The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation
This book is harmless, predictable, and sad. Like much ad hoc journalism, it is shallow, because the writer has set out to label and destroy a developing phenomenon like the women’s movement rather than to reflect on the needs and conflicts that generated it. Midge Decter’s writing lacks any sense of the past and of the ways it continues to haunt, illuminate, and seduce us. She finds that the women’s movement is the product of emotional and intellectual laziness masquerading as a “passion for social justice” and that its effect, if it is allowed to pursue its course, will be that “we shall all of us, men, women and babes in arms, live to reap the whirlwind.”
What whirlwind, or how our lives might be changed, she does not trouble to say. The book is a sermon, addressed to some presumptive band of the faithful. I cannot imagine it being read—really read—all the way through: it contains no fresh perceptions of women’s stake in this society that might revive their faith in it. I can imagine psychiatrists recommending it to their women patients, middle-class husbands presenting it to their wives on their anniversary or Mother’s Day, suitably inscribed. I expect its existence will be temporarily soothing to some people, chiefly men (the admiring comments on the jacket are all masculine)—but also perhaps to some women who imagine that feminism is denying the value of their past lives, is accusing them of having literally let their powers, their resourcefulness, their bravery, their intelligence run down the drain of the kitchen sink. I am more concerned with these women and their lives than with anything else that may surround the publication of Decter’s book.
Still, I find this a sad book, although its appearance was to be expected. Decter is an admirer of American society and I am not; this is one difference between us. She finds all dissenting movements both counter-productive and phony; she has praised the stability of the American system in the face of efforts to subvert it by “glamorous swashbucklers among the heralds of racial revolution; students; women.”1 She reveals, in her social criticism, a strange lack of information about the unfilled needs, let alone the enormous destructiveness, of the social order which she so admires, and which has brought forth the movements she so dislikes.
But her politics do not, in and of themselves, explain the nature of her book. I can easily imagine that, as a political conservative, she feels estranged from the radical left out of which the early women’s movement of our time emerged. But she does not tell us this. I could understand it if she declared that some aspects of the women’s movement with which she has come in contact seem to have nothing to do with her life. Black women have said this, and have been creating a black women’s consciousness of their own. What I wonder at is her failure to suggest, in all the literature she cites, any reflection of her own experience, any affection for other women, any sense of what she herself as a woman is uniquely feeling or has ever felt. Her writing is lifeless because she attempts to stand outside something which, like it or not, is about and within her; and in so doing she manages to sound not like a woman but like a priest lecturing his flock on the newest temptation.
But it is pointless to write off the antifeminist woman as brainwashed, or self-hating, or the like. I believe that feminism must imply an imaginative identification with all women (and with the ghostly woman in all men) and that the feminist must, because she can, extend this act of the imagination as far as possible.
I meet, as it happens, very few antifeminist women. I do meet women who are not feminists: working-class women who identify strongly with their men and who at the same time know that men have often used them badly. I meet many middle-class women who feel that they have solved “all these problems” for themselves, have managed motherhood and career, or achieved some other sort of personal solution. Most do, however, at least acknowledge that “these problems” existed and involved much conflict and required unusual luck—chiefly money—to solve; they are sympathetic, even enthusiastic, about efforts to make the process less wasteful for other women.
I also meet women, black and white, who still feel, as Simone de Beauvoir did when she wrote The Second Sex, that “it is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the world of the given” and that an equal comradeship between man and woman will naturally follow on the heels of socialist or Third World revolution. (Mme de Beauvoir has since carried her feminism further, as a recent interview in Ms. attests.2 ) I know other political women who feel that stopping the annihilation in Vietnam or preventing ecological suicide must take precedence over other politics—women with long and honorable records of opposition to authoritarianism.
I have also known nonfeminist women who have looked long and hard at masculine society and its competitive, paranoiac rules and who say, “There’s something wrong here. Better to stay at home, where at least some semblance of emotional life remains, than go out there and become another emotionless flunky.” For them the choice is based on the old assumptions. Either you stay at home where you can hope to express tenderness, give and receive warmth, behave spontaneously and generously, or you enter the male world and play the game like a man: the game being control, impasivity, ends above means, exploitation.
I also meet women who are trying to rethink their lives, in small and large ways, painfully and fruitfully, as a consequence of the women’s movement, and who share an awareness that has affected popular consciousness, not simply in the form of TV clichés and barbed jokes, but as serious thinking and study and self-questioning—a process Decter’s book is not likely to scare them from. Her book is irrelevant to all this, because what is really “in the air” is not only the politics of housework or new marriage contracts or even, more seriously, equal pay for equal work, but a sense, on the part of men as well as women, that the way we live in a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.
In popular culture, The Godfather is of interest here. Again and again it shows men ruling patriarchal families with the most benign authority toward their own women and children but who are capable at the same time of ruthless intimidation and murder; the efficiency of their violent operations depends on their maintaining an artificial and theoretical wall between fatherhood and godfatherhood. When “business” is discussed at the family table, the Family is already in trouble. Women, with their tendency to ask uncomfortable questions and make uncomfortable connections, are to be excluded from all decision making, as the final shot somewhat heavily portrays. It is interesting that Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity—a film of far more serious poetic and political intentions—provides, again I believe unconsciously, similar images: those women who hover at the edge of things, in doorways, while the men reminisce about their acts of resistance; the medal-heavy Luftwaffe patriarch, blandly recounting his Occupation experiences at the wedding banquet of his daughter, while his wife listens and watches with a nervous smile.
