The persisting relevance of Dorothy L. Sayers—and the author’s persisting gratitude
When I retired as a college president in 2021, one of the Trustees was determined to mark my fifteen years of service by a visible reminder that I had been the first “Woman President” of the institution in its 138-year history. I was just as determined that this not be the focus of any retirement tribute.
It seemed a betrayal of my own journey up to that point. I had never thought of myself as a “woman president” or frankly, as a “woman anything” during my professional journey. I certainly had never aspired to be the “first woman” anything. I had simply sought to be a faithful steward of the gifts I had been given as an individual. As it turned out, I ended up being the “first woman” at several points in my journey: the first woman Ph.D. in a major subject field at my first place of employment; the first woman Department Chair; the first woman Faculty Moderator and later Provost at that institution; and then the first woman president at the institution from which I retired.
But I always treated this element of being “first woman” dismissively. First of all, it had not been my aspiration. Second, it seemed to diminish the potential for getting on with the work of the given position; I simply wanted to be a human being doing the job like any other individual called to fulfill a role. I saw myself as a “professor” or a “department chair” or “Chief Academic Officer,” and it certainly seemed more conducive to doing the work if others saw it that way as well.
I owe this attitude to my family and my teachers, but I owe to Dorothy L. Sayers the fact that I have words for this attitude. When I first read her book Gaudy Night as part of a literature class on the “Oxford Christians” in my senior year in college, I felt immediately that she was putting words on my own view of the relationship of being human, a woman, and an individual with a calling. In this mystery novel set in the context of a purportedly fictional Oxford women’s college, Sayers created a character, Harriet Vane, whose feelings and aspirations about the complexity of creating a life that brought together meaningful work and relationships captured my own. I saw myself—or at least the person I hoped to be—in Harriet Vane!
In my family of origin, it was taken for granted that men and women were partners both in raising a family and in their vocational contexts. My parents and both sets of grandparents pastored churches in a religious denomination where men and women could be ordained, where there was a strong commitment to congregational autonomy and lack of hierarchy. Gender roles were fairly fluid, and any boundaries were there because of post-World War II culture, not theology. Furthermore, I was a serious child—too serious probably—both about intellectual and religious matters, and I genuinely cared about a wide range of historical, philosophical, and theological questions. No one told me at that time that these were not the areas in which society expected women to be accomplished. I assumed these were human questions and human areas of exploration, and these assumptions about gender and humanness from my upbringing were reinforced throughout high school and college.
I entered graduate school in the late 1970s just as the impact of the civil rights movement and affirmative action were beginning to be felt in higher education. I no doubt benefited from the attempts of graduate programs to admit more women to their ranks—though I remained naively oblivious to this fact at the time. I was not at all interested in the emerging fields of women’s studies or feminist studies. My interests were all in the area of modern European intellectual history—the Enlightenment and its impact on the world of the twentieth century. I did not even realize that this was also the area that was increasingly perceived within the academy as the bastion of white male privilege until one of my fellow graduate students in the Women’s Studies program pointed this out one day on the elevator between the ground and the seventh floors. She wanted to know why I was “toadying” to the “white males.” I was both amused and offended that someone I only vaguely knew would presume to know my motives and what was best for me. I fumbled with a response—that European history was simply what interested me—and left it there.
It was not until the job search that I began to see that being a woman and being taken seriously as a human being might be in tension. We were told that women get interviews but they do not get jobs. I encountered questions in the job hunt that surprised me: “Are women’s issues important to you?” Much trickier was the question, “Is there any chance you will run off and get married within a year? We can’t have that happening for the stability of the department.” I did get the job I wanted, and a male colleague with whom I had been assigned to team-teach admitted that he “was surprised to hear that a woman would be in history”; he further admitted that “When I heard that they had hired a single woman Ph.D., I thought you would be much more difficult to work with.” (I believe this was supposed to be a compliment.)
For over three decades, I navigated this work of higher education, always presenting as a professional colleague and a human being, no matter who I was dealing with. But I also had a growing sense of the challenges of being a woman in the workplace. It became especially acute when I was asked to mentor younger women, many of whom were married and feeling existentially the conflicting expectations of being a successful woman as spouse and mother while also being a successful professional. As a single person whose identity was primarily professional, I saw with increasing clarity that the cultural markers of “successful human being” matched much more congruently with the cultural markers of “successful male” than with the cultural markers of “successful female.”
