Media: On Bill Clinton and Paula Jones

“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”

OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around any­more; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and mari­juana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural poli­tics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”

Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively ar­gued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been fail­ures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)

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But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allega­tions of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon­ — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises­ — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”

I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep struc­ture of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are in­herently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flow­ers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban mis­sile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and pri­vate, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once com­plained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.

In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-­baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clin­ton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently tran­scended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and commit­ting, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Nar­cissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?

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An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.

When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history re­peats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increas­ingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender con­flict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the defini­tion of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relative­ly specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual pig­gishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expres­sion is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have ar­rived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.

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The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the con­servative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban under­class.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of com­mentary, some of which I’ve written my­self, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-con­trol breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■


Sisters Under the Skin: Confronting Race and Sex

Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute divi­sion than sex, a more basic determi­nant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to say that one social division is more absolute than another. I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of different kinds of division. Most blacks and whites live in separate communities, in dif­ferent social, cultural, and economic worlds, while most women and men share each other’s daily, intimate lives and cooperate, even if unequally, in such elemental activities as fucking, procreating, and keeping a household going. On the other hand, a man and a woman can spend their lives to­gether and have such disparate ver­sions of their “common” experience that they might as well live on different planets. Do I feel more distant from black women than from white men? Everything else (class) being equal? (Except that it usually isn’t.) In some ways yes, in some ways no. But whatever the objective truth, my sex feels more basic to my identity than my race. This is not surprising: in a sexist society it’s impossible to take one’s femaleness for granted; in a racist society whiteness is sim­ply generic humanness, entirely un­remarkable. Suppose, though, that a black revolution were to seriously challenge my racial privileges? Suppose I had to confront every day, every hour, the question of which side I’m on?

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Such questions excite and disturb me. Like talk about sexuality, discussions of the racial­-sexual nexus radiate danger and taboo — a sign that the participants are on to some­thing. Lately such discussions, mostly in­itiated by black women, are happening more often. They raise the heartening possibility of connecting, and in the process revitalizing, the unhappily divergent discourses of feminism and black liberation. This could be the first step toward creating a new feminist radicalism, whose interracial, interclass bonds go deeper than lowest-common-denominator coalition politics.

One of the women at the meeting suggested that I read Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase­-Riboud’s controversial historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress. I found it a devastating study of the psychology of mas­ters and slaves, the politics of romantic love, the relations between black and white women, and the institution of the family. Much of its power lies in the way the author merges the race and sex of each character into a seamless whole, bringing home the point that to abstract these categories is al­ready to falsify experience. So long as white­ness and maleness remain the norm, white women can think of themselves as “women,” black men as “blacks”; but black women, doubly the Other, must be constantly aware of their dual identity at the same time that they suffer from both racial and sexual in­visibility. In forcing the rest of us to see them, they also present us with new and far less tidy pictures of ourselves.

This suggests that confronting the op­pression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues. It also means questioning the intellec­tual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist move­ments have set up. If race and sex are ex­perientially inseparable, can we (should we) still analyze them separately? If all women are subject to male supremacy yet black and white women play out their relations with men (both inside and outside their own communities) in different ways — do they still have a common core of female experience, a common political oppression as women? Theoretically, the different situations of black women and black men should raise the same sort of question. But in practice black women single out their relation to white women and feminism as the more painful, problematic issue. This subject is now bursting through a decade’s sediment of sloganeer­ing, ritualistic condemnations, and liberal apologies to inform some provocative new writing.

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But first, I feel I have to say something about Angela Davis. Women, Race and Class may have been inspired by all this ferment, but the kindest judgment I can make is that it misses the point. From Davis’s orthodox Marxist perspective (still CP after all these years!), in which economic relations determine all, while sexual relations have no material status and sexism is merely a set of bad attitudes, the question of how racial and sexual politics interact loses its meaning. Da­vis strips racism of its psychocultural dimension and treats it strictly as a form of economic exploitation; she tends to ignore sexism altogether, except when invoking it as an excuse for white bourgeois feminists to undermine the struggles of black and work­ing people. (For instance, she rightly condemns the racism of white suffragists outraged at the prospect that black men would get the vote before white women — but rationalizes the sexism that prompted black men to sell out women of both races by agreeing that the black male vote should have priority. Black men’s “sexist attitudes,” Da­vis argues, were “hardly a sound reason for arresting the progress of the overall struggle for Black liberation” — and never mind the effect on that struggle of denying the vote to half the black population.) Still, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Davis’s book as an anachronism. In more subtle and am­biguous forms, its brand of left antifeminism continues to influence women’s thinking. Besides, Angela Davis is a public figure, and Women, Race and Class will undoubtedly outsell both the books I’m about to discuss.

Gloria I. Joseph is black; Jill Lewis is white. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, they attempt to explore their separate his­tories, confront misunderstandings, and move toward “collaborative struggle.” The book has the flavor of an open-ended political conversation; for the most part the authors write separate chapters, each commenting from her own perspective on various aspects of sexual politics. The result is uneven, full of intellectual loose ends and contradictions, and both writers have an unfortunate penchant for clotted, obfuscatory prose. But Common Differences does help to clarify touchy areas of black-white conflict. Joseph’s, chapters — which taught me a lot, especially about black mothers and daughters — are a valuable counterweight (and an implicit re­buke) to the tendency of white feminist theo­rists to base their generalizations about the female condition on white women’s experi­ence. In discussing black women’s lives, Jo­seph uses a time-honored feminist method: she records group discussions and individual comments, picks out common themes and contradictions, and tries to draw conclusions. The immediacy of this material exposes white feminist parochialism more effectively than any abstract argument.

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Without denying the movement’s short­comings, Lewis sets out to debunk the stere­otype of the spoiled, elitist “women’s libber.” The feminist movement, she maintains, de­serves recognition as the only social move­ment to challenge the status of women as women. She argues that white feminists have been struggling toward a deeper understand­ing of race and class, and that even those sectors of the movement most narrowly ori­ented to white middle-class concerns “have engaged in and won concrete struggles that potentially open up new terrain for all women.”

In their introduction, Joseph and Lewis agree that “as a political movement, women’s liberation did and does touch on questions which in different ways affect all women’s lives.” But Common Differences is much more about difference than about commonality. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism Bell Hooks strides boldly be­yond pluralism to the rockier ground of synthesis. While Hooks also stresses the uniqueness of black women’s experience and the ways it has been discounted, her aim is to enlarge the theoretical framework of feminism. To this end she analyzes black women’s condition in a historical context, tracing the basic patterns of black-female oppression to slavery and developing three intertwined themes: black men’s sexism, white women’s racism, and the effect of white men’s racial-sexual politics on the relations between black and white women. Hooks is a contentious writer, and I don’t always agree with her contentions, but Ain’t I a Woman has an intellectual vitality and daring that should set new standards for the discussion of race and sex.

The central political question these books raise is why the contemporary feminist move­ment has been so white. Most critics of the movement have offered a simple answer: white feminists’ racism has driven black women away. This indictment is true as far as it goes, but it already takes for granted facts that need explaining. Why, in the first place,­was it primarily white women, rather than black women or both groups simultaneously, who felt impelled to mobilize against sexism? And why did so many politically conscious black women reject the movement (in some cases the very idea of feminism) out of hand, rather than insisting that it purge its theory and practice of racism, or organizing groups committed to a nonracist feminist politics? Antifeminist leftists have typically argued that sexual politics are inherently a white middle-class crotchet, irrelevant to women, who are “really” — i.e., economically and racially — oppressed. Or else (this is Angela Da­vis’s main strategy) they redefine feminism to mean women fighting together against ra­cism and capitalism, and conclude that black and white working class women have been the leaders of the real feminist struggle. Ei­ther way they imply that sexism is not a problem for black women, if indeed it is a problem at all.

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Hooks, Joseph, and Lewis reject this idea. They assume that black women have a stake in women’s liberation, and see white feminists’ racism as part of a complex social history that has shaped black women’s politics. Bell Hooks argues that estrangement between black and white women goes all the way back to slavery. The terms of the conflict, as she sees it, were defined by white men who applied racism to a Victorian sexual (and class) ideology that divided women into two categories: good (chaste, delicate, to be pro­tected and idealized) and bad (licentious, unrefined, to be exploited and punished). While the white upper-class southern woman represented the feminine ideal, black female slaves were stigmatized, in schizoid fashion, both as bad women — therefore deserving to be raped and beaten — and as nonwomen: in doing the same work as men, black women threatened the ideology of female inferiority, a contradiction resolved by def ming them as neuter beasts of burden.

At the same time, the white woman’s power to collaborate in oppressing blacks softened and obscured the realism of her own inferior position. She exercised this power most directly over female slaves, whom she often treated with the special viciousness of the insecure. No doubt the degraded status of black women also reminded her, subconsciously at least, of what can happen to any female who provokes men into drop­ping the mask of patriarchal benevolence. As Hooks observes, the manifest cruelty of white women’s own husbands, fathers, and broth­ers “served as a warning of what might be their fate should they not maintain a passive stance. Surely, it must have occurred to white women that were enslaved black women not available to bear the brunt of such intense antiwoman aggression, they themselves might have been the victims.” As a result, the very identification that might have led white women to black women’s defense probably had the opposite effect. White men’s sexual pursuit of black women also exposed white women’s humiliating position: they could neither prevent their husbands’ behavior nor claim a comparable freedom for themselves. Instead they expressed their anger, salvaged their pride, and defended their own good­-woman status by vilifying black women as seducers and sluts.

Hooks shows that what she calls the “dev­aluation of black womanhood” did not end with slavery but remains a potent source of black women’s rage. Her account of how black women are systematically disparaged as whores, castrating matriarchs, and sexless mammies explains a crucial ingredient of black female hostility to the women’s move­ment. Clearly, when white feminists ignored black female experience and in effect equated “woman” with “white woman,” the result had a double meaning for black women: it suggested that we were not only enforcing white supremacy but trying to have it both ways by preserving our mono­poly on femininity and its rewards (respect, status, financial support) while demanding the option of rejecting it. This perception of bad faith fueled the angry denunciations of feminism as “white women’s business.”

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But envying white women’s “femininity” is a trap for black women, as Hooks is well aware. Idealization of the white woman’s status has tended to divert black women from demanding sexual justice to attacking black men for their inability to support stay-at­-home wives. Many black women have en­dorsed black male demands for female subservience in the hope that at last they would get a crack at the pedestal. At the same time, their envy of white women has been mixed with contempt, an emotion that led some black women to insist they didn’t need a movement because they were already liberated. Another illusion in Hooks’s relentless catalogue: strength in adversity and the need to make a living are not the same thing as freedom.

Gloria Joseph emphasizes the painful col­lisions of black and female identity. As she says, “an individual cannot be two separate entities. Yet black women suffer from two modes of oppression and so are implicated, like it or not, in two social movements at once. At best this involves a double burden, at worst a continuing conflict of loyalties and priorities. Joseph shows that deep ambivalences permeate black women’s think­ing — on black men (distrust and antagonism mixed with solidarity, affection, and protectiveness), on sex (“a desirable no-no,’ an ‘attractive nuisance'”), on feminism itself (most of Joseph’s respondents reject the movement but endorse its goals). Her argu­ment suggests that black women have been slow to commit themselves to feminism — especially the more radical aspects of sexual politics — for fear of weakening their ties with the black community and the black struggle. Jill Lewis points out that white middle-class women could focus single-mindedly on feminism because “they did not have the stakes of racial unity or solidarity with White men that the Black women had with Black men” and because their privileges left them “free of the survival struggles that are prior­ities for minority and working-class women.” If anything, class and racial privileges (par­ticularly education) spurred their conscious­ness of sexual injustice by raising expectations that were thwarted purely because they were women.

Ironically, Joseph exemplifies the dilemma she describes: like many other black women who define themselves as feminists, she draws the line at calling black men op­pressors. While Joseph and Lewis agree that black and white women are oppressed as women, they uncritically assume that male supremacy is a product of white culture, and that the concept does not really apply to male-female relations among blacks, except insofar as all white institutions and values shape black life. Lewis asserts that institutionalized sexism in America was imported by European immigrants, as if Native Ameri­can, African, and other nonwhite cultures were free of male dominance. In fact, no anthropologist, feminist or otherwise, has ever come up with convincing evidence of a culture in which some form of male domi­nance does not exist.

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Lewis and Joseph argue that because black men do not have the same worldly power as white men, “Male dominance as a salient problematic factor in male-female sexual re­lationships cannot be considered as a univer­sal trait applicable to all men.” But Joseph’s own descriptions of black women’s attitudes toward sex, men, and marriage — not to men­tion their struggles to bring up children alone — belie this view. Rather, her evidence confirms that despite black men’s economic and social subordination to whites they share with all men certain male supremacist prerogatives, including physical and sexual aggression, the assumption of male superior­ity, and refusal to share responsibility for child rearing and housework. Joseph and Lewis also make the puzzling claim that ex­ist repression is more severe for white women because “Black women can be kept in their places via racism alone.” Does racism alone account for black women’s oppression as mothers, workers (including domestic work­ers), welfare recipients, prostitutes, victims of rape and sexual exploitation?

