Prisoners of Men's Dreams: Striking Out for a New Feminie Future, by Suzanne Gordon, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 324 pages, $19.95
A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality, by Wendy Kaminer, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 250 pages, $18.95
Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 347 pages, $24.95
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, by Camille Paglia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 718 pages, $35.00
A quarter-century after the reemergence of feminism out of the cultural maelstrom of the 1960s, some of its most devoted adherents sense that something has gone woefully amiss. For these now middle-aged feminists—participants in the heady excitement of the movement's early days of encounter sessions, female bonding, and male bashing—the thrill is gone, and they feel very much on the defensive. Young women seem indifferent to the buzzwords of "patriarchy," "oppression," and age in the '60s. Graying revolutionaries of gender, comfortably ensconced in tenured slots at fashionable universities, they still think of themselves as crusaders, on the cutting edge. Yet their female students, they lament, view them quite differently: as vaguely comic relics, bra burners, responsible for the social disintegration of the family, divorce without alimony, rampant teenage pregnancy, and rapists behind every bush. Since no fate could be worse for the ideologically au courant than atavism, bookstores of late are bulging with exculpatory tomes, mostly blaming something other than feminism or other-than-my-kind-of-feminism for these hard times.
Isn't all of this angst a bit overwrought? Hasn't feminism on its own terms been an enormous success? Are there any male bastions left (urinals aside)? Women surgeons, coal miners, lawyers, anchorpersons, chief financial officers, firefighters, etc., are so commonplace that no one raises an eyebrow. Perhaps feminism has been too successful, too soon, for its own good? But this "success" is bittersweet at best, noxious at worst, in the view of three of our four authors. Suzanne Gordon, Wendy Kaminer, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese offer up very different accounts of feminism's malaise and depressingly familiar prescriptions for its resuscitation. Our fourth author, Camille Paglia, the Madonna of aesthetic criticism, lobs an incendiary bomb into the very bosom of feminist dogma and cackles as each blood-drenched tenet whizzes by.
Freelance journalist Suzanne Gordon's Prisoners of Men's Dreams: Striking Out for a New Feminine Future is a pastiche of radical feminist bromides intermingled with interviews of upwardly mobile professional and businesswomen. These women, mostly in their 30s and 40s, bought into the "having it all" nostrums of what Gordon calls "equal opportunity feminism." Their very success has led some to deep disillusionment over the compromises that "the market" compelled them to make in order to succeed, or has left others so hardened, masculine, unappealing, and robotic that they have lost all human emotion.
Gordon deploys these hapless creatures to dramatize the bankruptcy of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique feminism, a feminism that encouraged women to compete on equal terms with men in a man's world. This feminism had as its "ultimate goal…traditional American success—making money; relentlessly accumulating possessions; capturing and hoarding power…grasping and clinging to fame, status, and privilege."
It is this liberal, equal-opportunity feminism that has failed, Gordon insists, for it undermined the true feminism, the one that promised the transformation of capitalism and its grubby values. This "transformative feminism" was "remarkably naive" in thinking that merely substituting female players for males in the power structure would infuse society with feminine values of caring and compassion, making the world a very different place. What happened instead, much to Gordon's dismay, was that "the marketplace"—the evil genie of this tale-proved resistant to feminine attributes. Rather than revolutionizing capitalism, successful businesswomen became just like their male counterparts: hard-bitten, money-grubbing, egotistical, back-stabbing, capitalist tools.
Contrary to transformative feminism's predictions, women in power behaved exactly like men. Is this, then, cause for rejecting transformative feminism? Gordon thinks not. Transformative feminism, a feminism of caring, not competition, of collective action, not individual aspirations, must be revitalized. Women must recapture the collective rapture of the late '60s "consciousness raising groups" and rededicate themselves to transformative objectives.
