Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism
By Christopher Lasch
Edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Norton, 192 pages, $23
Historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch occupied a peculiar niche in contemporary social thought. His books, especially Haven in a Heartless World (1977) and The Culture of Narcissism (1979), were widely reviewed, yet his name is better known than his ideas. (What must Lasch have thought when Haven in a Heartless World, with its heavily ironic title, was repeatedly labeled a sentimental tract on the family?) Fellow scholars cited him, but few actually grappled with his challenges to their reigning paradigms. And, except for a brief stint advising President Jimmy Carter, Lasch was never taken into the corridors of power. His critique of the nanny state made him useless to the liberal left; his jeremiads on consumer capitalism alienated the economic right; and his tirades against “elites” made him persona non grata to much of the knowledge class.
Unforgivably in the eyes of these latter, he was an unapologetic defender of the lower-middle-class moral traditions from which many knowledge workers of his generation had emerged and escaped. To make matters worse, he was a leading champion of the good sense of the citizenry as against the nostrums of bureaucrats and so-called experts.
In 1993 and 1994, while battling the cancer that claimed his life at the age of sixty-one, Lasch completed The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, and, with the help of his daughter, this collection of essays on women, love, the family, and feminism. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn writes in her introduction that her father regarded these essays (all but one previously published) as steps in a longstanding search for connections between feminism and the modern ideals of intimacy and domesticity. Their chief value, however, may well lie in the way Lasch relates women’s history to his lifelong concern with the conditions for democratic self-government.
Long before women’s studies became a fashionable field unto itself, Lasch was writing about women’s roles in history. Like Fernand Braudel and others who ventured into the long-neglected territory of the history of ordinary life, Lasch was a pioneer in connecting the history of everyday things to larger economic developments. But his own work was distinguished by a passionate interest in the lives of women and the firm conviction that neither cultural history nor women’s history can be understood apart from one another. At a time when leading historians of the family were concentrating on the English and French aristocracy, Lasch focused on marriage and family life among ordinary Americans. His historical vantage point yielded fruitful insights into contemporary American life, which he presented in a highly readable series of books, articles, and review essays for the New York Review of Books.
The overarching concept that, for Lasch, links changes in women’s roles and the family to the cultural history of the West in general is the rationalization of everyday life. Lasch-Quinn summarizes his thesis succinctly:
Much of modern life . . . rests on the assumption that all realms of activity should come under intense scrutiny, that science and rationality can best lead to an understanding of human experience, and that only trained experts can direct the conduct of daily existence. The reordering of life according to such principles of rationalization resulted from the tendency of corporate capitalism and the modern liberal state to expand their power, which they accomplished by means of a bureaucratic structure and paternalistic ethos. The service professions, acting on behalf of the state, intruded into the private domain, helping to replace habit and custom with esoteric techniques for addressing everyday problems, causing a situation of dependence on elites that is antithetical to democracy.
There, in a nutshell, is the line of thinking that made Lasch such a blister to many liberals and conservatives: his condemnation of corporate and governmental power grabs, his attachment to a robust vision of democratic citizenship, and his conviction that the social work establishment, educators, therapists, and other semi-skilled technocrats had undermined the competence of the middle class, while subjecting the poor to “new controls sincerely disguised as benevolence.”
Also central to Lasch’s thought, and to these essays, is the belief that a vibrant civil society (the “common life” of his title) is both a prerequisite for, and a goal of, democracy. In the centerpiece of the collection, “The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs,” Lasch postulates that changes in women’s roles were importantly linked to the decline of communities of memory and mutual aid.
The essay begins by challenging a standard historical narrative according to which industrialization forced middle-class women into the role of full-time housewives, a prison from which they were freed only by the glorious revolution of the 1960s. In reality, Lasch claims, the misnamed “traditional” household, where the wife is a full-time homemaker, is of much more recent date. It was “a mid-twentieth-century innovation,” appearing on a broad scale only in connection with the rapid growth of suburbs after World War II.
Lasch supports his periodization by reminding us that the period from 1890 to 1920 was a time of intense participation by middle-class women in civic life. Homemakers and single women alike devoted much of their time and energies to charitable activities, religious groups, and reform movements, from the township and village level to the state and national arenas. All that is well known, so why does the myth persist that most women were isolated in the home once their husbands became wage earners? Lasch plausibly speculates that many historians overlooked “women’s contribution to an intermediate realm of civic culture that belongs neither to the family nor the market” because of a mind-set in which the only work that counts is work for pay.
The era of women’s busy and important civic service, however, wound down as domestic helpers grew scarce, and as professional social workers and administrators took over many of the activities that had previously been controlled by unpaid volunteers.
It is Lasch’s contention that when one takes all this civic activity into account, and adds the wage work of lower-class women, one has to move the appearance of full-time homemaking on a broad scale from the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II period. To my mind, however, Lasch’s emphasis on community service misses the importance of the earlier shift from the interdependent family farm or shop to the wage-earner’s household where women and children became much more dependent economically on the husband-father than he was on them. That momentous transition had at least as much influence on the dynamics of family life and the shape of twentieth-century feminism as the later move to the suburbs. Lasch is certainly correct, though, that the homemaker-breadwinner household was far from being “traditional.” Its rise to predominance was historically unprecedented.
Lasch is also right to emphasize that women’s roles did change significantly with the exodus to the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s. The small, child-raising family became more inward-turning, and the bonds between husband and wife and parent and child were expected to bear more emotional weight. Moreover, when upwardly mobile men and women shook the dust of villages and urban neighborhoods from their feet, they left behind the civic cultures that had flourished in such places, along with the old informal support systems among relatives and neighbors that everyone had taken for granted. The homemaker was far more on her own in the domestic sphere than she had ever been—and far more dependent on her husband.
