“A reactionary view of the part played by women in politics”

My previous post about Robert Peston blaming men for the financial crisis put me in mind of the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1969), in particular a passage from the Portrait of the Author as a Comrade chapter (p43 of my Vintage Classics edition) in which Koestler disgustedly blames women for their political lassitude and neglect.

It was very hard to read this because I have always strongly identified with Koestler in his other many failings, and so derived encouragement from what he achieved in spite of them. But I could not identify with what follows. In its self-awareness, it seems like a betrayal of all he purported to stand for.

“The tricoteuses of the French Terror had found their successors in the Valkyries of the Hitler era. I used this opportunity to confess that I have always held a reactionary view of the part played by women in politics. Taking history as a whole, female interference in matters of State seems to add up to a rather nefarious balance.”

For pity’s sake, man, don’t let yourself down any further. He continues:

“The male tyrants of history are on the whole cancelled out by an equal number of reformers…”

This is a good message for Robert Peston. If only Koestler had stopped there:

“…but where are the humanists to compensate for the long series of monsters, from Messalina to Catherine the Great, to Irma Griese of Buchenwald? There are countless books for boys about great men, and no books for girls about great women…”

Role models are very important, for sure. At the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern, I was struck by the contrast between the self-disclosure of this man and woman passionately involved in the same movement. Rodchenko chronicled himself abundantly; of Popova we know little. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s related to how, for centuries, society preached selflessness as a female virtue, a principle component of which was not to seek attention for oneself (for other historical female virtues, see Barbara Taylor’s RSA mag piece, to which I linked in my previous. None involves driving through social changes). Under these circumstances, self-esteem among women was surely in short supply. Nevertheless, here is one list of women social reformers which is both substantial and incomplete. And another. How could Koestler be so selectively blind?


“…yet an anthology about the harpies who left their imprint on history would be an international best-seller. I am talking of women who took a direct hand in politics; their indirect influence via their husbands is a different problem altogether – though even here it seems that they have acted on the whole more as catalysts of ambition than as neutralisers of aggression.”

This old canard – that women, like Eve and Lady MacBeth, manipulate men against the wider best interest – is emerging in some of the reactionary responses to Peston’s piece.

And this kind of thinking is, in a nutshell, why Koestler will never be thought of as one of the greats.

1 thought on ““A reactionary view of the part played by women in politics”

  1. Pingback: Friday Housekeeping « The New Centrist

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