What I Meant To Say
A Collective Critique of the Controversial Book
by the Wondering Women
“But what talk we of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando?”1
The “Boss” of my book club asked me if I’d like to write a short piece in response to one of the stories in What I Meant To Say. Sure I would, no problem. I found a copy of the book at the Bloor Gladstone public library in Toronto, checked it out, brought it home, stretched out on my bed and began to read. Well, no, not exactly. I began to skim-read. Actually, it was even less than that. I began to flip through page after page without taking in a single entire sentence. Words like “penis,” “fuck” and “sex” kept jumping out at me. The thing was written by men, after all. But then a different term caught my eye: modern woman. I read a couple of lines and came across the same two words again. I flipped over a few more pages, and those words jumped out at me once more. Three times in one article! This man means business, I thought, so I turned to the beginning of The Game of the Name by Chris Nuttall-Smith and began to read. This time, for real.
What exactly is a Modern Woman? I know the term must mean something more than a woman who was born within the past three decades. But what? What, according to Mr. Nuttall-Smith, makes a woman modern, besides the fact that she happens to be alive in the 21st century? Indeed, not all women who are alive today are considered by him to be Modern Women. There’s something special that they have, or that they do, or that they want. Is the Modern Woman like the “New Woman,” only a bit more contemporary? Sue Bridehead is a New Woman. She screws her cousin outside of wedlock. Penny Wain is a New Woman. She also screws her cousin outside of wedlock. Helen Schlegel is a New Woman. She screws a melancholic young man with an unfashionable moustache, outside of wedlock. Apparently, a New Woman is merely a woman in her twenties who sleeps with a penniless man, bears at least one illegitimate child, and doesn’t die at the end of the book. But a Modern Woman? She is much much more than that.
A Modern Woman is “smart and funny and independent and wise,” says Mr. Nuttall-Smith. Well, that sounds pretty good. I wouldn’t mind being one of those. Oh, but there’s more to it: “She does not clean. She rarely cooks.” That still sounds good. Who likes doing chores? But there’s one last, crucial detail that defines a woman as Modern. She must have a husband who does all the crappy things she doesn’t feel like doing: “I am Carol’s kitchen bitch. I bring her cappuccino in bed every morning. I keep the cupboards stocked with groceries. I make breakfast on the weekends and dinner nearly every night. I do the laundry and clean the bathroom and dust and mop the floors.” And here’s where I falter, and doubt whether I really want to be one of these Modern Women things. My doubt grows stronger, the more of the essay that I read. It turns out, a Modern Woman considers her husband “utterly unnecessary” when it comes to having a baby, and insists on giving her child her own surname – even when her husband has a really cute surname story involving an evil French step-father and a long lost soldier who comes back from the dead .
Thus, for me to be a Modern Woman, my husband must be my domestic slave, I must consider him quite useless once he has donated his sperm, and I must be extremely concerned about keeping my father’s family name alive. I know that some women would willingly comply with these requirements. And good for them. But I wonder whether I can be still be considered a Modern Woman if I feel a little disturbed by the thought of having a husband who is my “kitchen bitch.” My friends would never glare at him if he were to utter the words “We’re having a baby,” though Mr. Nuttall-Smith seems certain that such an announcement would be met by evil female glowers. And I certainly don’t intend to keep my father’s surname, let alone to pass it off onto my children. Mr. Nuttall-Smith points out that since his wife is not his chattel, she need not accept her husband’s name, but may retain the name given to her by another man, her father. Can you spot the inconsistency? Woman does not want to be man’s property. So she refuses husband’s name, and keeps father’s. Riiiiight. Mr. Nuttall-Smith’s wife wants her child to have her father’s last name, because her father has no sons of his own, and she doesn’t want his line to die. Instead of thinking about her husband, she’s thinking about her Dad. That’s sweet, I guess. But, as Shakespeare's Rosalind points out, why talk about fathers when we could be talking about lovers?
To move away from the whole naming issue, I got the idea from Mr. Nuttall-Smith’s essay that, according to men, the goal of a Modern Woman is to focus on her husband as little as possible. It is, however, just possible that some women out there, besides myself, think their husbands deserve attention, and enjoy being in love with them. It is just possible that the Modern Woman isn’t a total bitch!
I want to be a Modern Woman. I want to be wise and funny and all that other stuff. But I also want to make my husband’s life comfortable for him, I want him to feel wanted in our relationship, and I want to want him more than I want my father. That’s a lot of wanting. And I want just one more thing. I want Chris Nuttall-Smith to win the battle against his wife, and give his baby his own surname. He might have thought, before he married her, that she’s not the sort of woman to give in to something like that, but I’m holding out a lot of hope for him. His surname story is adorable, whether it’s true or not. Now since I’m on your side, Mr. Nuttall-Smith, since I’m rooting for you, do you think you could alter your definition of the Modern Woman? Rather than offset your definition of her as “smart and funny and independent and wise” with the implication that she is also a frigid, lazy, glaring, stubborn, incestuous bitch, could you define her as someone who loves her lover absolutely, though perhaps, unlike Miss Schlegel with her mustachioed mate, for more than half an hour?
1 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, III. iv. 34-35
by Sadler Bell