Women's problems are social not individual, Gordon insists: Throw your wretched selves into a "National Care Agenda," and happiness will be yours. A conspiracy of Reaganism, capitalism, and equal-opportunity feminism has robbed the social sector, denigrated the female-dominated caring professions, defrauded our children of a decent public education, littered our streets with homeless people, and we women must do something radical about it.
Now, for all of Gordon's supercharged rhetoric—in the America is going to hell in a hand basket vein—her "National Care Agenda" is ludicrously tame: restore the 40-hour work week so that overachievers of both sexes will have more time to spend with their families; enact a national policy of one month paid vacation for all workers, as the enlightened Europeans have; solve the day-care problem; pass a universal health-care program; provide affordable housing for the homeless and well-financed public education for the children; prod Congress to pass parental-leave legislation. All of this, naturally, will be paid for out of a 50-percent cut in the defense budget.
Gordon's radicalism dribbles down to sodden welfare statism. Even if a "National Care Agenda" were adopted in its entirety, a prospect as disconcerting as it is unlikely, how would this transform society? It would certainly beggar our economy, impair its competitiveness on international markets, and impoverish us all. Hardly the kind of future that women should embrace as a way out of the tensions of juggling work, kids, and husband.
Gordon reifies the market (the market programs us to believe; the market compels us to behave; the market tyrannizes us), and she embraces the liberal canard that the market is a zero-sum game. Her anti-individualism blinds her to the truth that the market is nothing more than all of us acting to maximize our opportunities, to achieve our individual goals. The market isn't a collective beast with values and a will of its own. Individuals have values and they act to achieve them—they barter, truck, and exchange.
Gordon scorns the values that many women have adopted as the price of success and complains that success may not have made all women happy. That's life. Men make compromises to achieve success, and they know that they cannot have it all. They have learned over the centuries not to whine about it. Let's hope that Gordon and her interviewees learn this lesson soon, before anyone takes their carping too seriously and destroys what is left of our personal freedom and its natural byproduct, our capitalist economy.
Attorney Wendy Kaminer's A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality represents precisely the sort of equal-rights feminism that Suzanne Gordon warns against. The antipathy, to be sure, is mutual. Kaminer speaks for a feminism under siege from both the "greed become respectable" Reagan right and the caring protectionist feminist left. She strives assiduously to rescue "egalitarian feminism" from the Reaganauts who blame it for all of our social ills and from the protectionists, the female chauvinists who see women as the "guardians of an ethic of caring." A constant refrain throughout A Fearful Freedom is that "only women become pregnant" and that "motherhood is a primary obstacle to equality." Kaminer rails against these biological facts and against a feminism of caring that only perpetuates the myth of a female nature that incapacitates women for equality.
In Kaminer's world of "imagining," it would not be "remarkable or incredibly hard for women to have careers and be parents too—a world of female doctors and male nurses and househusbands, equal numbers of male and female senators, and day-care centers staffed by men and women who make as much money as investment bankers…In my ideal world, sex, like race, is not used to measure or predict intelligence, character, talent, ambition, or desire. Women are not presumed to be more nurturing, compassionate, and intuitive than men."
The caring feminists, Kaminer argues, are the heirs of the turn-of-the-century protectionists, women among them, who sought legislation to limit the hours of labor and to set minimum wages for women out of a misguided desire to protect their procreative capacities. (A good example, one might add, of how the progressivism of one era becomes the reaction of another.) Feminists who advocate special pregnancy disability benefits, or child-care leaves, or more-flexible work schedules only perpetuate the 19th-century attitude toward women as mothers.
Kaminer, however, is at her most unsatisfying when she tries to differentiate her sort of equality-of-rights feminism from protectionism. Equal rights, it turns out, means something more than the same treatment for women and men. Affirmative action, for example, "isn't protectionism but compensation." Borrowing from the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, she argues that a distinction must be made between a "right to treatment as an equal" and a "right to equal treatment." Thus, a white male would have a right to "equal consideration" with a minority or a woman for a law school slot but not a "right to equal treatment." Sometimes treating people as equals does not achieve the desired social goal, and then equal opportunity isn't sufficient to ensure "equal access, much less equal results."
