An inaugural lecture has explored what “inconvenient deviant women” such as Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher reveal about “what [women] are still not quite allowed to be”.
Lisa Downing, professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, began her writing career in 2003 with her book Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. More recently, she told Times Higher Education, she has “moved from taking the ‘abnormal’ as fascinating subject matter…towards looking at precisely the ways in which the ‘abnormal’ subject gets constituted and what that says about the social forces doing the constituting”.
This has led to books and edited volumes on “perversion”, queer lives in Europe and the ethics of cinema as well as her 2013 study The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer. Along with co-authors Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan, she has recently published a book called Fuckology: Critical Essays on [American sexologist] John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts.
In her inaugural lecture at Birmingham last month, titled “Selfish Women and Other Inconvenient Deviants”, Professor Downing reflected on “the disproportionate hatred that accrued to [Myra] Hindley, in comparison to her lover Ian Brady, [which] had everything to do with her transgression of the feminine role of care-giver, a transgression that made her crimes appear far worse than those of her male partner, which were understandable as a mere aberrant extension of masculinity, rather than a categorical travesty of nature”.
She went on to develop this line of thought with regard to the Decadent French writer who wrote under the name of Rachilde (1860-1953); Ayn Rand, apostle of “ethical egoism”; and Margaret Thatcher.
All were savaged and dismissed in blatantly sexist terms. Professor Downing stated that “it is ethically incumbent upon us not to overlook” that Thatcher’s death was “sadistically celebrated in specifically misogynist terms [Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead], rather than [as] simply the death of an unpopular and ruthless former Tory leader”.
Yet what made these selfish women “the most inconvenient of deviants”, in Professor Downing’s view, was the discomfort they also caused to many feminists, with one describing Rand as “spiritually male” and “a traitor to her sex”.
“Feminist solidarity can be seen to be overburdened with reliance on the stereotype of women as naturally predisposed towards favouring collaborative, caring and community-based modes of working and forms of action” – something that can itself act as “an essentialising straitjacket for women”, she argued.