All this adds up to a bad case of conceptual confusion. You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism — that men have power over women. Women who engage in this form of doublethink still have a toe or two in the camp of left antifeminism; while rejecting crude economism of the Angela Da­vis variety, they assume that sexism is perpetuated not by men in general but by a white capitalist ruling class.

Hooks insists on the reality of black male sexism. Discussing the experience of female slaves, she angrily refute the cliché that “the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery … was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. This idea, she argues, merely reflects the sexist assumption that men’s experience is more important than women’s and that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman.” In fact, though all slaves suffered brutal oppression, “black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role.” Not­ing that American blacks came from African patriarchal cultures, Hooks rejects the idea that black men learned sexism from whites and the myth (repeated once again by Angela Davis) that within the slave community men and women were equal. On the contrary, the slaves accepted the concept of male superior­ity, and black families maintained a sexual division of labor, with women doing the cook­ing, cleaning, and child care. Nor did slaveholders assign black men “women’s work.” Black women, however, were forced by their white masters to perform both “masculine” and “feminine” functions, work­ing alongside black men at backbreaking la­bor in the fields, while also serving as house­workers, breeders, and sexual objects.

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Hooks implicitly links what she sees as black women’s false consciousness about sex­ism with their political isolation: while the sexism of black male activists has forced black women to choose between asserting themselves as women and maintaining racial solidarity, the racism of white feminists has reinforced and justified that split. Ain’t I a Woman describes how this combination of pressures undermined black women’s efforts to participate in both 19th and 20th century feminist movements. In dissecting the rhetoric of the contemporary black and women’s movements, Hooks shows how sex­ism has been promoted as a cure for racism, sisterhood as a rationale for ignoring it. Black power advocates, confusing liberation with the assertion of their “manhood,” embraced a white man’s contention that a black matriarchy was the cause of their problems, and called on black women to advance the black cause by being submissive; some even suggested that sexual equality was a white racist idea, indicative of the white man’s effeteness and decadence. Black Muslims tried to reverse the racist Victorian para­digm, defining black women as the feminine ideal and white women as devils (and estab­lishing rigid patriarchal families).

Meanwhile the early radical feminists were claiming that the division between men and women was the most basic social hierarchy, and that since men had ruled every known political system, racism was basically a male problem (“men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest” — Redstockings Man­ifesto). This analysis, which I and most of my political cohorts then subscribed to, has had a good deal of influence on the movement as a whole. It has two erroneous implications: that it’s impossible for white women to op­press black men, and that racial conflict be­tween black women and white women has no objective basis, but is (on both sides) an inauthentic antagonism that only serves the interests of men. Radical feminists under­stood, theoretically, that to build female unity white women had to oppose racism and change their own racist attitudes and behav­ior. We were sharply critical of liberal feminists who defined women’s freedom in terms of professional careers and formal equality within a racist, class-stratified social system. Yet emotionally our belief that sex as a more basic division than race allowed us to evade responsibility for racism. It is tempting to imagine that simply by doing what we wanted most passionately to do — build a radical feminist movement — we would also be fighting racism; tempting, too, to play down how much we benefited from being white. For while feminism seemed a way out of the classic bind of white middle­-class radicals: we no longer had to see ourselves as privileged people wondering where we fit into the revolutionary struggle; we too were part of an oppressed class with a historic destiny.

Hooks’s anger at this refusal to be accountable is well-deserved. But when she gets down to specifics, she tends to oversimplify and at times rewrite history. In her indict­ment of “white upper and middle class feminists” (Abby Rockefeller aside, who are these upper-class feminists I keep hearing about?), the movement becomes a monolith. The political difference between liberals and radicals, the social conditions that al­lowed the former to co-opt snd isolate the latter, the fierce intramovement debates about race and class are ignored or dismissed. White feminists’ main aim, Hooks charges, has been to join the male power structure; the movement has posed no threat to the system.

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This is silly. The women’s movement has been no more or less opportunistic than the black movement, the labor movement, or any other mass movement successful enough to attract power mongers. Feminists have not succeeded in making a revolution (neither, I believe, has the rest of the left), but — as Jill Lewis ably argues — we did create a new polit­ical arena and set a revolutionary process in motion. (Among other things, we established the political context in which a book like Ain’t I a Woman can be written and read.) The best measure of our threat to the system is the virulence of the reaction against us.

Hooks also indulges in overkill when she tries to explain white feminists’ appropria­tion of female experience in term of two different, even contradictory forms of racism. My own view is that the right explanation is the obvious one: we were acting on the un­conscious racist assumption that our experi­ence was representative, along with the im­pulse to gloss over racial specificities so as to keep the “complication” of racism from mar­ring our vision of female unity. Hook makes these points, but she also argues that white feminists have shared the racist/sexist perception of black women as nonwomen. In the process she accuses white feminists of claiming that black women are oppressed only by racism, not sexism, and denying that black men can be oppressive. These charges are, to put it mildly, befuddling. If there was any point radical feminists insisted on it was that all women were oppressed because of their sex, and that all men had the power to oppress women. In response, antifeminist black women (along with black and white male leftists) made the arguments Hooks now puts in our mouths, and denounced us as racists for attributing a “white problem” to black people. Inevitably, many white women have echoed these arguments, but it’s perverse to blame feminists for them.

In fact, white feminists have generally been quite conscious of black women as women; it’s their blackness we’ve had trouble with. Straightforward reactionary racism ex­aggerates differences and denies common­alities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite. Since the denial of black women’s “femininity” is such a central issue for Hooks, she mistakenly assumes that protecting an exclusive claim to femininity is equally an issue for all white women. On the contrary, white feminists felt free to challenge received definition of femininity because we took for granted our right to be considered women. And it was precisely because our claim to womanhood was not an issue for us that we were in­sensitive to black women’s pain at being de­nied it by racial fiat. Many white feminists recognized that the division between white women and black women had something to do with good girls and bad girls. (Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, discusses this idea at length.) What we didn’t see was the asymmetry: we could decide to be bad, or play at being bad; black women had no choice.

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Hooks’s misperception of white feminists’ psychology also leads her to argue that their analogies between women and blacks were designed “to evoke in the minds of racist white men an image of white womanhood being degraded” by association with black people, especially black men. Again, the “im­age of white womanhood” had much less resonance than Hooks imagines, either for white feminists or for the white liberal and leftist men who were our immediate targets. The main reason that ’60s feminists relied so heavily on comparisons between sexism and racism is that white male politicos recognized the race issue as morally legitimate, while dismissing feminism as “a bunch of chicks with personal problems.” If anything, we were trying to evoke in these men the same guilt about sexism that they already felt about racism; since we hadn’t yet ex­perienced the drawbacks of liberal guilt, we craved its validation. We also hoped, naively enough, to convince black men to renounce their sexism and identify with the feminist cause.

Hooks takes a hard line on analogies be­tween women and blacks. She argues that they always imply a comparison between white women and black men, that they make black women invisible, obscure the issue of white women’s racial privilege, and divert attention from racism to white women’s problems. Certainly racial-sexual analogies have been misused in all the ways Hooks cites, but I don’t see these misuses as either invariable or necessary. Many feminists have made analogies between women and blacks in full awareness that they are talking about two overlapping groups; what they mean to com­pare is two sets of oppressive relations, male­-female and white-black. And though the dynamics and effects of racism and sexism differ in important ways, the parallels — legal, social, ideological — do exist. Which is why antiracist movements have been so instrumental in stimulating feminist consciousness and revolt.

Hooks refuses to recognize this. Scoffing at the idea that abolitionism inspired the first feminist wave, she says, “No 19th century white woman could grow to maturity without an awareness of institutionalized sexism.” But of course 19th century white women — ­and for that matter my generation of white women — did exactly that. It is the essence of institutionalized sexism to pose as the natu­ral order; to experience male dominance is one thing, to understand that it is political, therefore changeable, is quite another. For me and most feminists I know, that politicizing process was very much influenced by the civil rights and black power movements. Conversely, though feminism was not a mirac­ulous antidote to our racist impulses and illusions, it did increase our understanding of racism.

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Surely, the answer to exploitative com­parisons between women and blacks is not to deny the organic link between antisexist and antiracist politics. Here Hooks, too, gets trapped in contradictory thinking. She ar­gues that the issues of racism and sexism cannot really be separated, yet she re­peatedly singles out racism as an issue that is not only separate from sexism but prior to it. According to Hooks, “American society is one in which racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism,” and all black people, black men included, are absolutely lower on the social scale than any white woman. In other words, it is illegitimate for feminists to regard sexism as a category that can, at least theo­retically, be abstracted from (and compared to) racism; but no comparable stricture applies to black liberationists.

Gloria Joseph agrees that “In the end, it is a question of priorities, and given the nature of racism in this country, it should be obvious that the Black liberation struggle claims first priority.” Most black feminists whose views I know about take a similar position. It is easy to see why: because racism is intertwined with, and in part defined by class oppression, black people as a group suffer an excruciating combination of economic hardship and social indignity that white middle-class women and even most white working-class women es­cape. (Of course this does not necessarily hold true for individuals — it can be argued that a middle-class educated black man is a lot better off than a white welfare mother from an Appalachian rural slum.) Besides, as Hooks points out, women without the insula­tion of racial or class privilege are also the most vulnerable to sexist oppression: a white professional woman can buy liberation from housework by hiring a black maid; she can also (for the time being) buy the legal abor­tion Medicaid patients are denied.

Left antifeminists have often used this line of reasoning to suggest that sexual issues should wait until racism and poverty are abolished. Black feminists, by definition, have rejected that idea. But what then does it mean, in practical political terms, to say that despite the irreducibly dual character of black women’s oppression, their sex is less immediate an issue than their race? Specifi­cally, what does this imply for the prospect of an antiracist feminist movement, or, more modestly, “collaborative struggle” between black and white women?

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While Hooks never really focuses on strategic questions, Joseph and Lewis often write as if black and white women are on fundamentally separate tracks. They refer, for instance, to “White feminism,” a concept as self-contradictory as, say, “male socialism”; while one can speak of a feminism limited and flawed by white racist bias, it is feminism only to the extent that it challenges the subjection of women as a group. (The mechanical pluralism underlying the notion of separate-but-equal “White” and “Black” feminisms also impels the authors to capital­ize “White.” Though capitalizing “Black” may make sense as a polemical device for asserting black pride, racial self-assertion by white people is something else again.) But in discussing abortion, Jill Lewis endorses a specific approach to integrating feminism with race and class struggle. The strategy she describes has developed as a response to the abortion backlash, but the basic idea could be applied to almost any feminist issue. Since I think it’s both appealing and fallacious, I want to discuss it in some detail.

Lewis argues that to “isolate” abortion as an issue and defend it in terms of freedom for women betrays a white middle-class bias: since black women suffer not only from being denied safe abortions but from sterilization abuse, inadequate health care, and poverty — ­all of which impinge on their reproductive choices — a radical approach to “reproductive rights” must address all these concerns. The trouble with this logic is that abortion is not just one of many medical or social services being rolled back by Reaganism; nor does the present opposition to abortion stem from the same sources or political motives as pressure toward sterilization. Abortion is first of all the key issue of the new right’s antifeminist campaign, the ground on which a larger bat­tle over the very idea of women’s liberation is being fought. In essence, the antiabortionists are arguing that women who assert their free agency and refuse to be defined by their childbearing capacity are immoral. (In con­trast, no one defends poverty or forced sterilization on principle.) So long as this moral attack on women is gaining ground, present­ing abortion primarily as a health or social welfare measure is ineffective because it evades the underlying issue. Our choice right now is to defend abortion as a pivotal issue of women’s freedom, or lose the battle by de­fault. This is not to belittle the urgency of opposing sterilization abuse (which is, among other things, another expression of contempt for black femaleness) or demanding better health care. Nor is it to deny that all these issues are linked in important ways. My point is only that the reproductive rights strategy does not resolve the touchy question of priorities. Rather, while purporting to cover all bases, it submerges sexual politics in an economic and social welfare program.

Is this good for black women? Gloria Jo­seph points out that on the issue of abortion rights, “Black women have even more at stake, since it is they who suffer more from illegal and abusive abortions.” They also suf­fer more from having unwanted children un­der horrendous conditions. If a sexual-politi­cal strategy offers the only real chance to preserve legal abortion and restore public funding, it is clearly in black women’s inter­est. Since black women are faced with so many urgent problems, they may well have other priorities, but it doesn’t follow that white women who concentrate on abortion are indulging a racist bias. On the contrary, they’re doing a crucial job that will benefit all women in the end.

