Power Trips and Other Journeys: Essays in Feminism as Civic Discourse
by Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Wisconsin Press, 196 pages, $27.50
Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
University of North Carolina Press, 347 pages, $24.95
How are men and women different and how are they alike? Should women aspire to tame men to live a more civilized life, guided by an assumed moral superiority, or should they stress the ways they can be like men, imitating aggressive male habits attuned to worldly experience? If women forge a sisterhood, must they thereby forego an insistence on individual rights? These are the kinds of questions that tease Jean Bethke Elshtain and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, two scholars who could be called “mothers of neo-feminism” because they try to answer in a complex way the hard questions that movement feminists can only see through an ideological lens.
“I will let others worry about whether I ‘deserve’ the name ‘feminist’ or not and, if so, what sort of feminism that might be,” writes Elshtain in Power Trips and Other Journeys: Essays in Feminism as Civic Discourse. Whether writing about Jane Addams or Eleanor Roosevelt, poverty, pornography, or child abuse, she brings an independent interpretation that will please none of the feminist purists, but may change the way most of the rest of us think about these issues.
This description is true also of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, although she is less timid about using the “f” word, as in f-for-feminist. “My adult personal and professional lives have unfolded in tandem with contemporary feminism, to which I have been committed despite firm opposition to some of its tendencies that I regard as irrational, irresponsible, and dangerous,” she writes in Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism. She sees her book as a contribution to “the defense and explication of feminism,” but she then pulls back, and qualifies feminism with the article “a.” She knows, as any thoughtful reader quickly perceives, that “a feminism” has little in common with the dogma that passes for scholarship in most women’s studies courses.
Elshtain, Centennial Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt, writes the more accessible book of the two, giving her arguments a human face—most dramatically in her portraits of Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt, women who struggled to fuse personal perspectives with public obligations. Contemporary feminists are bound to have a hard time with Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt, both of whom emphasized the differences between the sexes and who grounded their activism in moral and religious values. In fact, Elshtain has been chastised by professional feminists for even considering Jane Addams, the turn-of-the-century founder of Hull House who viewed the world through a sense of “duty and compassion,” a respectable “gender analyst.” Indeed, this chaste and maternal champion of the downtrodden has been overtaken by a whole series of fashions, beginning with the flappers, through Rosie the Riveter, to the sexual liberationists, and on down to our own very modern model of mothers in the military.
Addams argued from concrete human experience, not social abstraction:
With all the efforts made by modern society to nurture and educate the young, how stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves in the coarser work of the world! It is curiously inconsistent that with the emphasis this generation has placed upon the mother and upon the prolongation of infancy, we constantly allow the waste of this most precious material.
Addams, then, was concerned about the need for women to seek protections in society rather than to find ways to participate in it like a man. She called the women of privilege to help the others, and established Hull House as a means whereby women (and men) could help women in need. Thus her ideas about social hygiene and “wholesome” pursuits seem quaint and even subversive to militant feminists today, who seek a single standard of work and sex for both men and women.
Jane Addams asked that women make the political a personal obligation. She would be appalled at the therapeutic society, at our reliance on officials and experts, and our insistence that the state take over the responsibilities she appropriated for Hull House. She maintained a deep suspicion of the overweening power of the state. Moreover, she saw feminism and militarism in total opposition to one another. She would no doubt find it difficult to understand how militant feminists today want to send women to combat—especially to ship mothers who would otherwise be suckling their babes out to war.
“That a ‘Jane Addams’ is unlikely to come into being in our society at this time tells us much about ourselves,” writes Elshtain. “The fad that contemporary America would not provide the social soil to nurture her points to our loss of a particular civic culture and the ideal of that culture. Paternalistic, hypocritical, and stifling as that could be, especially for young women, it nevertheless instilled in many of its young the conviction that a human life is one lived with purpose, dignity, and honor.”
Eleanor Roosevelt poses a similar problem for the equal rights feminists. She never considered herself a “feminist” because she believed that women should enjoy protective laws in the workplace. “Women are different from men, their physical functions are different, and the future of the race depends upon their ability to produce healthy children,” she said. As a consequence, she supported laws that excluded women from conditions that were hazardous to the health of women and children.
Eleanor Roosevelt is like Jane Addams (her great teacher), writes Elshtain, because she is out of touch with sensibilities of sexual liberation that signify “repression.” Also like Addams, she was deeply imbued with a sense of duty, of obligation to those more miserable than she. Both were reformers rather than feminists, gradualists rather than revolutionaries, dedicated to equality and difference. “Neither Addams nor Roosevelt,” says Elshtain, “wanted the new woman to be an updated version of the old man.”
World War I was Mrs. Roosevelt’s liberation, enabling her to discard white gloves for a more hands-on approach to life. But she also believed that a mother who nurtured her child was contributing to “public virtue” as much as the man who went off to defend his country. Elshtain reminds us that “[Mrs.] Roosevelt evokes that civic republican tradition marked by Abigail Adams and detailed by Alexis de Tocqueville, when she proclaims that giving the child proper sleep, food, and exercise ‘can be tied up with the child’s understanding of patriotism and love of country,’ a non-chauvinist love of country that will not launch destructive wars if there is any way they can be prevented.”
