How can women who espouse philosophies of selfishness inform our understanding of ‘women'?

Can women with politics that are contrary to the interests of the collective teach us anything about the value of rethinking the role of the individual?

In the wake of the EU Referendum, the Conservative Party held a leadership contest to replace the outgoing David Cameron. One comment made by candidate Andrea Leadsom about frontrunner Theresa May, attributed to her in an article in The Times, sparked a row over motherhood and women in politics.

She claimed that being a mother made her a better choice for Prime Minister than May, who does not have children, because it gave her a “very real stake” in the future of Britain. She added, “I have children who are going to have children who will directly be part of what happens next.”

Professor Lisa Downing, leading expert on interdisciplinary sexuality and gender studies at the University of Birmingham, points to this as a prominent example of the way in which narratives about women, especially exceptional women, are starkly gendered and ascribe standards and values that would never be expected of men in the same positions.

“Even in the context of serving one’s country in the highest office, Theresa May’s narrative was still defined by motherhood and her gender.”

Though some progress is implied by the outrage that followed, the subsequent public apology given by Leadsom, and the contribution it made to the scuppering of her own leadership ambitions, it is telling that it was even said in the first place.

Theresa May, eventual winner, was still understood, or not, through her womanhood and within the heterogenous parameters that were expected by it.

“I wouldn’t like to say we haven’t made any progress,” says Professor Downing. “That there was a backlash is telling, people knew that it was unacceptable. But I think there are fundamental, archetypal ideas of what men and women are and they don’t shift very much. Though we have more nuanced discourse about gender and stereotyping, these ideas don’t really go away.”

Selfish Women, a book published last year by Professor Downing, explores how ideas of women and self are understood in different discourses and disciplines, across “babies, ballot boxes and boardrooms”, and how damaging ideas about women’s innate selflessness echo narratives that have been constructed and perpetuated for centuries.

“Take my first chapter, for example,” she explains. “The history of the diagnosis of narcissism is really interesting, and gendered in different ways at different moments in history. Freud, for example, believed that a narcissistic woman is a vain woman, obsessed with beauty or self. But having pride in your child – secondary narcissism - was considered as a ‘proper’ kind of female vanity. This implies that a woman’s self should be centred on an other – on her child. Fast forward to today and there’s a whole publishing industry in the US around ‘how to deal with a narc mom’ (narcissistic mother). It’s still there. When we talk about narcissistic men we see them often as lone wolves, yet even narcissistic females are considered in terms of their role in family, as mothers. These are deeply rooted ideas that pervade all areas of our society, our philosophies and our politics.”

Since releasing her book in 2019, Professor Downing has been touring the UK and Ireland giving talks about the book. A US tour is planned for autumn 2020.

Front cover of Lisa Downing's book Selfish Women

“People ask me, ‘Is it a manifesto?’ ‘Is it a self-help book?’ Really, it’s more of a thought experiment. I’m interested in how norms are formed. How people view abnormality. Exceptional people, who fall outside of categories, can tell us a lot about the expectations of the norm. My earlier research on sexual perversions, serial killers, outliers in the history of feminism have provided that same sort of insight. By seeing how we understand ‘abnormal’ women, we can see how people understand ‘normal’ women.”

The case studies of exceptional women who espouse philosophies of selfishness in Selfish Women include the French decadent writer Rachilde, Ayn Rand, and Margaret Thatcher, figures who do not sit neatly in a feminist history of women’s progress, but still inform our understanding of women. Nowhere is that more clear than in the long shadow of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on the premiership of Theresa May. The case studies are viewed by some as provocative, perverse, individualistic, right-wing, unpalatable – but they all caught the imagination of their time. They were all exceptional women who did not fit the narrative.

“On my tour, people would ask ‘How can you spend time with these people?’ I’ve worked on serial killers, people like Myra Hindley, and yet politicians and thinkers on the right are somehow seen as worse, and looking at them as a less feminist endeavour. This is not a pro-Thatcher book at all, nor am I saying that she’s a feminist icon. But she is a fascinating lens through which to consider how we understand women. She had to tread a very fine line between gender conformity, being the Tory housewife who talked about the purse-strings of the nation, and extreme gender-non conformity, this bellicose world leader seen as fierce. The Iron Lady.”

“Despite the gains of feminism over the past half-century, to be perceived as “good enough”, women in positions of power still have to be so much better than the men who hold equivalent roles. The series of expectations placed upon them involve a double bind of being strong leaders while also being “proper” women in a cultural imaginary that has constructed the two categories as mutually exclusive. And, as they have such a paucity of predecessors, female contenders inevitably fall in the shadow of those few exceptional women who have been able to rise, despite the odds.” - Professor Lisa Downing writing for Huffington Post.

 A common thread that unites the extreme case studies is that women who buck the trend, who reject the expected rules and behaviours and espouse individuality are seen as a problem.

Professor Downing considers this: “One of the main ways in which women like Margaret Thatcher aren’t easily legible or assimilable is because throughout the history of Western culture, women’s relationship with the idea of self has been problematic. Are they selfless, or selfish? They are subjected to questions that men in the same position simply wouldn’t be.”