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All this suggests that the question of whether racism is worse (or more basic, or more pressing) than sexism matters less than the fact that both are intolerable. Not that I agree with the white feminists Bell Hooks castigates for dismissing racial differences on the grounds that “oppression cannot be measured.” It’s clear to me that in demon­strable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the meas­uring. Once it’s established that black women are the most victimized group, and that most black men are more victimized than most white women — then what?

In my experience, this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead pro­vokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their anti­feminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about assert­ing feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them in the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that sexual and racial equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate re­sults are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men (“We can do something for blacks or for women, but not both, so you folks fight it out”). Black women, caught in the racial-sexual crossfire, stand to lose the most.

Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than some­one else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical move­ments are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.

The logic of competing oppressions does not heal divisions but intensifies them, since it invites endless and absurd extension — for every person who has no shoes, there is al­ways someone who has no feet. (One might ask, by this logic, what Bell Hooks has to complain about next to a woman from a dirt­-poor third world country who was sold to her husband and had her clitoris cut off at age four.) White women will not become com­mitted allies of black women because they’re told that their own suffering is unimportant. What white women must be convinced of is that it’s impossible to have it both ways — ­that the privileges we cling to are an insuperable obstacle to the freedom and equal­ity we long for. We need to learn this lesson again and again. Good books help. ■

By Angela Davis
Random House, $13.50

COMMON DIFFERENCES: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
By Gloria I. Joseph & Jill Lewis
Doubleday/Anchor, $8.95 paper 

AIN’T I A WOMAN: Black Women and Feminism
By Bell Hooks
South End Press, $7 paper


Tom Wolfe and Optimism: He Blew It

My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect. In college and for some time afterward, my education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and sec­ular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolution­aries. I learned that lesson well (though it came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock and roll).

Yet the modernists’ once-subversive re­fusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disas­ter, yet insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss such a project as insane.

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A subtheme of ’60s utopianism was the attempt — often muddled, at times self-negating — to arrive at some sort of honest optimism. This concern was also implicit in the anti-utopian sensibility first self-consciously articulated by the pop artists. Pop sensibility — loosely defined as the selective appreciation of whatever is vital and ex­pressive in mass culture — did more than simply suggest that life in a rich, capitalist, consumption-obsessed society had its pleasures; the crucial claim was that those pleasures had some connection with genu­ine human feelings, needs, and values and were not — as both conservative and radical modernists assumed — mere alienated dis­traction. Pessimists like Herbert Marcuse argued that advanced capitalism destroyed the autonomous self and with it the possi­bility of authentic pleasure, let alone hap­piness; pop implied a more sanguine view of the self as guerrilla, forever infiltrating territory officially controlled by the enemy, continually finding new ways to evade and even exploit the material and psychic obstacles that the social system continually erected. I shared this view; I doubted that either Marx or Freud would quarrel with the proposition that a human being who had the urge to build a castle, and found that the only material available was shit, would soon learn how to build shit castles — and how to use the unique properties of shit to advantage. Pop was about the ways in which the spirit of the people invaded the man’s technology: restrict us to three chords, a backbeat, and two minutes of air time, and we’ll give you — rock and roll.

The pop stance was honest up to a point. But its commitment to making the most of the existing reality excluded painful or dangerous questions about systemic change. Not that pop optimism was devoid of political content: it was by definition populist (while modernist pessimism was, at least in part, an aristocratic vote of no-confidence in the lower orders), and it gleefully offended upper bourgeois pieties about art, taste, and the evils of consu­merism. Nor did the pop sensibility deny or defend the various forms of oppression that at once hedged our pleasures and made them possible; its very celebration of human resilience implied an awareness of such barriers to fulfillment. But it took that tension for granted. The price of pop optimism was a deeper fatalism; in a way Andy Warhol’s silk-screened electric chair was more chilling than anything in One Dimensional Man. Those of us who were unwilling to pay that price looked for ways to integrate the pop impulse with political and cultural radicals and with the parallel experience of the immanence of the spirit — best described as religious — that had become a mass phenomenon because of a technological achievement called LSD. Yet pop remained central, if only because mass culture was the bloodstream in which other influences had to circulate if they were to have much effect.

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I had no more than an inkling of the importance of all this when, in the fer­menting mid-’60s, I first came across The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The book — particularly the title piece and the one on Las Vegas, neither of which I’d read in their original Esquire incarnations — made a strong impression on me. Tom Wolfe had pulled off the remark­able feat of not only describing but em­bodying pop consciousness — an essentially aliterate phenomenon — in print. The ba­roque extravagance of his prose mirrored the cultural styles he was writing about; his narrative voice captured the single­-minded vision, the manic enthusiasm, the confident, idiosyncratic genius of their inventors. He even played around with his own mass art, journalism, borrowing not only from fiction but from advertising and pulp jargon. His introduction laid out as­sumptions that had already begun to affect my view of the world: “Here was this incredible combination of form plus money in a place nobody ever thought about finding it… Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monu­ments to their own styles… Stock car racing, custom cars and, for that matter, the jerk, the monkey, rock music — still seem beneath serious consideration, still the preserve of ratty people with ratty hair and dermatitis… Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even bothers to record, much less analyze… The new sensibili­ty — Baby baby baby where did our love go? — the new world, submerged so long, invisible and now arising, slippy, shitty, electric — Super, Scuba-man! — out of the vinyl deeps.”

Tom Wolfe THE PAINTED WORD review in the Village Voice

In comparison, Wolfe’s second collection, The Pump House Gang, fell curiously flat. It was full of repetitious variations on the proliferation-of-styles theme, which in 1968 was no longer either new or neglected, and Wolfe’s enthusiasm seemed forced, his rhetorical devices mechanical, as if he himself were bored with it all. Most of the pieces had been written two or three years earlier, and the gap showed. A lot had happened to overshadow, or at least com­plicate, all that churning of the vinyl deeps — the Vietnam escalation, black power, the burgeoning of radical and bohe­mian dissidence. Wolfe was not unaware of those events; on the contrary, he devoted a page of introduction to defensive ridicule of intellectuals’ avidity for disaster: “War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.” He recalled that during a symposium on the ’60s, a few years ago, the other panelists had been so obsessed with gloomy maunderings that he had been moved to protest. “ ‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘We’re in the middle of a… Happiness Explosion!’ ” Elsewhere in the introduction Wolfe an­nounced the imminent spontaneous demise of the class structure, already accomplished in New York.

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Though I did not expect incisive radical analysis from Tom Wolfe, any more than I expected it from Mick Jagger, I did think a touch of the Stones’ — or even the Beat­les’ — irony was in order. By indulging in mindless yea-saying, Wolfe betrayed the tension at the core of pop, converting it to a more sophisticated version of the tradi­tional American booster mentality, whose purpose was, as it had always been, cosmetic. It was this betrayal, I suspected, that made The Pump House Gang so lifeless. There was some truth in Wolfe’s complaint; intellectuals did have an emo­tional investment in apocalypse, for reasons that rightly offended his populism. But it was hard to take seriously a populism that willfully ignored certain discomfiting facts. Such as that the ratty-haired, der­matitic kids whose creativity Wolfe so admired, and who populated the lower ranks of the class structure he so jauntily pronounced dead, were providing most of the bodies for the war.

Still, the book contained one piece that confounded all these judgments — “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe’s account of the La Jolla surfers who hung out and hung loose on the beach, creating a hedonistic subculture based on physical perfection, daring, contempt for the straight life, mystical rapport with the ocean, above all youth and a horror of age. The story paid Wolfe’s usual loving attention to surface minutiae, but it also had an underside. There was the mysterioso Pacific, which had somehow drowned this fantastic surfer, who should have been… im­mune; there was the ineluctable aging process, which would sooner or later con­sign the Pump House Gang to the cruel obsolescence they themselves had decreed. The piece made me shiver; it hovered on the edge of a metaphorical wave that suggested both the danger and the lure of the American ride. It also suggested that Wolfe was basically too talented and too honest to practice the complacency he preached.

That suggestion was justified, and then some, by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think Acid Test is a great book, certainly the best to come out of the ’60s. Again Wolfe uses his reportorial gifts to get down a sensibility based largely on a revolt against the supremacy of worlds. But there is something more: Acid Test is about the whole sticky problem of optimism, of how to pursue the elusive synthesis. What makes the book so powerful — and so brave — is the way Wolfe allowed the Pranksters’ vision to challenge and stretch his own. Ken Kesey and his friends created a wondrous new style, rooted in American history, myth, technology, and popular culture, but their aim was not only aesthet­ic — it was messianic. If Wolfe’s pop sym­pathies were engaged by the style, his anti-utopianism must have been equally offended by the aim. Yet the two could not be separated, for they were complementa­ry aspects of a central unifying impulse to live out and spread the psychedelic experi­ence. If Wolfe was really to do his job — report accurately on what the Pranksters’ trip was about — he could not take them seriously on one level, dismiss them as silly hippies on another. Like everyone else, he had in some sense to choose: was he on the bus or off?

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For Wolfe, getting on did not mean taking acid — apparently he did not — or abdicating his particular role in the Pranksters’ movie, which was to be a reporter. Acid Test always keeps the proper critical dis­tance; it carefully documents the Pranksters’ confusions, fuck-ups, and ultimate failure. But Wolfe does not hold himself aloof from the pain of that failure. From his first meeting with Kesey at the beginning of the book to the “WE BLEW IT!” litany at the end, he never shirks the recognition that there was a real chance to blow.

Wolfe has never risked or achieved so much since; in the ’70s his writing has increasingly reflected and served the decade’s characteristic failures of imagina­tion and will. On its own terms, Wolfe’s first ’70s book, Radical Chic and Mau-Mau­ing the Flak-Catchers, is successful, even brilliant; his demolition of rich liberals and of the charades that so often pass for left-wing politics in this country is maliciously accurate and irresistibly funny. Yet the terms themselves represent a retreat from the complex blend of identification and objectivity that informs the best of his earlier work to a more conventional stance as critic of manners and mores. And the pieces are a moral retreat as well. Like the Pump House Gang introduction, they offer specific truths in the service of a larger lie. Their underlying assumption is that politi­cal action is inherently ridiculous and irrelevant, nothing more than a ritual designed — like, say, a demolition derby — to meet the psychological needs of its partici­pants. But while Wolfe has always regard­ed demolition derbies and most other American rituals with tolerance if not positive fondness, the very idea of social conscience pisses him off, and he takes a mean-spirited pleasure in discrediting it.

In his most recent work, Wolfe’s wit has declined as his crankiness has increased. The Painted Word parlays a slight and dubious thesis into a long and boring polemic. And Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, Wolfe’s latest and weakest anthology, hits a note of asperity that suggests nothing so much as the curmud­geonly irritation of an old Tory. The title piece is a heavy-handed, son-of-radical­-chic exposé of that ungrateful wretch, the rich West Side writer who finances his rich West Side existence with jeremiads about repression and recession. “The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America,” a frankly conservative attack on radical intellec­tuals cum defense of American democra­cy, could have been lifted, minus a few exclamation points, from the pages of Commentary.

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Then there is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in which Wolfe attempts to graft his standard happiness-­is-postwar-prosperity number to a report on the popularity of various therapeutic/sexual/religious invitations to self-fulfill­ment. The result has an oddly schi­zophrenic quality. On the one hand, the current preoccupation with “me” is a product of leisure and money, hence to be applauded as further evidence against the disaster mongers. On the other hand, it is not lower-class kids who show up at Esalen and EST but West Side writers who are bored with Martha’s Vineyard, and anyway, all that silly self-absorption all that psychic muckraking what is it, really, but a form of internal disaster mongering? Wolfe does not try to reconcile these opposing trains of thought; he just scatters cheap shots in all directions and ends up saying less about middle-class narcissism than any random Feiffer cartoon.

The one memorable piece in Mauve Gloves is “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” a day-in-the-life account of Navy bomber pilots flying missions over North Vietnam. Wolfe’s greatest strength is his ability to write from inside his subjects, even when they are inarticulate, and since that skill requires empathy rather than spleen he has always written best about people he admires. He admires the bomber pilots. They are prototypical American heroes not eccentric offshoots of the genre, like Kesey, but the real thing: men who do much and say little, who master rather than submit to machines, who test their skills to the limit, keep their cool in the face of death, and enjoy a mystical confrontation with the universe denied or­dinary mortals.

A few years ago, Wolfe wrote about the same brand of heroism in his Rolling Stone series on the Apollo 17 astronauts. But astronauts are one thing, bomber pilots quite another. The real suspense of “The Truest Sport” is not whether Dowd and Flint will make it back from their deadly trip over Haiphong harbor, but whether Wolfe can compel his readers — most of whom, he knows, are inclined to regard Vietnam bomber pilots as war criminals — ­to see these men as complex human beings who are in certain ways admirable, more admirable perhaps than you or I. Improb­ably, he succeeds, at least with me. “The Truest Sport” is an impressive tour de force. It has, however, one rather disturbing flaw: the Vietnamese are as invisible to Wolfe as they were to the pilots.

