You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

From the Stacks: "The World's Worst Failure"

Rebecca West, January 22, 1916


In a 1981 interview, the essayist and journalist Rebecca West was asked about a phrase she once deployed to characterize the difference between a male sensibility and a female one. “Idiots and lunatics,” she said. “It’s a perfectly good division.” West is rightly thought of as one of the twentieth century’s pithiest feminists, but she was never exactly part of a movement. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute,” she once wrote. Nor did she pull any punches when it came to her own sex. In a five-part series published in The New Republic in 1916, she declared that women were “the world’s worst failure”—the phrase was also used as the title for the series—and complained that they had settled into complacent inactivity. Chief among the culprits was the sorry state of female education, her own included: “There is only one period in my life on which I look back with the feeling that then I was in prison,” she wrote. It was there that “the intellectual passion of adolescence” sadly died.

There is only one period in my life on which I look back with the feeling that then I was in prison, that then I was held back, by something more than my own inertness, from the upward movement of life towards the self-comprehension; and that was the time when I lived in a world made by women. For fifty years the will of the picked women has worked unfettered at the making of the system of secondary education for girls, and it has resulted in one of the most successful of mankind’s many attempts to make youth a hateful thing. The intellectual passion of the adolescence is perhaps more intense and is certainly more beautiful than first love; but because of these dusty schools where the message of learning is chalked on blackboards by women of no achievements it dies young in most of us and knows no such glad recoveries as come to love. I, who love learning very greatly, fled from school at sixteen, utterly regardless of how precarious the future might be, so long as it did not contain the certainty of a university career. The next thing I found myself doing was digging rhubarb roots in a market-garden on the wet hillside one drizzling November; and I can remember halting at that task, my face stung with the weather and my boots heavy in the fat mud, and looking down without regret on the university spires and the towers of my school that pierced the white curdle of mist in the valley between me and the snow-ribbed mountains, I looked on them with the degrading sort of hatred that a pauper might feel for a soup-kitchen where they gave watery soup. The teachers had promised, with the air of superiority which is part of school discipline, to give one all the wealth of the world's mind, and had imposed upon one so rigorously the idea of their aloof and mystic authority that one dared not charge them with manifest failure to carry out their contract. But it is not to be disputed that by a fundamental wrongness of attitude to their own womanhood they made education as sentimental, as destructive to the crystal hardness of the mind, as ultimately desolating, as an eternal afternoon spent listening to Tosti or Mendelssohn. 

These women had nothing to give. Not only was it necessary that a teacher should attend her school in inconspicuous clothes and give carefully prepared lessons on chosen textbooks, it was also all that the educational system permitted her to do. It was bad form for a teacher to have a conspicuously beautiful and adorned body, to be hotly involved in politics or love, to make art or be interested in any artists but the infinitely dead. It was unfortunate and invalidated the whole claim of education that these definitely excluded activities happen to be the only ways by which the soul can lay up in itself riches. The one teacher who could best afford to be generous was a girl with pale gold hair and a wintry prettiness that suggested that she was sweetly enduring a rule of poverty, who taught mathematics; and all she could give was answering smiles to intelligence, and infinitely pathetic evening parties for the older girls. She would receive us a little shyly, being very conscious that she had changed the business-like blouse and skirt which all day made her boyish body look like a prop caught in a sheet, for a sage-green djibbah and a bright fillet in her hair. Her photogravures of the Italian primitives were only part of a general wrongness which included amphorae, and bits of copperwork and della Robbia tiles, and all the clutter of unrelated second-hand stuff that that kind of culture carts about it with it because Ruskin once told it to. In this tremulous and absurd atmosphere of conscious unusualness we would sit by the fire and drink cocoa while she talked with earnest and undiscriminating passion about gods and half-gods, Browning and George Frederick Watts; and, leaning a little forward with her eyes intent on a distant glory, she be- came much more significant than the words she spoke, like a prisoner in the camp of the enemy whispering the splendors of his fatherland in veiled phrases of his captor's tongue.

A thousand beginnings of imaginative phrases, innumerable arrested gestures of her lovely body showed that this girl had been born an heiress of the mind, born to spend lavishly its treasures, and I could not guess what had reduced her to so blue and starved a beggary, until in later life I learned precisely what was involved by her statement that she had been at Oxford: Oxford, where women students of history are unable to study military strategy because shortness of wind forbids the official chaperons to go the necessary expeditions over the hills and dales of Oxfordshire; Oxford, where no woman can attend a lecture alone unless she has one of these chaperons sewing red flannel petticoats or knitting a sock at her elbow; Oxford, which breeds women to this conformity, this renouncement of the gift of personal vividness, this resolute practice of dulness as a form of hygiene which no clean person could neglect, which made that golden girl shine no brighter than a dying rushlight, and all the other teachers a mere string of shadows in which any vileness, by simply turning its face from the light, could join undetected. For unquestionably it was joined by women whose society was not less brutalizing to their pupils in school than it would have been in the dark places of the city to which they properly belonged, and perhaps more brutalizing, since their beings fretted to savagery at the unnatural cleanness of their lives.

There was one woman with red, square, slightly overhanging cheeks and a mouth inflamed to purple with evil temper, the like of whom I never met until years later I strayed into the Thames police court and saw one Mary Huggins tried for mutilating the face of her paramour with a pewter pint pot. And there was a little black thing with a tight smiling mouth, a creature of lies and spite and moist unwholesome glances at the visiting masters, whom I have seen a thousand times since, as neat and nice and base as ever in the downward yellow of street-lamps. If the atmosphere of the school had been hot with discussion these must have caught fire and shown their quality by the foulness of their flame. As it was they smouldered dimly, giving no light or heat, like all the rest. It is the worst of women's misfortunes that we are unwinnowed by adventure and the chaff stays among us always.

