Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered, by Joan Kennedy Taylor, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 271 pages, $24.95.
You've come a long way, baby—from the individualist women's movement of the last century to the collectivist feminism of today. Unfortunately, many of the principles and goals of the woman's cause were compromised along the way. In Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered, Joan Kennedy Taylor argues that the 18th- and 19th-century founders of the women's movement have much to teach us today.
The Woman Movement, as it was originally known, appealed to a wide spectrum of women and men because its supporters did not argue, as feminists do now, for public-policy changes to protect the "second sex." Instead, such early feminists as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill championed a simple principle: freedom, the freedom to pursue property and happiness without interference from the state or from fathers, husbands, and brothers.
Taylor writes that it wasn't until the Progressive era around the turn of the century that the Woman Movement began to turn its back on its individualist heritage, adopting a political platform that called for social reforms. The activists abandoned their principled stand for the extension of individual rights to women and against government intrusion into marriage contracts, birth control, and other private affairs. Soon to adopt the word feminist to describe their new goals and viewpoint, these activists called for the prohibition of alcohol and for protective labor legislation for women and children. As feminism compromised its principles of laissez-faire, the movement marginalized itself from mainstream America.
Reclaiming the Mainstream is not all history, however. Taylor devotes half of the book to contemporary women's issues: abortion and birth control, rape and sexual harassment, attempts to unify feminist and nonfeminist women's groups against pornography, and that "treasured concept of radical feminists," victimization. She asks women to become more principled and more consistent in their convictions about the role of the state in their lives when it comes to these issues, and she warns against legislation, often passed at the behest of women's groups claiming to speak for all women, that "purports to convey a benefit."
Taylor believes that, despite the collectivist mindset of contemporary feminists, the individualist spirit of the movement's early days is still with us. She argues that two of the most important feminist issues in recent decades have had individualism at their heart: the Equal Rights Amendment and the consciousness-raising trend of the 1960s and '70s. Unfortunately, she omits any discussion of the arguments against the ERA—based on predictions of how the courts would interpret the amendment—that might persuade a libertarian to oppose it.
The consciousness-raising movement also had consequences perhaps unforeseen by its instigators. While most feminist leaders hoped such groups would lead to political action, "more often the action taken was to change one's own life," writes Taylor. Women were discovering that a community can uplift the individual without requiring that individual to subvert her rights to those of the group.
Although Taylor occasionally oversimplifies the past in her discussion of what individualist feminism holds for the future, Reclaiming the Mainstream is a most welcome introduction to a historical movement with which all too few Americans are familiar. Her challenge to retie the community bonds that were so strong in the '60s and '70s while reshaping the women's movement into one that is "more self-consciously individualistic" than of late would be a difficult but rewarding endeavor for many who claim "women's rights" to be their call to battle.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".