Pressures like these might explain why so many academic women I know were immediately intrigued by the premise of Deborah Nelson’s new book, Tough Enough (University of Chicago Press), which explores the work of women intellectuals, writers, and artists known for their stoical, even “heartless,” dispositions. When I explained the concept to female friends across the academy (and for that matter, beyond it) they all saw something liberating in the notion of the intentionally cold woman intellectual; perhaps it could serve as a model for their own escape from the pressures of obligatory emotional labor. (…)
Nelson examines a group of thinkers (Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil) who cultivated a cool, unsentimental disposition. Unsurprisingly, this attitude frequently inspired the disdain of their male colleagues, who saw them as “pitiless,” “icy,” “clinical,” “cold,” and “impersonal.” (…)
Tough Enough is an explicitly feminist book in that it demands that we take these women seriously as intellectuals and see past the many misogynistic critiques of their “icy” personalities. Yet all these thinkers were themselves “ambivalent or outright hostile to the feminist movements of their days.” Second-wave feminism, for Arendt, McCarthy, and the others, was just another form of misguided emotional politics.