But it did not matter so much that among these shadows there was evil—for whatever else the company of the wicked may do to the young it also makes them deride sin—as that nobility passed on its way without shedding its rare peculiar radiance, I remember the headmistress, a silver-haired lady in costly dresses of quiet but rich ineffectiveness in neutral tints, but unquestionably fine; but it was a fineness in vacuo. I cannot recollect her saying anything fine, or doing anything at all, and it would be violently at variance with her theory of the serene inactivity proper to teachers that any of her pupils should perceive her championing a cause, Yet I am so convinced that she was made of that steel from which swords are forged that I want to go back to that office where she still sits, busy but immobile, before her desk, doubtless imagining herself high and calm like an aging Minerva, yet in reality stirring up such suspicions of sickness as one might form if one saw a race-horse of beautiful action shut day after day in its box, I want to find out why she so deliberately and with so proud a conviction of her rightness professed an abstinence from action which one would pardon only in the dead, and why she taught us that nothing could be more desirable in life than the stillness and fixity which are the very characters of death, "Why," I would ask her, if I could stand again in the office where I last stood, indicted for the comic crime of writing a poem on "The Death of God" in the cookery class, "why did you tell me nothing of life?

"No, I have not fallen into bad hands since I left school and joined the cranks. I do not mean that you should have given us what is known as * sex instruction,' I regard your omission to do so as one of the few claims you have upon my respect, for^ so far as I can judge from such stages in the development of myself and my schoolfellows as merged into consciousness and remain in the memory, your intervention in this matter would have put the last touch of ruin to our already shattered relations. It is best that one should learn these things from other human beings at the same stage of development as oneself, so that one is not obliged to believe them, but can push out of one's belief any fact that comes too soon, while registering it for further reference when one is old enough to assimilate it. But every statement that comes from a teacher must be accepted at once as true or the whole sanction of education is gone. Are you then going to teach a little girl the facts of motherhood before she is old enough to appreciate the physical and psychical rewards that lighten that cruel failure of the human structure? Or are you going to lie, as every handbook on sex instruction that I have ever seen has lied, and pretend that motherhood is a pretty and sentimental occasion like the first communion in a cheap French ollograph, and be recognized by your pupils, as soon as they had knowledge and became people whose opinions mattered, as a liar?

Photo by Bettman/Corbis
Rebecca West

"I do not mean to reproach you for your sexual nothingness. Not long ago I met a Frenchwoman who had been much loved, and she was more nearly nothing than even you: a shadow cast on the wall by the bodies of idle men, which vanished when they were called away to the business of life. Because sexual love is the most useful and common type of excitement we are apt to think it necessary to life, when the truth is that it is excitement itself which is life’s essential. Saint Teresa knew no more of passion than that first love which sprang green to a sudden withering, as spring things do in her country, on the grey rocks of Avila; yet she was a stronger personality than any woman who ever lived. The most one can say is that had she been admitted to the company of lovers and become an executor of the laws of life she probably would have spent her genius more sensibly than in the multiplication of convents to the economic ruin of Spain. Any intensity of excitement, whether it be evoked by one behind the stars or within one's arms, acts upon the life of the soul like sunlight upon the growth of a plant. Adventurers swept by an irrational passion for the unknown abandon comfort and security and sail up new rivers to new continents. Artists and scientists, too eager about life to settle down to the business of prosperity, find out new truths. Excited lovers cast off the freedom of sterility and make new lives. Without this light struck by men's nerves the world would stand dark in the universe like a great house unlit in the night.

"From this essential of life you debarred and even dissuaded us by your blank monotony of voice and appearance, your silence about art and the government of the world, your dreary advocacy of non-inquiry and acquiescence. You cannot excuse yourself by saying that at least you attended to your business of teaching; that, being so dead, you could hardly do. If there is one thing certain about God it is that he thinks in mathematics, for the worlds which are his thoughts are planned by that. But it was hard to perceive the divinity of the subject from the teaching of your dispirited staff, so deliberately rubbed down to dulness."

My eye roves round the room to discover in its familiarity something that I had overlooked, something that holds the key to this riddle of designed worthlessness. It emerges from my memory with the clearness that disregarded facts sometimes preserve through the years. It is the photogravure of an Italian madonna: her limp hands hold the Holy Child negligently and distastefully, as though she considered that the advantages of being the Mother of God have been much exaggerated, and she lowers to us a blank oval face with a narrow forehead which is the very throne of nothingness. I am shocked into speech.  “Of course, that is your ideal I But surely you see that that is not the Virgin chosen by God to mother the Son of Man, but the virgin who is foolishly desired by men? This is not the woman who bore her child in a manger, who lifted him to the adoration of the kings, who saved him by the flight into Egypt. This is the creation of that lust in the hearts of the baser sort of men which is a perverted form of fatherhood. They desire at once to love and give life, and so they Imagine fair pieces of flesh that have gained no wealth from the world, who have hardly done more than breathe before their lovers come to them. It is monstrous that men should desire any human being to stand aside even for the period of their youth from man's task of experience, and any human being who consents to stand aside sins against the spirit within him. And that is what you are doing. You are not free women, for all your economic independence; you are still slaves to men*s desire. You weary and starve your pupils with your deliberate vacuity, because men like unmarried women to be blank pages on which they may write what they will. You too live on the favor of men. You too are given up body and soul to the instinct for elegance."