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What bothers me is not that Wolfe didn’t write an antiwar tract but that the issue of whether the war was right or wrong, the bombings necessary or criminal, is not even an implicit issue in the piece. What matters to Wolfe is that he prefers the pilots’ stoic style to that of whiny, bad-sport peaceniks who never put their lives on the line but whose influence on the conduct of the war — particularly the restrictions placed on bombing raids made the pilots’ task more difficult and dangerous. I wish I could believe that Wolfe’s use of the sport­ing metaphor (it is one of the pilots who compares the bombing missions to jousting) is at least a bit ironic. But I’m afraid the truth is that Wolfe simply refuses to entertain the possibility that there are times when style is beside the point.

The continuing inability of someone as intelligent and perceptive as Tom Wolfe to confront unpleasant political realities in any serious way — even to admit that, like it or not, they exist — strikes me as not just obtuse but neurotic. It comes, I think, from Wolfe’s failure to resolve the contradiction between his populist faith in human possi­bility and his essentially conservative political instincts. The cultural excitement of the ’60s allowed Wolfe to avoid facing that conflict; it was possible then to nourish the illusion that politics didn’t matter, that the real action was elsewhere. For all the prominence of political movements, it was the idea of cultural revolution — whether in its right-wing (pop) or left-wing (psychedelic) versions — that dominated the ’60s imagination; Kesey was anti-political, in his way a classic American individualist, and Wolfe loved the way the Pranksters’ anarchism befuddled the straight left. But the times changed, abruptly and rudely exposing the fragility of that idea — and of the prosperity on which it had depended. Cultural revolution had been a side-effect of expanding American empire; thanks to the Vietnamese, the expansive days were over. The vaunted post-scarcity economy, which would make all that nasty conflict between classes academic, had failed to arrive; if you believed the projections of ecologists, it never would. And in the absence of a political spark, the happiness explosion was fizzling out.

Deprived of cultural fireworks to celebrate, Wolfe diverted his energy to attack­ing the left — to, as it were, killing the bearer of bad news. But the repressed always returns. At this point Wolfe’s op­timism, such as it is, denies rather than affirms; the voice he raises against his archenemies, the disaster mongers, is the strident, defensive, I’m-all-right-Jack voice of official rationalization. It is, in fact, a negative voice worthy of the archenemies themselves. It is, one might say, the sound of the… old sensibili­ty… once again having the last whine. For the time being.


Simone de Beauvoir: Rebel Girl

On May Day, the remnants of my old radical feminist group Redstockings held a memorial for Simone de Beauvoir. I had wanted to go, but couldn’t make it, so I heard about it from a friend: Ti-Grace Atkinson talked about going to de Beauvoir’s funeral, women spoke about her impact on their lives, someone read a message from Shulamith Fire­stone. Listening to this account, it occurred to me that in a way my relationship to de Beauvoir had always been secondhand, mediated and refracted by other feminists. When I first got involved in the women’s liberation movement, I knew de Beauvoir only through The Mandarins, which I’d read, naively, as a novel (a good way to read it, I still main­tain). After joining the movement I dutifully began The Second Sex, but aban­doned it halfway through; it was too detached and distanced, too much the product of a French cultural and philo­sophical framework, to compete with the overpowering immediacy of all the dis­cussion about our lives that permeated those early days of activism. (The woman who recommended it to me had discovered it at a time when America’s idea of a feminist was a little old lady brandishing an umbrella.) Not till years later, when I was able to give the book the attention it deserved, did I fully appreciate de Beau­voir’s impact on the politics of the femi­nists I was closest to — as well as those I most bitterly disagreed with.

Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the com­mentary the feminist movement has pro­duced in the meantime, dated and paro­chial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written. With its exhaustive portrayal of the ways in which male domination and female subordination penetrate every as­pect of everyday life and shape our cul­tural myths and fantasies, it offers de­tailed evidence for the basic claims of second wave feminism — that male su­premacy is a coherent system of power relations, and that “the personal is political.”

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If de Beauvoir’s existentialist perspective is too innocent (and perhaps too ar­rogant) for a postmodern, poststructuralist era, it’s metaphorically appropriate to her subject. Since the denial of personal autonomy defines women’s oppression — ­and since patriarchal ideology holds that allowing women autonomy would destroy civilization if not the human species it­self — a moral defense of freedom is nec­essarily at the heart of feminism. And for the feminists of my generation, so many of whom were “liberated” — that is, had consciously set out to earn a living, sleep with whom they pleased, and avoid tradi­tional wife-and-motherhood — the collision between our sense of entitlement to freedom and men’s stubborn assumption of dominance was not only a political (and personal) struggle but a grand moral drama. De Beauvoir’s rendering of wom­an as the subject seeking transcendence, only to be forced into the position of other and trapped in immanence, ex­pressed that drama with a clarity that almost made up for her coolness.

De Beauvoir’s influence pervades the early radical feminist critiques of Marx­ism. It was de Beauvoir who first pointed out the reductionism of Engels’s attempt to trace women’s oppression to the for­mation of classes, who insisted that sexu­ality and reproduction had to be primary categories for understanding women’s lives; it was also de Beauvoir who ar­gued — even more problematically from a conventional leftist point of view — that social conditions did not cause oppres­sion; rather, people responded to those conditions by choosing to oppress. “His­torical materialism,” she wrote, “takes for granted facts that call for explana­tion: Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?”

Engels and other historical materialists did have an implicit answer to this question: interest had its source in the desire for survival and material comfort. But by de Beauvoir’s time it was clear that this common sense approach to the question could not explain the rise of fascism, the failure of revolutionary socialism in west­ern Europe, or the totalitarian perversion of the Russian Revolution. De Beauvoir built her philosophy on the idea that the human subject has an intrinsic impulse toward freedom, but this was if anything less useful than materialism for under­standing the dynamics of domination and submission. Her solution to the problem was blaming oppression on “the imperial­ism of human consciousness,” which, she argued, “included the original category of the Other and an original aspiration to dominate the Other.” Of all her dubious appeals to a priori truths about human nature, this one seems to me the weakest. And I think it’s no coincidence that sub­sequent feminist thinking about the roots of male supremacy has been muddled at best.

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Many radical feminists who considered themselves materialists in the Marxist sense, who saw women as an oppressed class struggling on behalf of their inter­ests (redefined as sexual and emotional in addition to economic), were also deep­ly influenced by The Second Sex. The political formulations that came out of this mix — the dominant tendency in Redstockings — were rich in paradox, like theologians’ explanations of how God’s divine plan is ineluctable but human be­ings have free will. Feminist materialists argued that while men’s sexual class in­terests determined their oppression of women, and in fact all men did oppress women, any individual man could choose not to oppress women. Therefore, each man bore personal moral responsibility for his acts; determinism could never be an excuse for letting men off the hook. Similarly, women submitted to men so long as they had to to avoid punishment, and resisted whenever they felt it was possible: either way, they were acting in their interest. And yet there were always women who (for what mysterious rea­sons?) chose to take risks, to step out there ahead of everyone else. Sometimes others followed, and then you had a movement.

On the question of “where interest has its source,” the feminist materialists sug­gested that the desire for survival, com­fort (including love, sexual pleasure, emotional support), and freedom all played a role. On the surface, their un­derstanding of male supremacy wasn’t much like de Beauvoir’s. In the material­ist view, men’s stake in their power over women was quite practical — it gained them money, leisure time, and domestic service, not to mention love, sexual pleasure, and emotional support on their own terms. But if you looked more closely at this list of goodies, it wasn’t quite so simple. Could you assume, for instance, that sexual dominance was inherently more pleasurable than mutual desire? Or that it made “material” sense to choose love corrupted by the concealed rage of the oppressed over love with an equal partner? Lurking behind the materialist analysis was the de Beauvoirian assumptions that oppressors were attached to power for its own sake.

For other factions of radical feminism, this assumption was quite overt. The New York Radical Feminists’ manifesto, for example, argued that men exercised power over women to satisfy their egos. As they saw it, men did not value their power because it allowed them to demand women’s services, but rather, demanded the services to affirm their pow­er. Ironically, this idea was elaborated in a way that offended de Beauvoir’s most basic beliefs about the artificiality of gen­der: cultural feminists who believed that women’s problem was the ascendancy of “male values” attributed the drive for power not to the imperialism of human consciousness but to the imperialism of the phallus.

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As a Redstocking, I was basically in the materialist camp, but with a difference; I thought the best tool for understanding sexuality and family life, the keys to pa­triarchal culture, was psychoanalysis. The radical feminist movement was, of course, resolutely anti-Freudian; here, too, classical Marxist thinking merged with de Beauvoir’s. Like that other exem­plary female intellectual, Hannah Arendt, whose insistence on evaluating Adolf Eichmann in rational moral terms led her to deny his patent lunacy, de Beauvoir resisted any view of human will that challenged the primacy of deliberate moral choice. Her refusal to admit the potency of unconscious fantasy and conflict not only forced her to assume a pri­mary will to dominate; it also implicitly defined women’s response to their op­pression in highly moralistic terms. In the universe of The Second Sex, the female rebel was the existential heroine. And of course the paradigmatic female rebel was Simone de Beauvoir herself.

For many contemporary feminists, de Beauvoir’s life has been an inspiration as well as her work; indeed, her work — not only The Second Sex but the novels and the memoirs — is, among other things, a testament to a certain kind of life. It’s easy for female rebels to idealize that life, to think of it as liberated without quotation marks. But in fact de Beauvoir was no more able than the most traditional housewife to transcend or circumvent male supremacy; her path involved its own complicated set of sacrifices, tradeoffs, and illusions. Part of the price she paid for being Simone de Beauvoir was to live more in her mind than in her body. De Beauvoir never questioned the patriarchal assumption that human freedom depends on the conquest of nature. Her relationship with Sartre was, judging by her own accounts, far more cerebral than sensual. Like most women who put a high priority on independence she had no children — and while it’s a sexist fic­tion that all women want to be mothers, it’s also a fact that so long as motherhood carries drastic social penalties, the decision to avoid it (and relinquish its erotic pleasures) is not exactly free.

Self-reflection on such matters was not de Beauvoir’s strong point. Seeing herself as freer than she was, she denied the full import of her struggle — just as many of her radical feminist children, seduced by the politics of moral example, imagined they could make the revolution simply by changing their own lives. But de Beauvoir had to struggle alone; when she stepped out there, few were ready to follow. Part­ly because of her groundbreaking work, things are different now. In a sense, rec­ognizing the limitations of that work and of that female rebel’s life, is the best way to honor them.

Equality From The Archives Health International Women's Day THE FRONT ARCHIVES

On Abortion

From March 5, 1979

If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms — as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses.

Recently, Garry Wills wrote a piece suggesting that liberals who defended the snail-darter’s right to life and opposed the killing in Vietnam should condemn abortion as murder. I found this notion breathtaking in its illogic. Environmentalists were protesting not the “murder” of individual snail-darters but the practice of wiping out entire species of organisms to gain a short-term economic benefit; most people who opposed our involvement in Vietnam did so because they believed the United States was waging an aggressive, unjust war. There was no inconsistency in holding such positions and defending abortion on the grounds that women’s welfare should take precedence over fetal life. To claim that three very different issues, each with its own complicated social and political context, all came down to a simple matter of preserving life was to say that all killing was alike and equally indefensible regardless of circumstance. (Why, I wondered, had Wills left out the destruction of hapless bacteria by penicillin?) But aside from the general mushiness of the argument, I was struck by one peculiar fact: Wills had written an entire article about abortion without mentioning women, feminism, sex, or pregnancy.

Since the feminist argument for abortion rights still carries a good deal of moral and political weight, part of the anti-abortionists’ strategy has been to make an end run around it. Although the mainstream of the right-to-life movement is openly opposed to women’s liberation, it has chosen to make its stand on the abstract “pro-life” argument. That emphasis has been reinforced by the movement’s tiny left wing, which opposes abortion on pacifist grounds and includes women who call themselves “feminists for life.” A minority among pacifists as well as right-to-lifers, this group nevertheless serves the crucial function of making opposition to abortion respectable among liberals, leftists, and moderates disinclined to sympathize with a right-wing crusade. Unlike most right-to-lifers, who are vulnerable to charges that their reverence for life does not apply to convicted criminals or Vietnamese peasants, anti-abortion leftists are in a position to appeal to social conscience — to make analogies, however facile, between abortion and napalm. They explicitly disclaim any opposition to women’s rights, insisting rather that the end cannot justify the means — murder is murder.

