Study Guide

Life After Life Women and Femininity

By Kate Atkinson

Women and Femininity

Doctors for women should all be women themselves. Little chance of that. (3.11)

This is Sylvie's thought. She doesn't like the male Dr. Fellowes "pawing and poking […] in her most delicate and secretive places" (3.11), but in 1910, there's no hope of a woman ever becoming a doctor.

"An honest woman?" Sylvie mused. "Is there such a thing?" (Did she say that out loud?) (4.63)

Sylvie, despite being female, is almost as far from a feminist as you can get. Sylvie definitely adheres to the rigid gender norms of the day, and encourages her children to do the same thing.

"I can't teach her—she's a girl!" (6.28)

Maurice shrieks this while trying to teach Pammy tennis. We'd love to say, oh, what an archaic thought, but people still say similar things today.

Izzie's column seemed for the most part to be nothing more than a diary of her own hectic personal life with the odd social comment thrown in. Last week it had been "How high they can go?" and was about "the rise of the emancipated female hemline," but consisted mostly of Izzie's tips to acquire the necessary shapely ankles. (20.24)

Izzie's column is at a weird place between feminism and cankle-shaming, stuck on the fence between obsession with traditional female beauty and moving forward toward women's rights. Just like Izzie herself.

"Singing about how wretched it is to be a woman," Izzie said. […] "If only one could find someone really filthy rich to marry. A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. Do you know who said that? No? Well you should." (20.105)

Izzie is quoting Jane Austen's Mansfield Park here. Is Austen being ironic? Is Izzie? Izzie is a woman who ends up making her own fortune, while Sylvie, who loves Jane Austen, seems to take that quote to heart, believing that a woman's value is based on the value of her man.

"I say, that's grim," Pamela said. "Do you think she has? Been followed down a street by a stranger?" (20.154)

If this were coming from Sylvie, she'd probably say it as though it were all Izzie's fault. But coming from Pamela, she seems dismayed at the way men act toward women in the city.

Sylvie, although she never quite came out and said it, thought academia was pointless for girls. (20.245)

Sylvie thinks that women should be wives and mothers, and there's no room for formal education with either of those two positions. She seems to think this way only because she's supposed to at this time period in history. She's not a stupid woman. Being so well read, she should be more supportive of education—but maybe she knows she'd be happier in life if she were ignorant, and that's why she encourages ignorance in her daughters.

"And does Derek know you're not intact?" Sylvie asked. […]

"Intact?" Ursula echoed, staring at Sylvie in the mirror. What did that mean, that she was flawed? Or broken?

"One's maidenhood," Sylvie said. […] "For someone who is far from innocent you seem remarkably naïve." (20.454-456)

This is probably one of the nastiest things Sylvie says in the whole book, making Ursula believe that she is less of a person because she's not a virgin, and even worse, because she's a rape victim.

You couldn't necessarily judge a woman by the man she slept with. (Or could you?) (24.159)

People judge women by the men they sleep with all the time. And it happens in this era, too. Just look at Sylvie and Izzie.

"You've helped pave the way for women in senior positions of the civil service." (25.598)

Ursula wants to make a difference in the world, and in this life she does. She holds a position that no other woman before her has, and it makes a difference that may not seem big in the grand scheme of things, but really is.