Patriarchal organization and culture have been under question for some time; and until recently the best-known questioners have been men. Erich Neumann, a disciple of Jung, wrote in 1952 (in his introduction to The Great Mother):
…this problem of the Feminine has equal importance for the psychologist of culture, who realizes that the peril of present-day mankind springs in large part from the one-sidedly patriarchal development of the male intellectual consciousness, which is no longer kept in balance by the matriarchal world of the psyche.
Engels earlier connected the advent of the patriarchal family with the beginnings of property-hunger, slavery, war as acquisitive pillage, and ultimately the State itself with its sanction and encouragement of human exploitation. Engels had, of course, as little regard for religion and mythology as Neumann has interest in the labor theory of value. Neumann is concerned not with the liberation of actual women, or even with the political organization of men, but with the collective loss and fragmentation suffered by human beings in the denial and suppression of the feminine. He is not interested in establishing that any actual historical “matriarchal stage” existed but he insists that it does exist in the human unconscious and that “the health and creativity of every man depend very largely on whether his unconscious can live at peace with this stratum of the unconscious or consumes itself in strife with it.”
But the patriarchy has come into question in another way: as the natural order of things. There is a line of speculative inquiry reaching back for over a century that suggests that a matriarchal social order preceded the patriarchal: for example, J.J. Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (1861) and Robert Briffault’s The Mothers, a three-volume study first published in 1927 and reprinted in an abridged edition in 1969. Bachofen maintained that civilizations such as the pre-Hellenic were not simply matrilineal but were based on “the religious and civic primacy of womanhood” and that many of their scientific and cultural achievements were lost when the matriarchies were crushed, some to be recovered only centuries later.
More recently, in a fascinating though problematical book, The First Sex,3 Elizabeth Gould Davis has attempted to bring together evidence of this primacy—anthropological, archaeological, mythological, historical—and to draw connections which have long been left undrawn, or which if drawn, as by Bachofen and in our century by Mary Beard (Woman As a Force in History, 1945), have been largely ignored or dismissed as unhistorical. While Beard was concerned to point out that much has been swept under the rug, Davis tries to assemble evidence that matriarchies existed, that these may have been the “lost” cultures later remembered and mythologized as the Golden Age, and that there was a deliberate effort to obliterate their memory by the patriarchy—as in the case of mother-goddesses who were later transformed into paternalistic and judgmental gods like Yahweh. (Santayana’s remark that “there is no God and Mary is his mother” becomes more than a quip in this context.)
Long before Davis, in the 1930s, Otto Rank was writing that Jewish “monotheism appears as the result of a long struggle against foreign gods who still betrayed the earmarks of an earlier mother-goddess”; 4 and that “the Torah which guided the nomadic Jews through the desert represented an original female symbol, a relic of the great Asiatic Mother-Goddess.”5 Theodor Reik, in his Pagan Rites in Judaism (1964), remarks of the Torah that “She is considered older than the world and is assigned a cosmic role…. Even in this diluted form we recognize the primal female goddess.” Rank points out that the Golden Calf itself was not the proverbial symbol of materialism but a mother symbol.
"Success of Our Social Order Depends on a Strong Labor Movement," address to the League for Industrial Democracy, April, 1972, published in Albert Shanker's column in the New York Times.↩
"At the end of The Second Sex, I said I wasn't a feminist because I thought that the solution to women's problems must depend on the socialist evolution of society. By feminist, I mean fighting for specifically feminist demands, independent of the class struggle. Today I have come to realize that we must fight for an improvement in woman's actual situation before achieving the socialism we hope for . I realize that even in the socialist countries, women's equality has not been won." Interview with Alice Schwartzer, Ms., July 1972, Vol. 1, No. 2.↩
Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (Putnam's, 1971; Penguin, 1972, paper).↩
Otto Rank, Beyond Psychology (Dover, 1958), p. 240.↩
Ibid., p. 240. Cf. Davis, p. 60.↩
“Success of Our Social Order Depends on a Strong Labor Movement,” address to the League for Industrial Democracy, April, 1972, published in Albert Shanker’s column in the New York Times.↩
“At the end of The Second Sex, I said I wasn’t a feminist because I thought that the solution to women’s problems must depend on the socialist evolution of society. By feminist, I mean fighting for specifically feminist demands, independent of the class struggle. Today I have come to realize that we must fight for an improvement in woman’s actual situation before achieving the socialism we hope for . I realize that even in the socialist countries, women’s equality has not been won.” Interview with Alice Schwartzer, Ms., July 1972, Vol. 1, No. 2.↩
Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (Putnam’s, 1971; Penguin, 1972, paper).↩
Otto Rank, Beyond Psychology (Dover, 1958), p. 240.↩
Ibid., p. 240. Cf. Davis, p. 60.↩