Well, isn’t there a genuine moral issue here? If abortion is murder, how can a woman have the right to it? Feminists are often accused of evading this question, but in fact an evasion is built into the question itself. Most people understand “Is abortion murder?” to mean “Is the fetus a person?” But fetal personhood is ultimately as inarguable as the existence of God; either you believe in it or you don’t. Putting the debate on this plane inevitably leads to the nonconclusion that it is a matter of one person’s conscience against another’s. From there, the discussion generally moves on to broader questions: whether laws defining the fetus as a person violate the separation of church and state; or conversely, whether people who believe an act is murder have not only the right but the obligation to prevent it. Unfortunately, amid all this lofty philosophizing, the concrete, human reality of the pregnant woman’s dilemma gets lost. And this dilemma, far from being irrelevant or peripheral to the question of whether abortion is murder, is of the essence.

Murder, as commonly defined, is killing that is unjustified, willful, and malicious. Most people would agree, for example, that killing in defense of one’s life or safety is not murder. And most would accept a concept of self-defense that includes the right to fight a defensive war or revolution in behalf of one’s independence or freedom from oppression. Even pacifists make moral distinctions between defensive violence, however deplorable, and murder; no thoughtful pacifist would equate Hitler’s murder of the Jews with the Warsaw Ghetto rebels’ killing of Nazi troops. The point is that it’s impossible to judge whether an act is murder simply by looking at the act, without considering its context. Which is to say that it makes no sense to discuss whether abortion is murder without considering why women have abortions and what it means to force women to bear children they don’t want.

We live in a society that defines child rearing as the mother’s job; a society in which most women are denied access to work that pays enough to support a family, child-care facilities they can afford, or any relief from the constant, daily burdens of motherhood; a society that forces mothers into dependence on marriage or welfare, and often into permanent poverty; a society that is actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life. Under these conditions, the unwillingly pregnant woman faces a terrifying loss of control over her fate. Even if she chooses to give up the baby, unwanted pregnancy is in itself a serious trauma. There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, in a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, always uniquely intimate. However gratifying pregnancy may be to a woman who desires it, for the unwilling it is literally an invasion — the closest analogy is to the difference between lovemaking and rape. Nor is there such a thing as foolproof contraception. Clearly, abortion is by normal standards an act of self-defense.

Whenever I make this case to a right-to-lifer, the exchange that follows is always substantially the same:

RTL: If a woman chooses to have sex, she should be willing to take the consequences. We must all be responsible for our actions.
EW: Men have sex, without having to “take the consequences.”
RTL: You can’t help that — it’s biology.
EW: You don’t think a woman has as much right as a man to enjoy sex? Without living in fear that one slip will transform her life?
RTL: She has no right to selfish pleasure at the expense of the unborn.

It would seem, then, that the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex. The logic of the right-to-life position is that women’s destiny is properly determined by their reproductive function; that women’s demand for freedom and equality is inherently selfish and immoral. Whatever else one may say of such attitudes, they are surely antifeminist. I’ll elaborate on this next column.

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From April 2, 1979

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape. Kesey replied — I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance — “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb. It is an outrageous irony that anti-abortionists are managing to pass off this profoundly immoral idea as a noble moral cause.

Though every poll shows that most Americans favor legal abortion, it is evident that many nominal supporters of choice are confused and disarmed, if not convinced, but the anti-abortionists’ absolutist fervor. No one likes to be accused of advocating murder. Yet the “pro-life” position is based on a crucial fallacy — that the question of fetal rights can be isolated from the question of women’s rights. As I pointed out last month, the claim that abortion is murder is more than a claim that fetuses are people; implicit in it is the judgment that destroying fetal life cannot be a legitimate act of self-defense against the physical, psychic, social, and economic trauma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. But if the fetus is sacrosanct, it follows that women must be continually vulnerable to the invasion of their bodies and loss of their freedom and independence — unless they are willing to resort to the only foolproof contraceptive, abstinence. This is precisely the “solution” right-to-lifers suggest, often in righteous language about taking responsibility for one’s actions, usually with a touch of glee; as Representative Elwood Rudd once put it, “If a woman has a right to control her own body, let her exercise control before she gets pregnant.” A common ploy is to compare fucking to overeating or overdrinking, the idea being that pregnancy is a just punishment, like obesity or cirrhosis.

In 1979, it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men. Of course, for heterosexual women giving up sex also means doing without the love and companionship of a mate. (Presumably, married women who have had all the children they want are supposed to divorce their husbands or convince them that celibacy is the only moral alternative.) “Freedom” bought at such a cost is hardly freedom at all, and certainly not equality — no one tells men that if they aspire to some measure of control over their lives they are welcome to neuter themselves and become social isolates. The don’t-have-sex argument is really another version of the familiar antifeminist dictum that autonomy and femaleness — that is, female sexuality — are incompatible; if you choose the first you lose the second. But to pose this choice is not only inhumane; it is as deeply disingenuous as “Let them eat cake.” No one, least of all the anti-abortion movement, expects or wants significant numbers of women to give up sex and marriage. Nor are most right-to-lifers willing to allow abortion for rape victims. When all the cant about “responsibility” is stripped away, what the right-to-life position comes down to is, if the effect of prohibiting abortion is to keep women slaves to their biology, so be it.

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In their zeal to preserve fetal life at all costs, anti-abortionists are ready to grant fetuses more legal protection than people. If a man attacks me and I kill him, I can plead self-defense without having to prove that I was in danger of being killed rather than injured, raped, or kidnapped. But in the annual congressional battle over what if any exceptions to make to the Medicaid abortion ban, the House of Representatives has bitterly opposed the funding of abortions for any reason but to save the pregnant woman’s life. Some right-to-lifers argue that even the danger of death does not justify abortion; others have suggested “safeguards” like requiring two or more doctors to certify that the woman’s life is at least 50 percent threatened. Anti-abortionists are forever worrying that any exception to a total ban on abortion will be used as a “loophole”: better that any number of women should ruin their health or even die than that one woman should get away with not having a child “merely” because she doesn’t want one. Clearly this mentality does not reflect equal concern for all life. Rather, anti-abortionists value the lives of fetuses above the lives and welfare of women, because at bottom they do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function. The earth is not supposed to choose which crops it will or will not grow — or to decide that no one is going to walk all over it.

The conservatives who dominate the right-to-life movement have no real problem with the antifeminism inherent in their stand; their evasion of the issue is a matter of public relations. But the politics of the small group of activists who oppose abortion in the name of radical pacifism — including the so-called “feminists for life” — are a study in self-contradiction: in attacking what they see as the violence of abortion, they condone and encourage violence against women. Forced childbearing does violence to a woman’s body and spirit, and it contributes to other kinds of violence: deaths from illegal abortion; the systematic oppression of mothers and women in general; the poverty, neglect, and battering of unwanted children.

Radicals supposedly believe in attacking a problem at its roots. Yet surely it is obvious that restrictive laws do not keep women from seeking abortions; they just create an illicit, dangerous industry. The only way to drastically reduce the number of abortions — and I know of no feminist who would not agree that the fewer abortions needed, the better — is to invent safer, more reliable contraceptives, ensure universal access to all birth control methods, eliminate sexual ignorance and guilt, and change the social and economic conditions that make motherhood a trap. Anyone who is truly committed to fostering life should be fighting for women’s liberation instead of harassing and disrupting abortion clinics (hardly a nonviolent tactic, since it threatens the safety of patients). The “feminists for life” do talk a lot about ending the oppression that drives so many women to abortion; in practice, however, they are devoting all their energy to increasing it.

Despite its numerical insignificance, the anti-abortion left epitomizes the hypocrisy of the right-to-life crusade. Its need to wrap misogyny in the rhetoric of social conscience and even feminism is actually a perverse tribute to the women’s movement; it is no longer acceptable to declare openly that women deserve to suffer for the sin of Eve. I suppose that’s progress — not that it does the victims of the Hyde Amendment much good.

At noon on Saturday, March 31, there will be a march for abortion rights and against sterilization abuse, sponsored by the March 31 Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Marchers will assemble at the UN, walk past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and end up at a rally in Union Square.

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Family: Love It or Leave It

When I talk about my family, I mean the one I grew up in. I have been married, lived with men, and participated in various communal and semi communal arrangements, but for most of the past six years — nearly all of my thirties — I have lived alone. This is neither an accident nor a deliberate choice, but the result of an accretion of large and small choices, many of which I had no idea I was making at the time. Conscious or not, these choices have been profoundly influenced by the cultural and political radicalism of the ’60s, especially radical feminism. The sense of possibility, of hope for great changes, that pervaded those years affected all my aspirations; compromises that might once have seemed reasonable, or simply to be expected, felt stifling. A rebellious community of peers supported me in wanting something other than conventional family life; feminist consciousness clarified and deepened my ambivalence toward men, my skepticism about marriage. Single women were still marginal, but their position was dignified in a way it had never been before: it was possible to conceive of being alone as a choice rather than a failure.

For me the issue was less the right to be alone, in itself, than the right to take as much time and room as I needed to decide what kind of life I wanted, what I could hold out for. Intimate connections are important to me. I want a mate, or so I believe, and possibly a child. Before the counterculture existed I was attracted to the idea of communal living and I still am. Yet obviously other priorities have intervened: I haven’t found what I supposedly want on terms I can accept. The psychologist in me suggests that I don’t want it as wholeheartedly as I think, the feminist retorts that it’s not my fault if a sexist society keeps offering me a choice between unequal relationships and none, and I’m sure they’re both right. Anyway, I wouldn’t take back the choices I’ve made. I would not wish to be a different person, or to have been shaped by a different time.

Still, I can’t help being uneasy about the gap between the lessons I learned during that time and the rules of the game in this one. As the conservative backlash gains momentum, I feel a bit like an explorer camped on a peninsula, who looks back to discover that the rising tide has made it into an island and that it threatens to become a mere sandbar, or perhaps disappear altogether. If there is one cultural trend that has defined the ’70s it is the aggressive resurgence of family chauvinism, flanked by its close relatives, antifeminism and homophobia. The right’s impassioned defense of traditional family values — the common theme of its attacks on the Equal Rights Amendment, legal abortion, gay rights, sexual permissiveness, child care for working mothers and “immoral” (read unattached female) welfare recipients — has affected the social atmosphere even in the liberal, educated middle class that produced the cultural radicals. The new consensus is that the family is our last refuge, our only defense against universal predatory selfishness, loneliness, and rootlessness; the idea that there could be desirable alternatives to the family is no longer taken seriously. I’ve also noticed a rise in the level of tension between married and single people. Over the years family boosters have subjected me to my share of hints that I’m pathetic, missing out on real life, or that the way I live is selfish and shallow, or both; I’ve indulged an unworthy tendency to respond in kind, flaunting my independence and my freedom from the burdens of parenthood while implying that I see through their facade of happiness to the quiet desperation beneath. Lately these exchanges have become edgier; sometimes they explode into fights. As I said, I’m uneasy.

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Of course, “family” is one of those concepts that invite stretching. One might reasonably define a family as any group of people who live under the same roof, function as an economic unit, and have a serious commitment to each other — a definition that could include communes and unmarried couples of whatever sexual preference. But the family as it exists for most people in the real world — in a social and historical context — is nothing so amorphous or pluralistic. It is an institution, a set of laws, customs, and beliefs that define what a family is or ought to be, the rights and duties of its members, and its relation to society. This institution embraces only households of people related by birth or marriage. It is rooted in the assumption of male authority over dependent women and children, the sexual double standard, and the traditional exchange of the husband’s financial support for the wife’s domestic and sexual services. It defines the pursuit of individual freedom as selfish and irresponsible (“narcissistic” in current jargon), the subordination of personal happiness to domestic obligations as the hallmark of adulthood and the basis of morals. Above all, the family is supposed to control sex and legitimize it through procreation; family morality regards sensual pleasure for its own sake as frivolous, sexual passion as dangerous and fundamentally antisocial. In a family-centered society, prevailing attitudes toward people who live differently range from pity to indifference to hostile envy to condemnation. Women who step outside the home into the world become fair game for economic and sexual exploitation; children who have no parents, or whose parents cannot or will not give them adequate care, get minimal attention from a community that regards them as aliens in a land where only citizens have rights.

On the left, family chauvinism often takes the form of nostalgic declarations that the family, with its admitted faults, has been vitiated by modern capitalism, which is much worse (at least the family is based on personal relations rather than soulless cash, etc., etc.). Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism is the latest polemic to suggest that radicals who criticize the family are beating a dead (and presumably mourned) horse. True, capitalism has eroded patriarchal authority; the family has been drastically altered by modern developments from industrialism to women’s participation in the labor force to the hedonism implicit in mass culture. (Personally, I prefer the present system, with its admitted faults, to one that allowed women no rights at all.) But it is perverse to deny that the family and its ideology continue to shape our lives. Most of us have been brought up by parents or other relatives. It is in the family that children discover their sexuality and learn how women and men are supposed to behave, toward the world and each other. The family is still the main source of women’s oppression and the main focus of feminist politics, which is probably why male leftists are so inclined to premature announcements of its demise.

