The greatest quip on the subject of feminism was unleashed more than a century ago by a 20-year-old Rebecca West. She was in the middle of dismantling G.K. Chesterton, one of the Great Wits who had regrettably indulged in a dyspeptic tirade against suffragettes. Her 1913 essay Mr Chesterton in Hysterics: A Study In Prejudice is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the zinger:
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
— Rebecca West
Of course Chesterton was not alone; many of the Great Wits who appear with some regularity here quipped about women as if they were furniture. To read these lines is to cringe, so let’s not.
“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.”
— Virginia Woolf
The definitive book on 20th-century female wit is Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, a group biography of West, Dorothy Parker, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, and other leading lights. Dean cleanly slices the pickle these ladies were in: “Through their exceptional talent, they were granted a kind of intellectual equality to men other women had no hope of. All that personal success often put them in tension with the collective politics of ‘feminism.’”
“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
— Dorothy Parker
“Men seldom make passes at a girl who surpasses.”
— Franklin P. Jones
And the Great Wits who lacked Y chromosomes had to be clever about how they were clever, coming up with myriad ways to sidestep misogyny. Alice Roosevelt Longfellow used her pedigree; Moms Mabley used a disguise; Texas Guinan ran a speakeasy; Anita Loos dragged her deadbeat husband along as co-writer. They slipped through cracks in the glass ceiling and rarely looked back.
“I’m furious about the Women’s Liberationists. They keep getting up on soap boxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That’s true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket.”
— Anita Loos
Ruining the whole racket is what the Guerrilla Girls are all about. Founded in New York City in 1985, the anonymous collective has waged a continuous and continuously clever campaign against sexism in the art world. Their crackerjack motto: “Do one thing. If it works, do another. If it doesn’t, do another anyway. Keep chipping away!” In any sane world, their work would be worth 100 times a Banksy, but then, that’s their whole point. From a perfectly deadpan poster they published in 1989 titled “The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist:
Working without the pressure of success.
Not having to be in shows with men
Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.
Having more time to work when your mate dumps you for someone younger.
Being included in revised versions of art history.
Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius.
In the same vein, the new book Jokes to Offend Men by Allison Kelley, Danielle Kraese, Kate Herzlin, and Ysabel Yates follows this formula of plainly stating facts, one after another, sometimes funny, sometimes punny, and occasionally just so.
Why didn’t the man ask for a raise?
He didn’t have to ask.
What do daughters and business cards have in common?
Men are expected to give them away at events.
Why couldn’t the toadstool take a seat?
The fungi had spread out and he didn’t leave her mushroom.
How can you tell if a man loves Manhattan?
He may love films in black and white, but he considers age of consent a gray area.
These are quips for everyone, unlike the singular successes of the pioneering women wits. The trouble with being a tremendously witty woman in a man’s world is that no matter where you go, you’re still there.
“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do—first, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.’”
— Rebecca West
Though West went on writing well and never sought forgiveness. In 1970, a full 57 years after her first observation about prostitutes and doormats, long after the suffragettes won the day and as the first wave of feminism was at its peak, she kept chipping away:
“There is, of course, no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano.”
“Of two evils, choose the prettier.”
— Carolyn Wells
Last week, you the readers opted for feminism over cinema, but in the real world we can have both! Unfortunately, this week we can either be mannered or monied. Which shall it be?
Get Wit Quick No. 177 is what a feminist looks like and/or at. My 2014 book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting can also be given away at events. Every time you tap the❤️ below, a fish gets a bicycle.
As usual, loved the quotes. I suppose since I'm one of those scribbling females it elicited few belly laughs but it did prompt lots of wry smiles of recognition. Have a great day.
Excellent piece. Might be mire surprised if I weren’t aware of who your spouse is. You are both on my list of folks I wished lived next door.