Hannah Arendt's Race Against Time by Millie Efraim

Hannah Arendt notoriously shut down several labels the academy bestowed upon her: “philosopher” and “feminist”. She seemed outraged, or at the least was removed from the idea of identifying with any movement or “ism”. Her framework of understanding politics was that it always had an aesthetic independent of morality; concerning herself with any movement, like philosophy, a field concerned with morals, would interfere with her works on political theory. Despite the fact that she was in many senses a pioneer in academia as a prominent female thinker, she never outwardly identified as a feminist.

Arendt describes the immediate response to the 1957 Space discovery: it was a “relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men's imprisonment to the earth.’ And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia's great scientists: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.". She lays out in the prologue how this narcissistic notion and shift away from humanism would be problematic in politics and would give birth to a new fantasy, presumably largely of men who want to escape mortality and responsibilities since they were no longer “bound to this earth”. She writes that in a post World War II society people would try to re-conceptualize humans and politics not around the pure idea that we are tied to the earth and limited to our worldly existence but by this slovenly notion that we are not bound by this earth and could live forever, she warns that this type of fixation is extremely ominous and a mass delusion.

There was obviously no denying a woman’s anatomy, that at least Jewishness could still be changed about the person. At the time, there was more shame affiliated with being Jewish than being a woman, or maybe the idea was to first deal with the Jewish problem then get to the issues surrounding womanhood.  Arendt herself only ever interacted with intellectual circles that were less blatantly sexist than other circles. Additionally, in her own home her mother encouraged her education and despite not growing up religious or even knowing she was a Jew until she was mocked by others. Her mother insisted on her being proud of her Jewishness and that it would have been unacceptable for her to deny it, so she had no primordial battle in those respects.

Kathleen B. Jones writes in “Hannah Arendt’s Female Friends”, that even though Arendt talked with McCarthy about her concerns for her husband Blücher’s health and her feelings about her former lover, Heidegger, she never spoke in the voice or with the vulnerability any woman, “no matter how intellectual”, might use to express her most intimate fears or joys with her “closest woman friend”. When I read comments like that about Arendt, the first thought that comes to my mind is that she feels ashamed to embrace any qualities associated with being feminine, such as “vulnerability”. Arendt didn’t want to be a poet herself, but poetry was her favorite past time. She didn’t want to be a flagrantly effusive woman but she always gravitated towards them in her friendships, like to Mary McCarthy and Hilda Frankel. I think having to write political theory in a complete urgent way may have paradoxically synthesized her aspirations to be poetic and political. Contrastingly, in her close friendships with women who were often brazen about their femininity or the “negative” qualities associated with being feminine, Arendt desired to remain close to that type of personality, as it was a quality she never got around to owning.

Perhaps there were concerns regarding feminism she wished to address had not World War II and the Holocaust occured. Her work was a race against time- she died prematurely and childless. Like Plato, who had similarly witnessed a collapse of his civilization, she too felt that she had no choice but to write for a post-apocalyptic future. And furthermore, I think because Arendt was under such pressure, that thinking of her as a person in the sense of her identity, et cetera, is problematic—- her identity was understanding she had very limited time for a very large project.

In Arendt’s personal letters and poetry, the notion that she struggled throughout her life to be openly vulnerable and sensitive, is extremely potent. At 20 years old she writes the poem Shadows, to her lover at the time, Martin Heidegger. In the poem she repeatedly refers to a “her” and other vague events that seemed to have left a lasting effect on her personality and attitude towards the world without ever identifying them. Even at such a young age she is careful in not allowing herself to omit the “errors” that come with being a vulnerable, young woman. “But everything that happened to her as a result made its way deep into her soul and remained there, isolated and sealed off. Her lack of tranquility and her close-mindedness made it impossible to respond to events except with vague pain or a dreamy, spellbound sense of being ostracized.” Were the sentiments of feeling ostracized related to her being a Jew or a woman? She never blatantly discussed her own struggles as a woman, she only ever hinted at them in her letters, and poetry. But maybe the feelings of ostracization came from a place of intellectual loneliness as well. Arendt states later in her life in the interview, Zur Person, that she wrote to be understood, not to be influential-which she considered to be a masculine trait. Furthermore, this intellectual loneliness and fear of the absence of understanding was what she may have meant by “dark times” in Men in Dark Times.

In 1959 when Arendt became first woman appointed to the rank of full professor at Princeton, the university emphasized her gender in press releases, to which she responded by threatening to turn down the position. To an interviewer who raised the question of woman-professor-as-exception she responded: "I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor because I am quite used to being a woman". Her response echoes the tone of the contemporary critics of modern feminism, like Camille Paglia or Jessa Crispin, who are female intellectuals like Arendt, but who have resisted conforming to the bourgeois, tokenistic labels celebrated by feminists today: “girl boss” and “nasty woman”. I think Arendt would have been equally perplexed by the triviality of these nicknames which run in tandem with what Jessa Crispin describes as the shift from “society to the individual”, the commodification of the feminist movement, and also the idea that a woman is a feminist purely because she is a woman. Similarly, that a man is biologically a patriarchal oppressor, by virtue of his gender, when what should considered first and foremost is how that was built into the social system initially.

In the 1964 interview, Arendt states that after realizing the Nazis were going to take over Germany, that there was nothing she could do about it. She may have adopted a similar point of view towards feminism. Perhaps she thought that the feminism of the postwar did not resolve men’s hatred of women and desire to humiliate the curiosities of women— like how women were granted citizenship rights in Weimar Germany contingent on the idea that they were only women if they were mothers or wives. In her essay “On Women's Emancipation”, Arendt writes about Weimar Germany that “although women had formerly been given the same rights as men, they were not acknowledged by society as equals.” She may have thought that the tragedy of feminism was that its coming of age was during a time when people were not interested in humanism to begin with. And that is why she found the surrounding discourse or framework that feminism had to interact with as counterproductive. The similar danger of the Weimar Constitution is that it could easily be overlooked as a revolutionary proclamation of suffrage laws being that it was first democratic constitution in Germany, when its intentions were obviously phony. For example, the assertion in article 121, to establish “the same conditions for physical, spiritual, and social development, for both legitimate and illegitimate children” contradicted the crucial and repetitive message of the constitution which was that marriage was the “foundation of family life.” One of the more famous articles in the constitution stating the equality of Germans citizens, article 109, stated that “Men and women have in principle the same rights and duties as citizens,” clearly leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Like the “revolutionary” articles added in the Weimar constitution, granting women rights in a dismissive demeanor, Arendt may have seen the political response to feminist movements, established out of a mix of appeasement and disinterest in the world, leading to an unconscious assumption that womanhood itself was ‘finally’ becoming obsolete. Just as when Britain recognized Israel in 1948, after Jews were ‘finally’ exterminated. Post war feminism to Arendt would have not only given women more freedom politically, but it would have also eradicated the general hatred towards women and nourished the concept that a woman who thought could still be a woman and a mother and a wife. The way in which Arendt and her peer Walter Benjamin detested the word “progress”, I presume she held a kindred sentiment towards the feminist movement: that the response to feminism post World War II would have only been managerial and insincere.


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