Whether or not they work outside the home, most women base their lives on marriage and motherhood; since job discrimination ensures that women earn roughly half as much as men, and lack of public child-care facilities is a further deterrent to single motherhood, women’s employment has not ended their dependence on marriage, nor has it relieved them of the chief responsibility for housework and child rearing. Though families who conform to the classic patriarchal pattern are now in the minority, most domestic-relations laws define the obligations of husband and wife in terms of their traditional roles. So does the government. Nixon vetoed federally funded child care on the grounds that the state should not usurp the prerogative of the family, code for “Mothers should stay home where they belong and if they don’t it’s their children’s tough luck.” The Carter administration’s response to the poverty of families dependent on a female breadwinner was to suggest that federal job programs employ men, the implied purpose being to “encourage” women to get or stay married. Despite all the activism of the past 10 years, our society still regards wife beating as a private domestic matter, condones rape within marriage, hesitates to condemn men for raping independent or sexually active women, restricts women’s access to contraception and abortion, discriminates against homosexuals and even throws them in jail. In most states it is still legal to punish a spouse by using evidence of sexual “immorality” as a weapon in contested divorces and child-custody disputes. Social prejudice against single people remains pervasive: we are immature, unreliable, and incapable of deep attachments, we don’t own property, we like loud music, our sexual activities are offensive, and if too many of us are allowed in we’ll ruin the neighborhood. (The stereotype goes double for homosexuals.) Unmarried couples and groups also encounter various forms of discrimination, from difficulty in renting apartments, obtaining mortgages, and buying insurance to ordinances that limit or ban communal housing to tax laws that allow only the legally married to file joint returns.

The relation of capitalism to the family is in fact far more dialectical than analyses like Lasch’s suggest. When families were economically self-sufficient, they provided jobs for those who could work and took care of those who could not. In an industrial economy, where workers must find buyers for their labor, anyone who cannot command a living wage faces a grim existence; even the white middle-class man at the height of his earning power may find that a technological advance, an economic downturn, or an illness has made him unemployable. While government services like unemployment insurance and social security purport to fill the gaps, in practice they offer a bare minimum of protection against disaster, and do nothing to alleviate the day-to-day anxiety of coping with a hostile system. For most people, the only alternative to facing that anxiety alone is to be part of a family. At least in theory, family members are committed to each other’s survival; small, unstable, and vulnerable as the contemporary nuclear family may be, it is better than nothing.

Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family and upholding its mythology. If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rearing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble. There is a direct link between the conservative trend of American capitalism and the backlash on so-called “cultural issues.” During the past decade, the loss of the Vietnam War, the general decline in American influence, and the growing power of the oil industry have led to an intensive corporate drive to increase profits by reducing social services, raising prices faster than wages, and convincing the public to have “lower expectations”; in the same period blatant family chauvinism has become official government policy. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that most people are less inclined to demand change — with all the risk and uncertainty such demands entail — than to cling to what they have and defend it against attack. These days “my family first” is only a slightly less insular version of the “me first” psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes. Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first they are all too likely to be last. People who are clinging are never eager to share their branch, nor do they look kindly on anyone who insists it’s rotten wood.

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Like most educated white middle-class women of my generation, I did not grow up worrying about economic survival. My central problems had to do with the conflict between a conservative upbringing and the “sexual revolution,” between traditional definitions of femininity and a strong desire for worldly achievement and independence. For me the cultural revolt began in the late ’50s, with the libertarian campaign against obscenity laws and conventional sexual morality. I was for it, but I was also suspicious, and no wonder: quite aside from my own internal conflicts, the sexual freedom movement was full of contradictions. The libertarians did not concern themselves with the quality of sexual relationships or the larger social and emotional causes of sexual frustration. They were less influenced by feminism than their counterparts in the ’20s; in theory they advocated the sexual liberation of women, but in practice their outlook was male-centered and often downright misogynist. They took for granted that prostitution and pornography were liberating. They carried on about the hypocrisy of the sexual game — by which they meant men’s impatience with having to court women and pay lip service to their demands for love, respect, and commitment. No one suggested that men’s isolation of sex from feeling might actually be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Around the same time, more radical ideas were beginning to surface. While I was in high school I was fascinated by the beats and their rejection of the “square” institution of marriage. Later I began to read and learn from radical Freudians like Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, and — especially — the original radical Freudian, Wilhelm Reich. Where Freud contended that civilization required instinctual repression, Reich argued that what Freud took to be civilization, in some absolute sense, was a specific, changeable social structure — authoritarian, patriarchal, class-bound. In Reich’s view, the incestuous fantasies, perverse impulses, and sadistic aggression that dominated the Freudian unconscious were actually the product of repression — the child’s response to the frustration of its natural sexual needs, which were essentially benign. He claimed that when his patients managed to overcome their neurotic sexual inhibitions they became spontaneously decent, rational, and cooperative; the problem, from the conservative moralist’s standpoint, was that they also developed a sense of independence and self-respect that made them question arbitrary authority, compulsive work, passionless marriage, and conventional moral and religious ideas. The function of sexual repression, Reich concluded, was to instill in children the submissive attitudes demanded by patriarchal “civilization.” Thus a truly revolutionary program could not be limited to economic issues, but must include demands for sexual liberation, the emancipation of women, and the transformation of the family. (Unsurprisingly, Goodman, Mailer, and other cultural radicals heavily influenced by Reich’s work did not pick up on his feminism.)

To my mind, Reich’s most revolutionary assertion was also his simplest (some would say most simpleminded): that natural sexuality is the physical manifestation of love. He insisted that the perception of tenderness and sensuality as separate, even antagonistic phenomena was the collective neurosis of an antisexual culture, that pornography, prostitution, rape, and other forms of alienated sex were the by-products of ascetic moralism, the underside of patriarchy, the social equivalent of the Freudian unconscious. These ideas have encountered near-universal resistance; the belief in an intrinsic split between lust and love is one of our most deeply ingrained and cherished prejudices. Most people agree that untrammeled pursuit of sexual pleasure is one thing, socially responsible relationships quite another; debate is usually over the proper ratio of license to repression. Though all democratic thought is based on the premise that freedom is compatible with civilization, that under the right conditions people are capable of self-regulation, even dedicated democrats hesitate to apply this premise to sex and family life. Radicals criticize the conservative assumption that people are innately acquisitive, violent, and power-hungry; yet most swallow the parallel idea that the sexual drive is innately solipsistic. Sex, they assume, is different. Why? It just is. Everybody knows that.

What everybody knows is not necessarily wrong. But it seems clear to me that if there were no inherent opposition between freedom and responsibility, pleasure and duty, “mere” sex and serious love, the patriarchal family would create it. I believe that sexual love in its most passionate sense is as basic to happiness as food is to life, and that living and sleeping with a mate one does not love in this sense violates fundamental human impulses. Which is to say that since passion is by definition spontaneous — we can behave in ways that inhibit or nurture it, but finally we feel it or we don’t — a marital arrangement based on legal, economic, or moral coercion is oppressive. But the whole point of marriage is to be a binding social alliance, and it cannot fulfill that function unless mates are forced or intimidated into staying together. Traditional patriarchal societies dealt with this contradiction by refusing to recognize passionate love as a legitimate need. For men it was seen as an illicit, disruptive force that had nothing to do with the serious business of family; for women it was usually proscribed altogether. The modern celebration of romantic love muddled the issue: now we want marriage to serve two basically incompatible purposes, to be at once a love relationship and a contract. We exalt love as the highest motive for marriage, but tell couples that of course passion fades into “mature” conjugal affection. We want our mates to be faithful out of love, yet define monogamy as an obligation whose breach justifies moral outrage and legal revenge. We agree that spouses who don’t love each other should not have to stay together, even for the sake of the children; yet we uphold a system that makes women economic prisoners, and condone restrictive adversary divorce laws. We argue that without the legal and moral pressure of marriage lovers won’t make the effort required to live intimately with someone else; but by equating emotional commitment with the will to live up to a contract, we implicitly define passion as unserious, peripheral to real life.

Another, equally insoluble conflict is built into the nuclear family. Children are a 24-hour-a-day responsibility, yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives. The brunt of this conflict falls on mothers, but even if fathers shared child care equally the basic problem would remain. Child rearing is too big a job for one or even two people to handle without an unnatural, destructive degree of self-sacrifice.

A different kind of family structure could solve or ease these problems. In matrilineal societies mothers, children, and their blood relatives were the ongoing social unit, the permanence of sexual relationships apparently became an issue with the rise of patriarchy. In traditional patriarchies, the extended family at least gave parents some relief from responsibility for their offspring. The logical postpatriarchal unit is some version of the commune. Groups of people who agreed to take responsibility for each other, pool their economic resources, and share housework and child care would have a basis for stability independent of any one couple’s sexual bond; children would have the added security of close ties to adults other than their biological parents (and if the commune were large and flexible enough, parents who had stopped being lovers might choose to remain in it); communal child rearing, shared by both sexes, would remove the element of martyrdom from parenthood.

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I realize that the kind of change I’m talking about amounts to a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude. Yet to refuse to fight for love that is both free and responsible is in a sense to reject the possibility of love itself. I suspect that in a truly free society sexual love would be at once more satisfying and less terrifying, that lovers would be more spontaneously monogamous but less jealous, more willing to commit themselves deeply yet less devastated if a relationship had to end. Still, there is an inherent, irreducible risk in loving: it means surrendering detachment and control, giving our lovers the power to hurt us by withdrawing their love, leaving, or wanting someone else. The marriage contract appeals to our self-contradictory desire to negate that risk, nullify that power. I don’t mean to suggest that people who reject marriage are less afflicted with this desire than anyone else; remaining single can be an excellent way of distancing oneself from love, or avoiding it altogether. But I am convinced that contrary to its myth, the institution supports our fear of love rather than our yearning for it. We can embrace marriage, hoping to transcend its contradictions, or reject it, hoping to find something better; either way we are likely to be disappointed.

Until recently I had no doubt which route I preferred. I had married at 20, left three years later, and though I did not rule out marrying again if I had some specific practical reason, the idea bothered me the way the thought of signing a loyalty oath always had. It was not the public, ceremonial aspect of marriage I objected to — I thought the decision to share one’s life with a lover was worth celebrating — but the essence of marriage, the contract. Whatever two people’s private view of their relationship, however they might adapt the ceremony, in getting legally married they officially agreed to be bound by the rules of a patriarchal institution — one of which was that the state defined the circumstances in which they could be unbound. Besides, most people made endless assumptions about married couples and treated them accordingly; it wasn’t so easy to get married and pretend you weren’t.

I was also put off by the marriages I observed; domestic life as most of my peers lived it made me feel claustrophobic. What disturbed me was the degree of emotional repression most “successful” (that is, stable and reasonably contented) marriages seemed to involve. Given the basic contradictions of the family, it inevitably provoked conflicts that had to be submerged. But the conditions of contemporary middle-class marriage — the prevalence of divorce and infidelity, the emergence of feminism, the nagging ambivalence about whether we were supposed to enjoy life or be Adults — tended to bring those conflicts into the open, requiring a whole extra layer of evasions to keep them at bay. While some couples had managed to fight out the battle of the sexes to a real understanding instead of a divorce, most successful marriages I knew of were based on a sexist detente: the husband had made it clear that he would not give up certain prerogatives and the wife pretended not to hate him for it. Add a bit of sexual and emotional boredom in an era when not to be madly in love with your spouse was a social embarrassment, and it was not surprising that so many “happy” couples radiated stifling dependence or low-level static. No, I would think, with a fair amount of smugness, better alone than trapped.

But the year I turned 35, an odd thing happened: I had a persistent fantasy about getting married. It was — on the surface at least — a fantasy of triumph. At the time of my actual marriage, I had felt that my life was totally out of control. I was a scared kid making a promise I suspected I wouldn’t keep, at a conventional wedding I didn’t want, in a dress I’d been talked into getting. A rabbi I hardly knew presided over the traditional Jewish ritual, in which the bride gets to say precisely nothing. Since then I had, as they say, come a long way, but it had been a rocky trip. While I had rebelled against the idea that a woman needs a man to run her life, I had struggled with an undertow of conviction that such rebellion was disastrous hubris. On the level of social reality, this made perfect sense; if feminism had taught me anything it was that the liberated woman was a myth, that women who deviated from prescribed feminine behavior always paid a price. But the connection between the personal and the political is usually more convoluted than it seems. In fact, my conflict had less to do with the real social consequences of nonconformity than with an unconscious fear that I could not, after all, be female and yet competent to make my way through the world. In my relationships I had found it hard to draw the essential line between the power men have over women and the power all lovers have over each other — but I had begun to understand that what I was really fighting, more often than not, was the power of my own worst impulses to give in, give up and be dependent.

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That year I felt the struggle was paying off. Some balance had shifted; emotionally I was on my own in a way I had not been before. And so my marriage fantasy was a kind of exorcism. Now that I was strong enough to love a man and preserve my identity, confident enough to make a choice that wouldn’t be easy to get out of, I would do it over again and do it right — I would get to talk, play rock and roll, wear what I pleased. By marrying I would beat the system, give the lie to all the old farts who insisted that women could not have autonomy and love too. As the noted feminist Mick Jagger was to put it a couple of years later, American girls want everything — and I was no exception.