According to Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century feminist philosopher, selflessness is seen within patriarchy as a feminine virtue. This places women on the side of the collective, their role to be selfless for the benefit of others and her family; collectivism over individualism.

By definition, therefore, for a woman to be selfish would be an affront to both patriarchy and feminism. By putting the word ‘selfish’ front and centre in her book title, Professor Downing is seeking to challenge that assertion. But with the term so freighted by negative connotations, she introduces the idea of ‘self-fulness’.

“Even though I’m to some degree recuperating selfishness, I created ‘self-fulness’ to represent a very conscious form of selfishness. Not a casual or lazy selfishness, but an ethical selfishness,” she explains.

“The very notion of self-interest is misunderstood and maligned. But if everyone was better able to identify where self-interest may lie, I think it would benefit both the individual and the collective, precisely because it might involve making common cause with those that share your interests. I don’t think we’re encouraged to view self-interest in a very nuanced way, we’re taught to view it with suspicion.”

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The book points out that it is a problem not just for wider society, but within feminism. Not only is self-interest treated with distrust by those on the Left, for women to be ambitious or to assume power is often seen as somehow problematic.

“There is this notion that women who are too ambitious are betraying the cause. That if one woman succeeds, there is some kind of paucity model and therefore there is less space for others. Those are the ideas that can persevere when there is an expectation to put others first.”

Ayn Rand, the polarising Russian-American writer and philosopher, was a leading champion for the idea of individualism over collectivism.

“Rand was holding that viewpoint in America in the 1950s, having fled Soviet Russia, so you can understand the draw of individualism within a free-market society. I’m far from endorsing Rand’s works, but her refusal to conform to an idea of putting the collective first could be seen as progressive in this context. That said, her idea of individualism at all costs massively misunderstood the realities of social inequality and, without doubt, the impossibility of a meritocracy where such gross inequalities exist.”

“At the most obvious level, the controversy surrounding Rand’s name and work can be attributed to the headline of her agenda: a single-minded pursuit of the ideals of “rational selfishness” and capitalism, while denouncing altruism in deliberately emotive terms as an “evil” - Selfish Women, p51.

Professor Downing further argues that the case studies in her book, Rand, Thatcher et al, would have benefitted greatly from accepting feminist politics rather than dismissing it as something they had no need for.

“Look at the responses to Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged,” she says. “It was dismissed in the most sexist terms by reviewers like Gore Vidal and Whittaker Chambers, the latter of whom wrote that the ‘dictatorial tone’ of the book suggested that ‘children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy’. Rather than Rand acknowledging that she was subject to misogyny, and arguing for a less sexist society, she insisted it was nothing to do with her being a woman. That reluctance to acknowledge inequalities is where women like Rand understandably clash with feminism.”

This reiterates the idea of Selfish Women as thought experiment. By studying ‘extreme’ women who challenge the norm, and seeing how the world responds, we can learn a lot about how women have been viewed throughout history. 

Ayn RandAyn Rand circa 1935. Image credit: Alamy.

The concept of a what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century is under the spotlight. Debates within feminist studies are particularly acute and fraught, especially around the idea of intersectionality and the notion that every person should centre the more oppressed in their politics.

“Some people have rigid ethics when it comes to intersectionality and believe that it is the only way to do feminism,” explains Professor Downing. “I absolutely want there to be an intersectional agenda and give focus to underrepresented groups. But I also want a plurality of views on what it means to be a feminist, to be a woman. What does feminism lose by including alternative views of self-hood and self-fulness? By looking at women who break the mould of what is expected?

She explains that intersectionality can come unstuck when it sometimes demands that each person self-sacrifice in their politics.

“The idea of self-ful women depends on self-sacrifice for the collective good not being seen as a moral imperative. To ask anybody who has been disadvantaged, as all women have been by dint of being born female in a patriarchy, to de-centre themselves from their politics feels like an argument it is not yet appropriate to make when selflessness is still so expected of all women. Though again, as with my criticism of Rand, I would add that any kind of intelligent study of individualism has to take onboard the realities of structural inequality.”

Margaret ThatcherFormer UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Image credit: Alamy.

The book raises a number of questions, but Professor Downing does not claim to have a single solution. “It’s not the sort of thing that has an easy answer. I’ve really enjoyed the discussions I’ve had since publishing the book, even when reactions have been knee-jerk negative in kind. It is a tricky subject and some of the things expected of women by mainstream patriarchal society are also expected of them by mainstream feminist thinking too.”

“There is so much emphasis on bringing other women up through the ranks with you. Thatcher hardly did much in terms of elevating other women or making parliament a more welcoming place for women. But are male politicians expected to represent the whole of ‘male-kind’ or maleness? There is an extra burden on women who are considered to be successful and exceptional to also be selfless. I think mentorship is a great thing. It is fantastic when women in who have successful careers can be mentors to younger women. But when it is seen as an imperative, that’s a problem. I think that may be too much to demand of an individual.”

For Professor Downing, there is still plenty more to be uncovered by looking at the outliers and extreme examples of women to help understand how to promote diverse versions of ‘womanhood’.

“We have to continue to question and challenge the norms, suspend suspicion of people who don’t conform to what we consider palatable, and move towards a feminism that represents and benefits all women, selfish, selfless or self-ful.”

Top banner image credit: Alamy. 

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