In his time the prolific and wide-ranging American writer Philip Wylie (1902 – 71), admired for his science-fiction writing, including Gladiator (1930), which partially inspired the creation of ‘ Superman’, When Worlds Collide (1933) , which inspired Flash Gordon, his social satire, and prescient warnings of nuclear and ecological disaster, was charged by some of his detractors with misogyny—something his daughter denied, but his contributions to the laddish erotic miscellany of 1935, The Bedroom Companion, show that the allegations were largely justified.
In ‘thirties America the slump resulted in many enlightened and educated women joining the workforce. Their presence as vociferous elements in society were seen as a threat to some men and as a result their claims of equality were often ridiculed. In ‘ An Essay on what a young girl ought and ought not to know on these days ‘ Wylie voiced the opinion of many men of his generation who resented the ways in which the fledgling women’s movement was challenging the Patriarchy.
‘ Modern women is obviously out of gear. Almost daily one of her unhappy numbers is murdered by a husband or a lover. Hourly, a representative of her baffled group throws herself into the streets of one of our cities. She clogs the corridors of our mental hospitals. Escaping assassination, suicide and insanity, she fills the newspapers with her ridiculous exploits, turns marriage into a bitter jape for cartoonists and movie producers to exploit, gluts the radio with her clacking, dynamites the birth rate, creates a nauseous and neurotic literature for herself, and, in her immense unhappiness, makes the who world at once a billboard and a consuming funnel for her pinheaded propaganda. The American matriarchy is a soprano scream so shrill and sick that any basso contralto is lost in it, and a man has to go about with his eyes shut, his nose held, and a padlock on his libido…’
Not content with a vicious character assassination of many of his fellow Americans, Wylie then went on to make a case for the impossibility of women being equal to men.
‘…man and woman are different; he can no more bear a baby than she can conceive a bridge…Woman’s place is not merely in the home—it is in the home in bed—in the bed of her husband, of her lover, in childbed. Within those limited dominions she has a certain supremacy. Within the boundaries of controlled emotion, she is exalted. But in the objective-creative world, towards which she is being directed today, she is a suffering anomaly or a grotesque farce. That fact is plainly self-evident, but it cannot be stamped into the brains of the multitude… ‘
In no way, Wylie declared, can it be argued that ‘woman is the duplicate of man, an intellectual ball of fire, a creator, a leader, or an independent unit.’ On the contrary, a woman is liable at any moment to become ‘ chicken-headed, volatile, unstable, incompetent, hysterical, moody, illogical, uncomprehending, querulous, prejudiced, trivial, personal, gossipy, frustrated, weepy, wretched, silly, slovenly, truculent, dissatisfied and impossible ‘. They are moreover unable to understand theory, ‘ imitative, devoid of mental stamina, analytical and …incredibly stupid in spite of exposure to fact.’
Wylie then asks the question that many other misogynists have asked over the centuries:-
‘ If women are the intellectual equal of man, why, since they have always enjoyed more leisure in the past, have they given not an iota of evidence of it? One would think that in five hundred thousand years the thousand million women continually gabbling on the planet’s face would have left a mark of competitive effectiveness equal to say ( conservatively) one ten-thousandth of one per cent. But not even so small a fraction of achievement is discoverable, and the only worthy women of the past attained their positions by being the noble wives or glamorous mistresses of men…’
Wylie conveniently ignores all the examples of great women who did not belong in this category and selects out one high achiever, Madame Curie, who he contends did not actually do the work that led to the discovery of radium. According to Wylie, Monsieur Curie did it, and Madame Curie has ‘denied the credit ever since ‘.
As for educating women, forget it.
‘The average dim-brain, hip oscillating in a daisy chain towards a University degree, is no more educated than the frog’s leg she gingerly dissected in Freshman biology. She has been made to retain the unorganized nonsense flung at her long enough to squirt it through a fountain pen onto an examination paper, but lacking a cerebral sphincter, she has held none of it where it might ultimately act as a decoration, a nutrient enema, to her chatter…’
Wylie acknowledges that some women have been sufficiency educated to achieve positions in psychology, politics, religion, medicine the law and commerce, but contends that their power was at the expense of men in which ‘ ability, dependability and genius’ resided. In short, according to Wylie, ‘ civilisation needs the women about as much as a locomotive needs cut-glass wheels’.
It is interesting to note that this last remark reminds us of that famous feminist slogan ‘ A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’.
Wylie concludes his rant by questioning whether a highly educated modern woman is a woman at all. ‘ Half our women are frigid ‘, he claims, and have swapped their birthrights as the rightful companions and lovers of men for ‘ a mess of pottage ‘. Their ‘eunuch legions ‘ have stampeded away from love and so away from peace and sanity’.
Wylie and his first wife were divorced, possibly as a result of diatribes like this. Later, in The Disappearance (1951) Wylie addressed the issues of women’s rights and the relationship between men and women in a reasonable way, but in his notorious polemic Generation of Vipers he reiterates the views expressed in his Bedroom Companion article and in a very similar style. In an article published in The Washington Post in 2005 the columnist Jonathan Yardley condemned this brutal attack on women, calling it ‘ high octane twaddle ‘ and ‘the sound of Mencken without the music’. [ R Healey]