Though I sensed an underside to all this, I was too proud of my psychic victory to realize I was doing yet another version of the liberated woman tap dance, one that contained its own negation. These days the formula is familiar: women, we are told (often by women themselves) are now free enough so that they can choose to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without feeling oppressed. The unspoken question, of course, is whether women can refuse to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without getting zapped. When women start answering, in effect, “We’ve made our point — let’s not push our luck,” it is a sure sign of backlash. And in retrospect it seems clear that my sudden interest in marriage (it’s just a silly fantasy, I kept telling myself) was an early sign that the backlash was getting to me. As it intensified, I found myself, in moments of rank self-pity, thinking about marriage in a very different spirit. Okay (I would address the world), I’ve fought, I’ve paid my dues. I’m tired of being a crank, of being marginal. I want in!

As a single woman, and a writer who will probably never make much money, I feel more vulnerable now than I ever have before. My income has not kept up with inflation. I am approaching the biological deadline for maternity, confronting the possibility that the folklore of my adolescence — if a woman doesn’t settle down with a man before she’s 30, forget it — may turn out to apply to me after all. I am very conscious of the sustenance I have always gotten (and mostly taken for granted) from the family I grew up in: the intense bonds of affection and loyalty; the acceptance born of long intimacy; the power of “we,” of a shared slant on the world, a collective history and mythology, a language of familiar jokes and gestures. In some ways I have re-created these bonds with my closest friends, but it is not quite the same. The difference has to do with home being the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in — and also being (as the less-quoted next line of the poem has it) something you haven’t to deserve. I have friends who would take me in, but on some level I think I have to deserve them.

Around the time I began having these feelings, but before I had quite faced them, I broke a long-standing taboo and had a love affair with a married man. At night I would sit in my kitchen arguing with myself, debates that usually began with the reflection that what I was doing was selfish, irresponsible, and an egregious breach of female solidarity. But goddammit, I would protest, I refuse to define it that way! I really believe there’s such a thing as a basic human right to love whom you love and act on it.

But if you’re hurting another woman? Making her unequal struggle with this whole fucked-up system more difficult?

Well, the fact is, it hurts if your mate wants someone else! That’s an inescapable part of life — no matter what the almighty contract says!

Oh, yeah, right — life is unfair. And the children?

Silence, more coffee.

I never did resolve that argument; it just settled undigested in my stomach. Afterward, I had to admit I could not come up with a handy moral, except perhaps that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Morals aside, there was the matter of all those unacknowledged illusions about what I could get away with — humiliating perhaps, humbling certainly. At odd moments an old image would float into my mind. Once, as a bus I was riding in pulled out of a station, a silly-looking dog danced alongside, coming dangerously close to the wheels and yapping its lungs out. The bus rolled on.

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Recently a friend reminded me that in the early, heady days of feminist activism I had said to her, “We’re not going to see the results of this revolution in our lifetime; we’re making it for the women who come after us.” A judicious and sensible comment, but I’m not sure I ever really meant it. The reason feminism touched me so deeply was that I wanted the revolution for myself; I can’t help being disappointed and angry that it is turning out to be every bit as difficult as I claimed to believe. Reaction is always temporary, I know that — what I’m afraid of is that it won’t end in time to do me any good. But I also realize that kind of pessimism feeds the reaction and is in fact part of it. For all the external pressures that have contributed to the retrenchment of the erstwhile dissident community, in a sense reaction was built into its passionate optimism. The mentality that currently inspires ’60s veterans to say things like, “We didn’t succeed in abolishing the family. This proves we were wrong — the family is necessary,” is of a piece with the counterculture’s notorious impatience. Our ambitions outstripped both the immediate practical possibilities and our own limitations. People turned themselves and each other inside out; terrible bitterness between women and men came to the surface; everything seemed to be coming apart, with no imminent prospect of our finding a better way to put it back together. A lot of people were relieved when the conservative mood of the ’70s gave them an excuse to stop struggling and stretching themselves to uncertain purpose; a lot of men were particularly relieved when the backlash gave them support for digging in their heels against feminism. Some former rebels have turned against their past altogether, dismissing their vision as adolescent extravagance, reducing a decade of history to the part of it that was — inevitably — foolish and excessive. Many more have responded to the reaction with confusion and malaise. If women must reconcile their raised consciousness with the limits of a conservative time, men are torn between their more regressive impulses and their desire to be (or be thought) good guys. Increasingly, both sexes tend to define feminism and related cultural questions not as public issues calling for political action but as a matter of private “lifestyles” and “options.” This sort of individualism is not only a retreat from ’60s radicalism but in very real ways an extension of it — a more modest liberal version of the counterculture’s faith that simply by dropping out of the system we could have the world and have it now.

That we did not manage in a few years to revolutionize an institution that has lasted for thousands, serving indispensable functions as well as oppressive ones, is hardly something to be surprised at or ashamed of. Rather, what needs to be repudiated is the naive arrogance implicit in slogans like “abolish the family” and “smash monogamy,” in the illusion of so many counterculturists that revolution meant moving in with a bunch of people and calling it a commune. Far from being revolutionary, the cultural left was basically apolitical. That so much of its opposition was expressed in terms of contempt for capitalism and consumerism only confirms how little most ’60s radicals understood the American social system or their own place in it. There is a neat irony in the fact that leftists are now romanticizing the family and blaming capitalism for its collapse, while 10 years ago they were trashing the family and blaming capitalism for its persistence. Ah, dialectics: if an increasingly conservative capitalism has propelled the ’70s backlash, it was a dynamic liberal capitalism that fostered the ’60s revolt. The expansion of the American economy after World War II produced two decades of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed masses of people unprecedented latitude in making choices about how to live. Just as more and more people could afford to buy houses, cars, and appliances, they could choose to work less — or at less lucrative occupations — and still earn enough to survive without undue hardship, especially if they didn’t have kids to support. As a result a growing minority — particularly among the children of the upper middle class — felt free to question the dominant social arrangements, to experiment and take risks, to extend student life with its essentially bohemian values into adulthood rather than graduate to professional jobs, nuclear families, and the suburbs.

What most counterculture opposition to capitalism amounted to was this minority’s anger at the majority for refusing to make the same choice. Even the organized left, which should have known better, acted as if the way to change American society was for each person individually to renounce the family, material comfort, and social respectability. That most people were doing no such thing was glibly attributed to sexual repression, greed, and/or “brainwashing” by the mass media — the implication being that radicals and bohemians were sexier, smarter, less corrupt, and generally more terrific than everyone else. Actually, what they mostly were was younger and more privileged: it was easy to be a self-righteous antimaterialist if you had never known anxiety about money; easy to sneer at the security of marriage if you had solicitous middle-class parents; easy, if you were 20 years old and childless, to blame those parents for the ills of the world. Not that radicals were wrong in believing that a sexually free, communal society was incompatible with capitalism, or in perceiving connections between sexual repression, obsessive concern with material goods, and social conformity. But they did not understand that psychology aside, most people submit to the power of institutions because they suffer unpleasant consequences if they don’t. It made no sense to talk of abolishing the family without considering the genuine needs it served and organizing against the social pressures that inhibited us from satisfying those needs in other ways. In the ’70s the left itself would provide the best illustration of that truth: it was when economic conditions worsened, around the time most ’60s rebels were reaching an age where anxieties about the future were not so easy to dismiss, that radicals began to change their line on the family.

But if the political myopia of the counterculture was partly a matter of class and age, it was even more a matter of sex. Like every other segment of society the counterculture was dominated by men, who benefited from the male privileges built into the family structure and so did not care to examine it too closely. While they were not averse to freeing themselves from their traditional obligations in the family, they had no intention of giving up their prerogatives. To support a woman, promise permanence or fidelity, or take responsibility for the children one fathered might be bourgeois, but to expect the same woman to cook and clean, take care of the kids, and fuck on command was only natural. Despite an overlay of radical Freudian rhetoric, their sexual ethos was more or less standard liberal permissiveness; they were not interested in getting rid of the roles of wife and whore, only in “liberating” women to play either as the occasion demanded.

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It remained for the women’s liberation movement to begin to understand the family in a political way. Radical feminists exposed the hypocrisy of a “cultural revolution” based on sexual inequality, attributed that inequality to the historic, institutionalized power of men as a group over women as a group, and called for a mass movement to end it. Feminism became the only contemporary political movement to make an organized effort to change, rather than simply drop out of, the patriarchal family.

Feminist consciousness-raising and analysis produced a mass of information about the family as an instrument of female oppression. But on those aspects of family chauvinism that did not directly involve the subordination of women, the movement had little to say. (There were individual exceptions, notably Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex.) Radical feminists tended to be skeptical of the counterculture’s vision of a communal utopia. Many defended the nuclear family, arguing that it was not marriage, only traditional marital sex roles that oppressed women; at the other extreme were factions that challenged the value of heterosexuality and even sex itself.

In a sense, radical feminism defined itself in opposition to the psychological explanations of behavior so prevalent on the left. Most early women’s liberationists had come out of a left-counterculture milieu where they were under heavy pressure to go along with the men’s notion of sexual freedom. As soon as feminism surfaced, the left began to resist it by arguing that the conventional pattern of male-female relationships was the result of capitalist conditioning, that men were not oppressors but fellow victims. As feminists pointed out, this argument ignored the advantages men’s privileged status conferred, their reluctance to give up those advantages, and the day-to-day social and economic constraints that kept women in their place. In effect it absolved men of all responsibility for their actions and implied that women could remedy their condition simply by straightening out their heads.

Vital as it was to combat the left’s mushy, self-serving psychologism, radical feminists have tended to fall into the opposite error of dismissing psychology altogether. This bias has been particularly limiting when applied to the crucial subject of sex. Feminists have been inclined to blame women’s sexual problems solely on men’s exploitative behavior and lack of consideration for women’s needs, whether emotional or specifically erotic. The criticism is accurate so far as it goes. But it is impossible to understand female — or for that matter male — sexuality without acknowledging the impact of growing up in a culture that despite its surface permissiveness is deeply antisexual. A distorted, negative view of sex is basic to patriarchal psychology: since girls learn to regard their genitals as a badge of inferiority, boys to equate theirs with dominance and aggression, sexual pleasure gets tangled up with sadistic and masochistic feelings and hostility between the sexes. At the same time, both sexes have a powerful emotional investment in traditionally masculine and feminine behavior because they associate it with their sexual identities and with sex itself.

Just as a real sexual revolution must be feminist, a genuinely radical feminism must include a critique of sexual repression and the family structure that perpetuates it. Yet the two questions remain distinct in most people’s mind — a distinction that contributes to the backlash, since it allows people to succumb to family chauvinist attitudes without confronting their antifeminist implications. As it so often does, the right has a clearer grasp of the problem than its opposition, which is one reason “pro-family” reactionaries have been more politically effective than feminists who protest that they’re not against the family, they just want women to have equality within it. The issue of family chauvinism is at the core of the conflict between feminist and antifeminist women, as well as the antagonism that smolders even in sophisticated feminist circles between wives who feel that single women do not support them or understand their problems and single women who feel that wives are collaborating with the system. While feminists have rightly emphasized the common oppression of married and single women and the ways men have pitted us against each other, this kind of analysis ignores the fact that the family has its own imperatives: just as women can ally with men to defend the interests of a class or race, they can share their husbands’ family chauvinism. Women in a patriarchy have every reason to distrust male sexuality and fear their own. Under present conditions, heterosexuality really is dangerous for women, not only because it involves the risk of pregnancy and of exploitation and marginality, but because it is emotionally bound up with the idea of submission. And so long as women are economically dependent on their husbands they cannot afford to countenance the idea that men have a right to anything so unpredictable as passion. As a result women are as likely as men — if not more so — to see the family as our only alternative to unbridled lust and rapine.

To regard marriage and singleness simply as “options,” or even as situations equally favorable to men and oppressive to women, misses the point. The institution of the family, and the people who enforce its rules and uphold its values, define the lives of both married and single people, just as capitalism defines the lives of workers and dropouts alike. The family system divides us up into insiders and outsiders; as insiders married people are more likely to identify with the established order, and when they do they are not simply expressing a personal preference but taking a political stand. The issue, finally, is whether we have the right to hope for a freer, more humane way of connecting with each other. Defenders of the family seem to think that we have already gone too far, that the problem of this painful and confusing time is too much freedom. I think there’s no such thing as too much freedom — only too little nerve.


