Sunday, June 18, 2006

She's Back - And This Time It's Personal (and Political)

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.

8 comments:

British National Party member said...

*snickers

Anonymous said...

"We share expenses and work together to keep the place looking good."

It never ceases to amaze me how often lefties fall for this trick.

I buy a large country estate, but cannot afford staff and running costs, so I "invite" people to "join the community" and they provide work and expenses.

Note I retain legal title to the estate and land and they do the work required (naturally under my direction). It's worse than feudalism, but because it's couched in terms of "community", "secure space" and other similar terms it seems they cannot see the exploitation that's going on.

I end up with an estate and an army of (poor quality), but very cheap labourers and domestic servants; and what's more they'll enjoy it.

Mr Grumpy said...

Re the line from The Women's Room, is this coincidental?...

'I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;'

(from 'I wake and feel', Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89))

David Duff said...

Ms. French will hardly appreciate a supporting comment from an old re-actionary like me, particularly one who has only ever read *part* of one of her books. Nevertheless, some years ago I had the task of directing Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and I read the introduction to her book "Shakespeare's Division Of Experience" followed by the essay on that particular play. I can only tell you that it did what all good books should do, it opened my eyes! I would go further and say that were I to direct another Shakespeare concerned with the relations between men and women, hers would be amongst the books I would study first.

Guessedworker said...

Interesting post, Laban. Of course, Beauvoir's stand against Nature and for the unfettered individual will is the core of liberalism. It has been so since Locke and the tabula rasa.

A good deal of the resentment one incurrs for raising human nature with feminists, as with Samizdata and Crooked Timber types also, comes from the silly idea in their heads that they are or can be made free by liberalism. They are pathetic psychologists but, alas, perfectly capable of hurling vitriol in place of argument.

Guessedworker said...

Interesting post, Laban. Of course, Beauvoir's stand against Nature and for the unfettered individual will is the core of liberalism. It has been so since Locke and the tabula rasa.

A good deal of the resentment one incurrs for raising human nature with feminists, as with Samizdata and Crooked Timber types also, comes from the silly idea in their heads that they are or can be made free by liberalism. They are pathetic psychologists but, alas, perfectly capable of hurling vitriol in place of argument.

James said...

Hi Laban,
So you had a hyper-feminist girlfriend, too?

Laban said...

A confession, James. I still have her copy of The Women's Room. Not only that, but she was a social worker - and so were all her friends.