Much to the shock of my family, friends, and colleagues, and long after I had left behind any idea of being married, I met a widower and retired fellow educator and married in my mid-fifties. That is its own story. I mention it here only because it brought a new chapter in my education about the tension of being both a woman and fully human. On the one hand, having a husband at my side made things more comfortable—for others and for me—in many social contexts. I had now fulfilled, at least partially, society’s basic requirement of being a woman. But it also exacerbated the complexity of being seen in my human capacity as a college president. Suddenly people would speak first to my husband rather than me, even in professional contexts. Then, of course, there was the often unspoken question as to why I had remained in my “human” calling as president once I had married—especially once it was known that my husband had assumed primary responsibility for daily domestic tasks at home. How could I do that to a man? Thanks in large part to the maturity and generosity of my husband, we managed to rather enjoy this flouting of cultural stereotypes—especially his showing up at the “spousal” programming for college presidents at my professional gatherings.
Now two years into retirement, I have begun to question my own resistance to the trustee who wanted to recognize my being a “woman president.” Retirement itself has reminded me that, even though the law and the educational opportunities for women have changed since Dorothy L. Sayers wrote her essays in the late 1940s, so much in the culture has not. Now that I am showing up more often in contexts that would define me more in my role as woman rather than human (e.g. grocery shopping in the middle of the day, taking an aged parent to the doctor) I experience more often the assumptions that it is these tasks that constitute who I am.
But even more than retirement, it is the troubling and virulent re-emergence in culture of the explicit reminder that women are something of a special variety of human being and that this distinctiveness is somehow a problem to be solved rather than a medium for creative activity. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade once again put on the front lines of public discourse the reality that the moral questions around the life of the unborn are existentially and inextricably linked with women’s lives more than men’s. The Southern Baptists’ overwhelming reaffirmation at this spring’s convention that women are not to be ordained—whatever their particular giftedness might be—and the persistent polarization of every realm of society has re-enforced a vision that back when things were as they ought to have been, in the supposedly “Good Old Days” when “America was great,” women were in the home caring for their families, not out there preoccupied with human tasks in a man’s world.
I would like to be able to have lunch with Dorothy Sayers to hear her own views on women in today’s world as well as her reflections on her own journey. No doubt she would be glad that deserving women are now able to obtain university degrees and hold academic positions rather than being excluded from such privileges by virtue of their being female, as was the case in her own days at Oxford. But it would be more complicated to assess the meaning of her work.
She would no doubt recognize that if she were alive today, she might well be known primarily in the academy for her scholarship on Dante—which she purportedly considered her very best workmanship. On the other hand, the very limitations on her calling, which seem so arbitrary and unfair to us today, are what forced her to earn her living as an editor and a writer rather than as a scholar. Had she not been forced to turn to the more lucrative work of writing mysteries, cultural critique, and apologetics, the world outside the academy might well have been deprived of the rich and varied vision of a mind that had been capable of earning first-class honors at Oxford in modern languages and medieval literature.
I suspect that Dorothy Sayers would be ruthlessly honest about what might have been possible for her as a woman scholar, but she would not wallow in this hypothetical. She would also be equally committed to her view that our world is a place where human agency—perverse as it may often be—is invited daily into creative partnership with the mysterious activity of a God whose character was revealed first as an artist. Like the artist, we are asked to take the material available to us, and rather than wish it were something else, devote our attention and our energy into making something new. (See her full exposition on this theme in The Mind of the Maker.) Her disciplined commitment to practice what she believed meant that her limitations redounded to a legacy of influence that she would not have chosen and could hardly have imagined.
In this season, I have been overwhelmed and deeply humbled as I reflect on the privileged nature of my own journey, that I had the opportunity to live in this strange and often uncharted territory of being “first” as a woman. I was given the gift of being able to take for granted what so many women have not: that they are human too. I also want to be cautious, as I believe Dorothy L. Sayers would be, in claiming to understand fully the meaning of my journey.
Sometimes I feel something like guilt that I did not see more clearly how unusual my situation was. Mostly I feel that I have a great debt of gratitude to discharge. In this season, I am doing all I can to encourage young women to not do the easy thing of making themselves smaller to fit into the constricting (though temporarily more comfortable) boxes that are still out there labeled “women only.” Rather, I want them to dare to affirm the audacious idea that women are human too and to embrace their own (sometimes costly) adventure of mediating their individual and very particular giftedness into a world in which this idea is not yet internalized.
I want them to see that embarking on this journey is not just for their own sake, nor even for the sake of other women, and certainly not so they can raise some ideological flag in triumph. It is for the liberating impact on the entire human community. When all gifts are mobilized, when every individual is dignified with the recognition of being fully human, then and only then can the entire community reach its potential for flourishing.
Shirley A. Mullen (PhD) is President Emerita of Houghton College and longtime history professor.