Why Are There Fewer Female than Male Aphorists?

This question was prompted by a reader who recently raged at the absence of women in The World in a Phrase. There are 40-odd aphorists in that book and only four of them are women. (In my own defense, may I say that there are many more women, and many more aphorists in general, about 350, as I recall, in Geary’s Guide…) This reader wondered whether there was some prerequisite that female aphorists had not managed to fulfill and so were disqualified from inclusion in my book. She vented on the phone with a female friend who, without skipping a beat, replied:

When a woman is an aphorist, they call her a mother.

This reader urged me to “write a book showing that women who are aphorists have a much more practical view of the world than men. Most of the succinct instructions on how to live must, of necessity, come from women.”

There are several possible explanations for the comparative scarcity of female aphorists—and, in fact, having a more practical view of the world than men might just be one of them.

In researching my books, I was acutely aware of the preponderance of male aphorists. But I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for it. The obvious explanation is: For centuries women were discouraged from pursuing literary careers, or any careers at all, so that’s why there are fewer female aphorists.

Then a philosopher friend of mine suggested that evolutionary biology might offer another explanation. Aphorisms are displays of linguistic opulence, she said, a showing off of a person’s wit and verbal dexterity, like a male peacock’s plumage. In the animal kingdom, males typically use ostentatious displays like this to attract mates, so male aphorists might be doing the same with their witty sayings. Females don’t feel the need to do this, she argued, hence the dearth of female aphorists.

Then while researching my book on metaphor, I Is an Other, which includes a chapter on metaphor, proverbs, and parables (and, by extension, aphorisms), I came across a fascinating study. Psychologist Daniel Stalder asked university students to read stories in which they took part in behavior—engaging in unsafe sex, wasting hundreds of gallons of water during a drought, or joyriding in a stolen car—that contradicted their personal values. After reading the story, some participants then read a short list of irrelevant proverbs (e.g., An apple a day keeps the doctor away), some read relevant proverbs (e.g., Everybody makes mistakes), some read a mix of relevant and irrelevant proverbs, and the rest didn’t read any proverbs at all. Those who had read relevant proverbs expressed fewer feelings of regret and guilt than those who had read only irrelevant proverbs or no proverbs at all.

But, Stalder found, this effect was evident only in men. He concluded that men were quicker to use proverbs to excuse their behavior because the sayings placed their actions in the context of a social norm—After all, everybody makes mistakes now and then. What’s the big deal? Women, in contrast, did not accept that the proverbial social norm, however reassuring, offered justification for their actions.

So, could the explanation for the preponderance of male aphorists lie in the fact that men are more eager to find excuses for their bad behavior and therefore are more active in inventing the very sayings that they can later rely on for justification?

I don’t know. But I do know that there are plenty of great female aphorists and if/when I write a revised and expanded edition of The World in a Phrase the following females and their succinct instructions on how to live will be prominently featured in it:

Baldness is the gradual transformation of the head into an ass; first in shape, then in content. —Faina Ranevskaya

It takes less courage to be the only one to find fault than to be the only one to find favor. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Wit lies in recognizing the resemblance among things that differ and the difference between things that are alike. —Baroness de Stael-Holstein

When women go wrong, men go right after them. —Mae West