With this Orwellian some-pigs-are-more-equal-than-others logic, Kaminer jettisons equal rights when its results are inconvenient. For this erstwhile champion of equal rights, it is suddenly acceptable to place advancement of the downtrodden as a "public priority that takes precedence over the right to equal treatment of white males…affirmative action doesn't give minorities special or extra rights."
The more Kaminer tries to flesh out her concept of equal rights, the worse it gets. Economic needs ought to become rights, she argues, and the Supreme Court should constitutionalize welfare rights. And calling a national pregnancy-leave policy "parental leave," as Kaminer suggests, only makes a difference in newspeak. Despite their differences, then, Gordon and Kaminer are not that far apart: Both embrace the zeitgeist of left-liberal statism.
Professor of history Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism, shares Gordon's and Kaminer's dismay at the indifference of young women to feminism, and she, too, thinks feminism has received undeserved blame for many of the social ills that afflict American society. Only by "blaming the victim," all three argue, can we fault feminism for the social decay that seethes around us. Fox-Genovese, however, is more willing than the others to see feminism's radical excesses as in part to blame for the younger generation's disaffection. She attempts to carve out a middle ground for herself, while conceding something to the radical feminists on each of their favorite causes: affirmative action, censorship of pornography, scrapping the "canon" of Western culture.
Fox-Genovese's reservations leave her well within the bounds of "political correctness." Her standard procedure is to criticize both the radicals and the neoconservatives, but always the latter more strenuously. Then when she turns to her own position, she typically degenerates into vague generalities, so imprecise that no one could attribute any possibly incorrect thoughts to her. On pornography, she says that she instinctively finds it abhorrent, but the radical feminists' zeal for censorship raises First Amendment concerns, so maybe she would allow a little censorship in the name of preserving community standards. What limits? Who decides? Whose values? Fox-Genovese's style is to duck all the hard questions.
On the "canon" and Western culture her modus operandi is the same. She criticizes those zealots who wish to discard Shakespeare and replace him with "our personal favorites," and then she lampoons the Blooms and Bennetts for blaming the feminists for destroying Western culture by attacking the great works. She concludes, as usual, with an equivocal bow to the diversity crowd, arguing that we shouldn't denigrate the great works but simply expand the list and teach the "canon" from the perspective of the oppressed and excluded.
Fox-Genovese's main mission is not so much to nibble at the edges of academic fashion but rather to indict feminism for sharing, however unwittingly, the same moral foundation of individualism that undergirds American culture. Individualism views the rights of the person as prior to and more important than the collective. It is this supposedly "atomistic" individualism that she deplores, and she sees it rearing its ugly head, for example, in the radical feminists' endorsement of unfettered abortion rights. (She, too, favors abortion, but on different, hazy grounds.)
What Fox-Genovese calls for is nothing short of a revolution in political philosophy, one that would place the collectivity prior to the individual and derive individual rights from the needs of the collective. A historian, not a philosopher, Fox-Genovese offers no real theory of why society ought to take precedence over the individual, or what sort of rights the community ought to grant to individuals. The nature of the collective is also left indeterminate: Is it the church, the town, the nation, what? Again, all the hard questions are sidestepped.
What does penetrate through the fog is that Fox-Genovese has no use for individualism. She says so often enough. Yet when she (half-heartedly) defends American culture, she rhapsodizes about the desirability of preserving our common roots in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents reek of individualism. Why would she want to preserve a culture born of them? Is she toying with us? Is she trying to disguise her radicalism? Or is she just being annoyingly inconsistent?
Our final exhibit is Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In Camille Paglia radical feminism has spawned the enemy that it deserves. Paglia declares that her approach to aesthetic criticism is "sensationalistic," and she delivers. This book is a 673-page tour of the "canon," with a self-proclaimed accent on the "decadent." Paglia disembowels Western culture. Her principal quibble with the "canon" is that it neglects the Marquis de Sade, whom she reveres. There is something in this book to disgust, titillate, and enrage even the most jaded reader.