In the Rooseveltian scenario, mothers extend their own sphere of influence by overthrowing the image of “the lady” and the tyranny of nurses and watchful mothers-in-law. They are liberated through responsibility, as they become accountable for the habits and behavior of their children, giving mothers a civic mission as well as greater sexual equality. Still, Eleanor Roosevelt was savvy enough to know that one size could never fit all. She also pleaded with “Mr. Man” to be understanding if his wife wanted to work, noting diplomatically that a working wife could also be a “better helpmate.”
If Eleanor Roosevelt’s mode of “activism” has a touch of quaintness in our own time, her moral values, rooted in religious belief and Christian ideals, make the cynics among us particularly uncomfortable. “In the present debates about religion and politics,” writes Elshtain, “she would be scandalized that we are scandalized by the open embrace of religious ideals as the basis for political life and thought. That signifies bow much times have changed.”
By better understanding the complex fullness of the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Addams, Elshtain believes that modern feminists can reduce the polarities in their perceptions:
Too often we drive a sharp wedge between difference and equality and demand homogeneity as a vision of equality. There are, as well, feminist visions that celebrate difference and say very little about, or are hostile to, equality. But perhaps Addams and Roosevelt suggest an alternative. They suggest that one need not create some new “other” (the vision of the male as an incorrigible brute in some versions of radical feminism), or eliminate difference en route to sex equality (as do some celebrations of androgyny) . . . Both were empowered by a generous spirit, idealist but not cloying, that looked to a future in which each one of us could dream individual dreams, but the greatest dream of all remained the dream of democracy.
In Power Trips and Other Journeys, Elshtain never moves from her central focus, which is the importance of the family in a democracy and the way both mother and father contribute to the moral nurture of their children. She excoriates the radical feminists who call for the destruction of the family and those who continually chip away at the effectiveness of the family. “The loss of the family and its characteristic forms of authority and relations would be a general debacle from which we would not soon recover,” she says. Such a debacle would, in her view, create an over-bureaucratized world that would make children and adults alike the clients of institutionally powerful social bureaucrats and engineers.
She wants us to look again at the notion of a family wage to enable women to care for their children, a notion she finds less far-fetched than the vision propounded by feminists who see “coequal individualist male and female careerists avidly exercising their untrammeled choices as their children are tended to in modern and spacious day-care centers.” For our political language does not capture the “queasiness” most Americans feel at severing child care from the home, and she frets that our debates over child care are rarely conducted in relation to issues concerning our sense of self, responsibility, and place.
Throughout her book, whether talking about child abuse or pornography, Elshtain asks us to look freshly and without ideological blinders at the troubling questions facing families today. Child abuse, she notes, is a tragic phenomenon, but she questions the way we have popularized it as an “all-American affliction” knowing no barriers of class, race, or culture. As a result we ignore the ways it is specifically exacerbated in poor families.
In discussing pornography, she calls for commonsense compromises between first amendment issues and the sanctity of society. Communities, she says, “should have the power to regulate and curb open and visible assaults on human dignity, but they should not seek to eradicate or condemn either sexual fantasies or erotic representations as such.”
Whatever the particular question, she insists that we can’t separate politics from morals: individual freedom must be rooted in community discipline and a sense of personal obligation. Women must understand and appreciate the historical significance of their power and powerlessness as mothers. In their search for independence, they must also reaffirm their need to remain interdependent with men:
That I impose a weighty political burden on women, and that this is in some sense unfair, is undoubtedly the case. But women, from a double vision that straddles powerlessness and power, are in a powerful position to insist with Albert Camus that one must never avert one’s eyes from the suffering of children and, seeing that suffering, one is required to act.
It shouldn’t surprise that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a professor of the humanities and the director of women’s studies at Emory University in Atlanta, writes a blurb for Elshtain’s book. Both women are concerned with the subject that is the title of Fox-Genovese’s book: Feminism Without Illusions.
Fox-Genovese introduces her book with an anecdote about one of her students in a women’s studies course she was teaching who balked at being called a “feminist.” To the student, feminism meant “the denial of femininity. It suggested lesbianism. It led to “bra burnings,’ men-bating, and an almost irritating aggressiveness.” Nor was this student alone.
In noting the bad press of contemporary feminism, however, Fox-Genovese thinks that feminism is blamed for too many of the most disturbing aspects of modern life: “divorce, latch-key children, teenage alcoholism, domestic violence, the sexual abuse of children.”
She’s right, of course. The movement has not been that powerful. But feminism’s bad press is largely deserved for its having helped create an ideological atmosphere that allows many of the disturbing aspects of modern life to gain ground. The root of the problem, Fox-Genovese tells us, is the elevation of individualism over the common good—a development that has led to unforeseen and unintended consequences. The right of women to enjoy “no fault” divorce, for example, has also freed men from their sense of obligation to support women and children. In general, divorce leads to a substantial rise in the man’s income and a substantial drop in the woman’s. It has helped to “feminize” poverty, depriving women of emotional and financial security, requiring states to crack down on “deadbeat dads.” A woman’s “independence” after divorce is often nothing more than a change of dependencies, requiring support from the government instead of her husband. Thus the moral stigma attached to the man who leaves his wife and children has almost disappeared. Today we view the problem of men who abandon their families as part of a larger “sociological” or “economic” problem, rather than a failure of moral responsibility.