Of course, as Lasch points out, “privacy” was part of the appeal of the suburb. Along with advice comes nosiness; material and emotional support from neighbors and relatives entails expectations of reciprocity. The suburb offered an escape from external obligations, interference, and constraints:
[Suburbs] were designed to exclude everything not subject to choice—the job, the extended family, the enforced sociability of the city streets. Americans hoped to put all that behind them when they headed for the seclusion of the suburbs, where they were accountable it seemed to no one.
Ironically, just when women found themselves with unprecedented amounts of time for, and control over, the internal affairs of the household, they began to feel less competent in child-raising and other tasks which their predecessors from the beginning of time had handled with aplomb. The shortage of informal sources of advice and support made itself felt. Barely having emerged from older forms of subordination, middle-class women thus fell into “a new kind of dependence, the dependence of the consumer on the market, and on the providers of expert services, not only for the satisfaction of their needs but for the very definition of their needs.” In this way, Lasch connects women’s history to the erosion of the conditions for democratic self-government.
Lasch finds support in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) for his contention that the loss of common life and the decline in women’s civic roles fueled the frustration that gave rise to the feminism of the 1960s. Friedan’s book was, he points out, chiefly addressed to concerns of educated, suburban women. And the feminism of such women, he argues, was bedevilled from the start by their dependence on “experts”—doctors, counsellors, educators, child-raising specialists.
Respecting women too much to see them as passively carried along on the wave of events, Lasch insists that women themselves bear a share of the responsibility for the replacement of patriarchal authority with new forms of social discipline. While homemakers were ceding power in their own domains to experts, the feminist revolution, he charges, was “hijacked by new economic and social elites.”
This is consistent with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s account of how official feminism developed the same disrespect for unpaid work that Lasch criticizes in family historians. The feminist movement’s chief prescription for women’s emancipation was market work. Official feminism embraced a male model for advancement in which family responsibilities were subordinated to the demands of the world of work. As Betty Friedan concedes in the June 3, 1996 issue of the New Yorker, feminists thus distanced themselves from the concerns of the great majority of women—who were and are trying to juggle work and family life under difficult circumstances.
What Lasch adds to this picture is that married women’s large-scale entry into the workplace coincided with the shift to an economy that “depended on work that had no other object than to keep people at work and thus to sustain the national capacity to consume, which in turn sustained production, which sustained . . . an approximation of full employment—all without reference to the intrinsic quality of the goods and services produced or the intrinsic satisfaction of the work that went into them.” Under these circumstances, Friedan’s 1963 exhortation to middle-class women to find work offering “initiative, leadership, and responsibility” began to sound like advising Biafrans to adopt a more nutritious diet. Regarding the view that religion perpetuates false consciousness, male domination, and female dependency, Lasch observes:
[Religion] is a challenge to self-pity and despair, temptations common to all of us, but especially to those born into the wrong social class. . . . Submission to God makes people less submissive in everyday life. It makes them less fearful but also less bitter and resentful, less inclined to make excuses for themselves. Modern social movements, on the other hand, tend to rely on resentment. . . . They distrust any understanding that would seem to “blame the victim.” In this way they discourage the assumption of personal responsibility.
Unlike more timid male academics, Lasch does not hesitate to offer his thoughts concerning a better approach to women’s issues. A feminism “worthy of the name,” he says, would seek to remodel the workplace around the needs of the family, rather than acquiesce in the opposite situation; it would cease disparaging unpaid work; and, above all, it would “insist that people need self-respecting, honorable callings.”
This concern with the human need for decent, useful work is a recurrent theme in Lasch’s later writings. In some respects, his thoughts are reminiscent of Freud’s apostrophe to work in Civilization and Its Discontents. Like Freud, Lasch seems to write from the very core of his being on this subject. “The only escape from the polarity of egoism and altruism,” he says, “lies in the selflessness experienced by those who lose themselves in their work, in the effort to master a craft or a body of knowledge, or in the acceptance of a formidable challenge that calls on all their resources.” Lasch describes those fortunate enough to have such work as “blissfully self-forgetful.”
But while Freud regarded such satisfactions as beyond the scope and ken of mere common folk, Lasch railed against a social order where opportunities for useful work are widely unavailable. His writing on this subject has many affinities in substance, though not in tone, with the social encyclicals of John Paul II, who consistently insists on the importance of the noneconomic aspects of work, the dignity of unpaid labor, and the priority of human over economic values.
From glimpses provided in his daughter’s introduction, it seems that Lasch himself found “blissful self-forgetfulness” in his work up to the very end of his life. Lasch-Quinn writes:
Increasingly we worked every possible hour of the day, my father making an adjusted routine according to each stage of his illness. The sweatshop’s compulsion, though, was absent. Instead there was the strangest exhilaration. This was confusing; we seemed to be so content, even joyful at times, yet my father was dying. Somehow, between frightening medical emergencies and worries, my parents created a space of peace and calm. That living room became for me a haven. . . . Sometimes it seemed almost sacred.
Lasch may not have been a prophet in his own land, but he seems to have been happier than prophets of antiquity. He was blessed with a joyous family life, a deeply satisfying vocation, and a sober sense of hope that he always carefully distinguished from optimism.
These essays are among the best contemporary writing in their field, not only because their author was a fine historian, but because he was a man who loved women. He loved them enough to cherish the details of their everyday lives, to listen to their voices past and present, and to believe that they themselves can shift the probabilities toward a different and better future.
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.