Paglia's opening bombardment is aimed squarely at the feminists; she blasts every one of their sacred assumptions. On equality of the sexes: "My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind." On nature as a benign force corrupted by men: "Men, bonding together, invented culture as a defense against female nature.…The very language and logic modern woman uses to assail patriarchal culture were the invention of men."
On patriarchy: "Feminism has been simplistic in arguing that female archetypes were politically motivated falsehoods by men. The historical repugnance to woman has a rational basis; disgust is reason's proper response to the grossness of procreative nature." On the feminist argument that sex crimes are caused by pornography and the denigration of women: "Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence.…It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper."
Dismemberments of women and Jack the Ripper's "extraction and public nailing up of the uterus of his victims" occur "not from social prejudice but from legitimate fear of woman's alliance with chthonian [infernal] nature." (Emphasis added.) Paglia's woman is a beast, tied to nature's repulsive ooze: she is the "vampire" of Dionysian, "subterranean" forces who constantly sucks men back to the muck. Men are the Apollonian rationalizers who create Western science, aesthetic culture, and technology as they struggle against the toothed vaginas of femme fatale. Sodomy, abortion, male homosexuality are men's valorous attempts to thwart "nature's procreative compulsions" and to "defeat nature."
Men have always dominated art, science, and politics throughout history because of their physiology: "Men are anatomically destined to be projectors." Men are the great conceptualizers throughout history because of male urination: "Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on. Male urination is a form of commentary.…To piss on is to criticize." Men are the supreme Apollonian conceptualizers, for male urination leads directly to male concentration and projection.
This would be marvelously entertaining if Paglia were not serious. But she is. A work some 20 years in the making, one evincing impressive erudition, and one of such vast sweep is hardly intended to be frivolous. If taken seriously, Pagliaism is as noxious as the radical feminism that it excoriates. Men who hack up their victims, refrigerate their body parts, and dine on their entrails are front-page news, and they hardly need encouragement or "legitimacy." If women are the demonic, destructive, disgusting creatures of Paglia's ravings, then why not disembowel lots of them?
Paglia's misogyny is pretty nauseating stuff: fetuses as tumors; the menstrual cycle as primordial muck; the premenstrual woman as "hearing signals from the reptilian brain"; menstruation and childbirth as "affront[s] to beauty and form." She combines this misogyny with a Freudian-Nietzscheian-Sadeian vision of nature and the irrefragable antagonism of the sexes. Aside from reducing feminists to apoplexy and garnering much media attention for herself, Paglia hasn't effectively argued against feminist assumptions. Radical feminism needs to be confronted with logical, well-crafted arguments, not luminous insights. Paglia's outrageousness will redound to the benefit of her adversaries, whose own excesses will look temperate by comparison.
But Paglia has filled a vacuum. Anti-feminist criticism is practically a null set. Few are willing to endanger their careers taking on the excesses of the feminists. Fewer still are willing to waste time producing a critique that is effectively unpublishable. (Even Paglia's book, which had obvious sales potential beyond the usual few hundred for academic books, was turned down by many publishers.) Women editors are firmly ensconced in trade publishing houses and university presses; women professors are tenured in universities in record numbers, many of them in women's studies departments and most of the rest laboring in feminist vineyards; feminists have remade the English language in their image and have thoroughly intimidated liberal white males. Why then, do the feminists of the 1990s feel frustrated and under siege? Perhaps, for a movement founded on victimhood, quick success is too hard to handle. Or perhaps they have finally discerned that their life's work, the ventilation of their personal frustrations, is an "achievement" that is only appreciated by the narrowest of audiences—themselves.
Ellen Frankel Paul is deputy director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center and professor of political science and philosophy at Bowling Green State University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Big Girls Don't Cry".