She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry Captures the Women Who Changed It All

On October 8, 2012, Rush Limbaugh — the radio host and resentment profiteer — said this to a listener who had called to complain about how hard it is to argue with liberals: “I wouldn’t tell them what you hear anybody else say, because that’s just an opening for them to say, ‘Well, they’re a liar,’ or ‘They don’t know anything.’ “

What’s interesting here isn’t whatever it is that Limbaugh’s arguing. Instead, look at the pronouns. The indefinite anybody, which is singular, is antecedent to those theys, which are plural. That’s a now-common usage that, in Limbaugh’s youth, was not that common at all: In the ’50s and ’60s, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, any real man speaking of a hypothetical person of uncertain gender would have defaulted to he.

This exemplifies the profound success of the waves of feminism that Limbaugh has made his millions railing against: Since the ’60s, when a generation of
activists and critics dared to argue that women should be allowed to make decisions and hold jobs of note and be paid worth a damn and not get raped, feminism has fundamentally changed most aspects of our lives today — even the
very language Rush Limbaugh speaks.

And he doesn’t even know it.

One of the year’s best films, Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is an urgent, illuminating dive into the headwaters of second-wave feminism, the movement that — no matter what its detractors insist — has given us the world in which we live.

“We live in a country that doesn’t like to credit any of its radical movements,” Susan Brownmiller says in the film. “They don’t like to admit in the United States that change happens because radicals force it.” A score of those who dared force it turn up for fresh interviews in Dore’s wide-ranging film: Here’s Rita Mae Brown, Ellen Willis, Fran Beal, Judith Arcana, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and many more, dishing truth and priceless anecdotes about what it felt like to change the world — and how tough it was to do so. Dore’s generous with fiery archival footage — marches, chants, meetings, gobsmackingly sexist news reports — as she traces the development of the
National Organization for Women and its many sister groups, culminating in 1970’s Women’s Strike for Equality.

The doc is wise, moving, upsetting, and sometimes funny. Witness the “Stare at Your Own Damn Tits” T-shirt, or the ogle-in that Karla Jay arranged on Wall Street, where feminists leered at suited dudes after a newspaper article described brokers lying in wait each afternoon to grope and hiss at one buxom office worker. “Those pants bring out your best!” Jay calls.

We see that in a report Marlene Sanders taped for ABC News.

“How you like that hat over there?” asks one of Jay’s feminist oglers, pointing at some dude.

“Oh,” gushes Jay, “what a chapeau!”

Of course, the laughs sometimes stick in your throat: Weep over the classified ad, from an old gender-segregated help-wanted section, calling for “World’s Best Looking Exec Secy to Assist World’s Most Charming Boss.”

Dore opens with the movement’s birth — with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in ’63 and the formation of NOW in ’66 — and then, just a few years later, its splintering with the New Left.
At a protest targeting Nixon’s election, Marilyn Webb took the stage to speak out about women’s issues ignored by the civil rights and anti-war movements — and about the shoddy treatment women were subjected to within organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society. Webb says in the film that she expected the women’s movement to be viewed as the third leg of the New Left, a natural outgrowth of existing activism. Instead, it was attacked. As she and the late Willis describe it, the mostly male crowd
responded with catcalls and threats: “Fuck her down a dark alley!”

Dark alleys, of course, became a rallying point for feminists and their earliest organizations. Besides the commonsensical equal-treatment platforms, they pushed for still-controversial reproductive freedoms, most pressingly the right never again to have to seek abortions from backstreet doctors. She’s Beautiful lays out the pro-choice case with a clarity that’s been lost in America: “We were always being subjected to a double message,” Willis says. “Sex was supposed to be OK now, but if we were pregnant, it was our problem.” Thousands of women died each year from illegal abortions; as the ’60s bled into the ’70s, the movement rallied around this. But as Dore is always quick to point out, that movement was never monumental. Fran Beal
recalls arguing a pro-choice message to supporters of the Black Liberation Army, whose doctrine demanded women have babies to support the revolution — and that birth control was a white plot to perpetrate black genocide. Rita Mae Brown, meanwhile, kept clashing with NOW over its failure to address the experiences of all women. She says, with exuberant relish, “I called them on the carpet about class, I called them on the carpet about race, and I called them on the carpet about lesbianism. I said, ‘You are treating women the same way men treat you.’ “

The film builds to an epochal moment that is not as widely remembered as it should be: the August 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, organized by Friedan and NOW, that set thousands of women marching down Fifth Avenue on the
50th anniversary of the ratification of
the 19th Amendment. “Women on the March: ‘We’re a Movement Now!’ ” trumpeted the headline in the Voice the next week. In a writeup as richly detailed as Dore’s film, Mary Breasted laid out the strike’s three demands: “Free abortion
on demand, 24-hour day care for all mothers, and employment, pay, and
promotion opportunities for women equal to those of men.”

Not one of those has yet been won.
But that doesn’t mean the march or the movement failed. Breasted seemed to sense it even then: “But no one seemed to harp much on those demands,” she wrote. “The common bond was the demonstration itself, their presence in the streets
together, sharing defiant sisterhood.”

That defiant sisterhood changed the workplace, our sexual politics, our language. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
is the best filmed account of how that happened you could ever expect to see.


Ellen Willis, Anthologized

Ellen Willis was the first person to be given the pop-music beat at The New Yorker, and five years after her death in 2006, some of her work—including a few essays written for this paper—has been collected into a single volume. Out of the Vinyl Deeps (Minnesota) is a seemingly bottomless treasure chest filled with new insights on pop. “Like great singles, they get better if you ask more of them. Play them again and again,” current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones instructs the reader in his preface. He’s not wrong.

Willis’s work is crystalline enough that reading each essay takes the reader on a trip back to the era when it originally appeared, but it’s a testimony to her intellect and talent that those journeys look completely unlike any hagiography you might stumble across. She cuts through clichés nimbly, whether they’re about the utopian nature of Woodstock or the prescribed feminist reactions to outrageous manifestations of male-dominated culture, and the essays—even the getting-to-know-you pieces about artists who have been elevated to the canon and featured ad nauseam in nostalgia-jangling commercials—vibrate off the page.

Most of the essays in Out of the Vinyl Deeps were new to me, and it was tempting to contrast Willis’s work, particularly the pieces from the ’60s and ’70s that make up the bulk of the book, with the State of the Music-Writing Union today. The sheer length of most of the pieces, and the amount of intellectual calisthenics that long word counts provide, is one thing to sigh over in the 140-character era. But most striking—and inspiring—is Willis’s willingness to engage with herself as she tries to grapple with the cultural artifacts she covers. Yes, when she has an opinion, she isn’t afraid to matter-of-factly state it. But there’s a strong intellectual through line in the book, and it’s brightest when Willis is debating herself—a quality that’s lacking from too many writers right now, when brute force seems to count more toward one’s intellectual heftiness than any sort of conviction or willingness to learn. Whether it’s her struggling with the gap between her intellectual-feminist and primal-fan reactions to the Sex Pistols’ brutal “Bodies” or noting that New York’s frantic pace made her more likely to require that the music she listened to grab her right away, to read her work is to watch someone bristle against the idea of a music journalist merely serving as an objective pair of ears. The idea that music is the most subjective of all cultural products is one that isn’t discussed much of the time—although the difference in reactions to the word “soundscape” and a concrete description of a music-inspired emotion should serve as closure for any argument—but Willis’s writing was aware of and honored that fact. The result was criticism that not only places music into contexts both (to borrow a phrase) personal and political, but it helps the reader—even those reading her words well after the fact, which in this moment of endless newness is supposed to be an anomaly—understand why she chose to engage with it.

On Saturday, April 30, NYU will host ‘Sex, Hope & Rock ‘n’ Roll–The Writings of Ellen Willis,’ a three-panel conference devoted to Willis’s work and influence; register at


Ellen Willis, 1941 – 2006

“I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal. But I guess that I just don’t know.” —Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light

Ellen Willis and I met at The New Yorker in 1968, when I was an editorial dogsbody and she was the magazine’s first-ever rock critic. Instead of letting me hate her for that, she was extraordinarily nice and friendly in a shy, wry sort of way. After a while, she took to perching on a corner of my desk—something other New Yorker writers only did if they were going to ask you for a date. Ellen just wanted to talk. I had an anti-war poster on my wall, and we talked about Vietnam and became pals. Eventually we started talking about women’s liberation, a subject I found so seismic that I kept my hands under the desk so she wouldn’t see them shaking while I casually protested that it really wasn’t my thing. What I was really feeling during those conversations were little shocks of recognition, the kind that if you let them can propel you past your own fear.

Nudging my politics as she worked out her own, Ellen helped me learn what I really was, what I really wanted, and what I didn’t. She brought things out in me that I didn’t know were there, among them an anger I’d never admitted to and a willingness to be an outsider. And I’m just one of countless people she touched. She turned me on to the Velvet Underground with a piece so brilliant that Lou Reed asked her to write the liner notes for his Rock and Roll Diary 1967–1980. When I subsequently met Reed at a movie premiere and mentioned that Ellen was a friend, he lit up. Before the evening ended, he asked somewhat hesitantly if there was some way that he could put his celebrity, such as it was, to use in the fight for abortion rights. And I thought, Ellen, your reach is vast.

One long-ago summer when we were both failing to extricate ourselves from fractious relationships that we pretty much knew were doomed anyway, Ellen said, “Sometimes I think I’d rather be right than happy.” I knew what she meant—score that point even though the fighting itself makes you miserable. But in fact, what Ellen really liked was to be right and happy. Ellen was unquestionably an intellectual; she spent her days and a fair number of her nights trying to figure out as much of the world as she could get her brain around. But she was a rationalist with a mystic’s longing for wholeness and transcendence, and a self-described democratic socialist for whom individual freedom was the sine qua non of a decent civilization. A child of Reich as well as Freud, she placed great value on the body and its pleasures, particularly sexual ones; she saw a life devoid of pleasure as a form of death. She despised fixed hierarchies, bullies and authoritarians of all kinds, and Puritanism on both the left and the right. Attempts to shame women and rein them in sexually made her furious. She was impatient with some feminists’ obsession with fighting pornography, particularly when reproductive freedom, that cornerstone of female autonomy, was under relentless siege. At her memorial service on November 12, Stanley Aronowitz, her husband and lover of 25 years, called her “a woman of the Enlightenment.” She was her own best example: In Ellen, mind and body were twin engines of a profoundly passionate life.

Ellen and I were friends for 38 years, although our lives diverged in the last 10, she disappearing (as I saw it) into the alien world of academe, while I threw myself down the rabbit hole of full-time freelance writing. Still, we found time for occasional dinners, and one magic day before she got sick, we turned twentysomething again, hanging out in the Village for hours, blissfully pigging out on greasy burgers and gooey ice cream, wandering through a bookstore plucking things for each other to read, not heavy tomes to improve our minds, but favorite mystery and science-fiction novels. (George Pelecanos, be proud: Ellen Willis loved you.) And we talked about guys, musing, remembering, dissecting. I reminded her of something she confided when she was dating Stanley. “I think it’s getting serious,” she’d said. “I’m feeling paranoid.” Trust Ellen to locate the terror and comedy of love.

At 64, Ellen died too young, but she still left a rich legacy, including Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and Don’t Think, Smile, three juicy collections of her reporting, cultural criticism, laugh-out-loud humor pieces, and amazingly vibrant political analysis. Ellen was a fearless, incisive critic, but she also created as much as she critiqued. Among her creations were the influential women’s liberation group Redstockings, which she founded in 1969 with Shulamith Firestone after men yelled, “Take her off the stage and fuck her” when Firestone spoke at an anti-war rally in Washington, and No More Nice Girls, a guerrilla-theater action group formed in the wake of the 1977 passage of the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment. And a few years after she joined the faculty of NYU’s journalism school in 1990, Ellen designed and was directing a groundbreaking graduate concentration in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, inspiring similar programs elsewhere. But if Ellen were here, she would surely point out her most cherished creation, the 22-year-old political and cultural journalist Nona Willis-Aronowitz.

When news began to circulate of Ellen’s death last Thursday morning from metastasized lung cancer (for the record, she never smoked), the reaction was startling. Within hours, personal tributes were popping up in e-mails and blogs all over the net, along with more formal but sometimes heartfelt notices on the websites of publications Ellen wrote for, including The New Yorker, The Nation, Dissent, and this paper, where she joined me on staff as a fellow senior editor in 1979 and stayed through the ’80s (returning to write a column in the mid ’90s). Even The New York Times, which tends to snub the American left as well as the livelier, pleasure-loving brand of radical feminism, weighed in with a graceful obit by Margalit Fox, who clearly knew and appreciated Ellen’s work.

Most of the tributes in the immediate wake of her death came from colleagues, former students, writers she had edited years ago, and even people who’d only known her briefly. The one that brought it all home for me came from Lauren Sandler, an editor at Salon who had been Ellen’s student. In an e-mail, Sandler wrote, “Ellen’s death has shaken into me a sense of why I do this, what the purpose is, where my outrage and passion lie, as well as my drive to celebrate life and sharpen my thinking and the thinking of others. Which all comes back to her, of course. I have no idea who I would be without her.”