to scale back the stereotype of the caring, selfless woman, it will not lead to a dearth of good behaviour in the world. If masculinity is defined in its opposition to femininity, any shift in one leads to a counter-balancing shift in the other. Our opposite numbers might just find themselves shouldering their half of the burden, and the blessing, of our indispensable moral hangover.