Similarly, a working woman often exchanges her dependency on a man for a dependency on a harsh environment. When women gave up protective laws in the workplace, they became free to work for larger salaries in environments that are dangerous to their health and the health of their children. And feminists cheer this as progress toward choice.
As for sex, the sexual revolution gives new freedom to women to enjoy sexual experience without constraints, but the same new freedom confuses signals between the sexes and leads to phenomena like date rape. “Young women no longer need worry (or worry as acutely as their predecessors did) if a young man will respect her if she has sexual relations with him or even other men before marriage,” writes Fox-Genovese. “They do, however, have cause to worry that when they choose not to have sexual relations with a particular man, their ‘no’ may not be respected.”
In academe, Fox-Genovese attacks the “politically correct,” and fears a growing Tower of Babel at our universities. She is deeply bothered by those feminists who dismiss the intellectual canon taught in colleges “as an exercise in colonization.” It may be sad, even pathetic, that anyone has to defend the Great Books, but the need for a defense has become commonplace, and Fox-Genovese spends a major portion of her book doing just that. She wants to extend the canon, but not obliterate it.
Is it not without some irony that the feminist multiculturalists frequently celebrate the virtues of the Third World, where the rights of all women (and men) are considerably more limited than their own. They criticize their own culture for an oppression they do not notice in other countries, never acknowledging the freedoms they enjoy in making such criticisms. “For better or worse,” Fox-Genovese points out, “we are also, as recent events in Eastern Europe and China testify, the model for the aspirations of people around the world.”
Claims for absolute equality often dull the eyes of feminists who should know better. As an example, Fox-Genovese identifies the debate among historians when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tried to prove that Sears, Roebuck discriminated against women. Sears hadn’t hired women for the lucrative high-commission jobs that required late and irregular hours because women preferred to be home with their families at conventional hours. When a historian testified to that fact, she was attacked viciously by feminist historians, even though she represented a respectable “feminist” position that men and women are different in their approaches to family life. Sisterhood is selectively applied.
The dominant critique of this book, like that of Jean Bethke Elshtain, focuses on how feminism’s blind spots have undermined the family and a cohesive sense of community. “If my argument differs from those of others, it is primarily in my conviction that feminism, in all its guises, is itself the daughter of that male individualism which so many feminists are attacking.”
Feminist selfishness, Fox-Genovese says, benefits the white middle-class woman and short changes her less-fortunate sisters. An insistence on individual rewards is made at the expense of lower economic classes and men and women of minority races. Moreover, sexual liberation, which called for women to imitate the sexual behavior of men, is particularly painful for poor teenage girls in the ghetto, who, when liberated, are often left with several illegitimate children, usually fathered by different men. Mother Nature does not distribute sexual repercussions equally.
Fox-Genovese is troubled by pornography, attacking the argument that it demeans only women, and that it is hence an infringement of their civil rights. Instead she says that it “offers an unacceptable mirror of ourselves as a people” and needs to be regulated with a view toward achieving a balance between liberty and license: “To those who, shaking with fear, argue that any limitation on freedom invites more and more limitations and threatens the imposition of a police state, we can only answer that no freedom could long survive unless the American people show an ability to distinguish sensibly among cases.”
Drawn there by her logic, she is even willing to confront abortion. She asks how feminists who pride themselves on seeking a community of nurturing and protective sisterhood can reconcile a defense of abortion on the grounds that it is an absolute independent right and that reproduction is a private matter.
Fox-Genovese, then, struggles valiantly to distinguish sensibly among cases and ideals. She is not always successful, and her prose is dense and repetitive, academic to a fault. But for those who work their way through her analysis she offers provocative arguments, and she is unafraid to challenge the ideologically pure on the left and right alike.
Many conservatives will no doubt rage at her support for women’s studies, her scathing attack on Allan Bloom, her ambiguous discussion of affirmative action, her unequivocal damnation of bourgeois individualism. But feminists are bound to find this book even more troubling. Some have already voiced fears that her respect for male and female differences would either return women to second-class citizenship, restricting them to a private sphere in the home that lacks public power, or suggest to them that if they try hard enough they can reinvigorate the myth of superwoman and aim to have it all.
This is in fact far from the case. Like Elshtain, Fox-Genovese is more interested in stirring a debate than in providing hard-and-fast answers to the questions she raises. Such a debate is in itself healthy and may be healing. It is one now being joined by conservative women, and suggests a new phase of feminism, one that conducted properly could end by strengthening the family.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for the Washington Times and is syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. She is author of Like Father, Like Daughter: How Father Shapes the Woman His Daughter Becomes (Little, Brown).