Anyone at college in the late 70s/early 80s with the slightest interest in feminism will remember Marilyn French's "The Women's Room" - as much a fixture on the 1981 student bookshelf as Hesse and Castenada were on the 1971 version.
She's back, with a new book and a long Guardian interview - having, it seems, learned nothing and forgotten nothing. I'd been impressed by 'The Women's Room', empathised with poor Mira ("my taste was bitter, my taste was me" - how the quotes stick in the mind), was awed by feisty Val - it wasn't until some years later that I wondered if all men could really be as bad as that, and if it wasn't a tad overdone.
Ms French is unrepentant : "Well, the men of that generation were stereotypes. I was just being honest."
Amazingly, she couldn't find a publisher for the new work, In The Name of Friendship, which ended up being published in Holland. I'd have thought all the teens and twenties who read it in the eighties would buy another 25 years on. After all, TWR came in at #10 in the recent Woman's Hour fiction poll.
Germaine Greer, who was always media-savvy (anyone remember "Nice Time" on ITV ?) seems to have done rather better for herself than most 70s feminist icons, becoming that most British of instituations, the grande dame. Time was not kind to others.
Shulamith Firestone, whose 'The Dialectic of Sex' left a deep impression on a seventeen-year-old Laban (she said 'men can't love' and I thought I couldn't love. At that age you're the world) ended up in a series of mental institutions. According to this 2000 Andrea Dworkin interview, Firestone was "poor and crazy. She rents a room in a house and fills it with junk, then gets kicked out and moves into another room and fills that with junk."
Kate Millett, whose "Sexual Politics" could be found on the 1970s middle shelf, somewhere between "The Female Eunuch" and "Titus Groan", also went into mental hospital and wrote about it. For years she survived selling Christmas trees and at 62, poor and unable to find an academic post, penned this cri de coeur in the Guardian.
"I cannot get employment. I cannot earn money. Except by selling Christmas trees, one by one, in the cold in Poughkeepsie. I cannot teach and have nothing but farming now. And when physically I can no longer farm, what then? Nothing I write now has any prospect of seeing print. I have no saleable skill, for all my supposed accomplishments. I am unemployable. Frightening, this future. What poverty ahead, what mortification, what distant bag-lady horrors, when my savings are gone ?"
She's no longer cutting trees, anyway.
Here's something not so completely different - the very wonderful Christina Hoff Sommers review of Harvey Mansfield's book "Manliness".
"One of the least visited memorials in Washington is a waterfront statue commemorating the men who died on the Titanic. Seventy-four percent of the women passengers survived the April 15, 1912, calamity, while 80 percent of the men perished. Why? Because the men followed the principle "women and children first."
The monument, an 18-foot granite male figure with arms outstretched to the side, was erected by "the women of America" in 1931 to show their gratitude. The inscription reads: "To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic. . . . They gave their lives that women and children might be saved."
Today, almost no one remembers those men. Women no longer bring flowers to the statue on April 15 to honor their chivalry. The idea of male gallantry makes many women nervous, suggesting (as it does) that women require special protection. It implies the sexes are objectively different. It tells us that some things are best left to men. Gallantry is a virtue that dare not speak its name."
Mansfield takes a different perspective on 70s feminists :
"In the 1970s," says Mansfield, "nihilism came to American women. . . . What interested [feminists] in Nietzsche was the nihilism he proclaimed as fact--God is Dead--and the possibility of creating a new order in its place." Of course, most American women were not reading Nietzsche. But many did read Simone de Beauvoir, and she was the herald of the new nihilism. In Mansfield's words, she was "Nietzsche in drag." Far from being critical of Nietzsche's hypermasculine fantasies, his "will to power," and his rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic--she embraced it all and urged women to emulate it.
Beauvoir famously said, "One is not born, but becomes a woman." She rejected the idea that there is anything like human nature or any other source of an authoritative moral order. When she said that women must seek "transcendence," she meant that they should reject all the inducements of nature, society, and conventional morality. Beauvoir condemned marriage and family as a "tragedy" for women; both are traps that are incompatible with female subjectivity and freedom. She described the pregnant woman as "a stockpile of colloids, an incubator for an egg." She compared childbearing and nurturing to slavery.
Mansfield reminds readers how far Beauvoir's "womanly nihilism" strayed from the classical feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and American suffragists. The early feminists questioned the rigidity of sex roles, but they never doubted that there was such a thing as human nature, and that women had distinctive roles to play in the family and society. Simone de Beauvoir wanted women to be free of all roles. Toward what end? She did not specify. Beauvoir's womanly nihilism inspired apostles like Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and (to a lesser extent) Betty Friedan. In the decades following the sixties, it became official feminist doctrine.
Of course, as Mansfield observes, women are not men, and so inevitably they are less effective at being true Nietzscheans. Unlike radicals in other social movements, the feminist revolutionaries of the 1970s and '80s never engaged in violence. None went to jail. So how did they succeed in changing American society?
As Mansfield explains, they "relied on womanly devices." They formed "consciousness raising" groups and enrolled in "assertiveness training" workshops. Pronoun policewomen went to work cleansing the language of sexism. Tantalized by the Nietzschean idea that knowledge was a form of power, and not the result of disinterested inquiry, feminist scholars went on a rampage "reinventing" knowledge. In the academy, women took full advantage of manly men's gentlemanly reluctance publicly to oppose and thwart women.
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