Elaine Showalter at the TLS:
When a female politician’s worst crime is to be unlikeable and uncompassionate, how much rationality and coldness is acceptable for women intellectuals and artists? Just how tough is tough enough? Deborah Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, considers the politics, psychology and philosophy of toughness in her study of six modern women: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus and Joan Didion. Nelson originally titled her book “Tough Broads”; it would be more idiomatic to call them “Tough Cookies”. But neither of these admiring monikers for the fast-talking dames in 1930s screwball comedy would suit the austere, aloof, serious, resolutely (if self-deludingly) unglamorous heroines of her book, and they would surely have been insulted to be linked with Katharine Hepburn, or even labelled as women at all.
These writers, intellectuals and artists insisted on the aesthetic, political and moral obligation to face the painful reality of the twentieth century head-on. Their toughness was a premeditated “lifelong project . . . worked out with a great deal of self-consciousness”. But they all faced anger and hostility for their insistence on confronting suffering and pain without emotion. Their tone of unemotional clarity on the most traumatic events of their time made them respected and feared; but crossing the fine line between detachment and heartlessness also made them seem “out of step with their times”. On some subjects – the Holocaust, the Eichmann trials, civil rights, Vietnam, 9/11 – their detached refusal of empathy and solidarity shocked even their close friends and allies.