Us

A terrific and readable story that manages to be both happy and poignant about the unraveling of a family. The plot starts at the beginning with the near-end with its first hint of marriage breakup and jumps back in time to boy meets girl/boy marries girl after she considers the proposal for many months, then shoots forward to post-breakup chat Grand Tour of Europe with their only son, staying together until they return (or perhaps longer!). Artistic Connie marries steadfast (rigid?) Douglas, the bio-scientist and have a daughter who dies on day 2. After groping through depression and recovery, they have son, Albie (aka Egg). Upon Albie’s exit from school in the summer before university, he and his parents travel to Paris, Amsterdam, Munich (at which point Connie goes home and Albie runs away with an accordion playing woman). At the Munich airport, Douglas decides not to go back after he receives a phone call confirming the change to his Venice hotel room, putting him on the trail of finding Albie and (ridiculously) apologizing for saying telling some war-mongering businessmen that his son embarrassed him after Albie made rude comments to them. This whole plot line was a bit thin for me– that the dad needs to chase his son across Europe to apologize for something he said. However, the book rolls with it, and Douglas becomes more and more spontaneous as he travels alone, yet still determined to find his son and save his marriage. In Venice he meets a lovely woman also traveling alone who finds him amusing and they spend a day together. He dips into an internet cafe to attempt to scare up info about Albie, uncovering the accordion player’s full name and thereafter some videos of her playing, discovering that they will be in Sienna the next day. Out he goes, stopping in Florence for only a few hours before his train moves on, but regrettably leaving all of his luggage and cash in Florence. In Sienna, he finds Kat strumming away and learns that Albie has left her. A tussle with the police defending Kat’s non-permitted busking, he ends up sleeping a night in jail then (another super thin plot twist that is critical to moving things forward), finds Kat waiting for him outside jail the next morning who then lures Albie into a meeting via text the next day in Madrid and loans Douglas the cash he needs to get back to Florence for his stuff. Albie and Douglas clash at the Prado, somehow Douglas finds the “right words” (they didn’t seem too inspired to me) and all of a sudden Albie’s his son again. They go to Barcelona, Douglas gets bitten by jellyfish and then has multiple heart attacks, surgery for a stent the next day, wakes up with Connie at his side. A beautiful 10 days spent together recuperating in Barca, then home. Spoiler alert, she leaves him and (inexplicably) gets back together with the ex she had broken up with the night she met Douglas. Oh, and Albie’s gay.
***
Reco’d by Maggie, who has a talent for sussing out books that one devours in a single sitting.

Sexual Politics

Yet another mega-hit from the Second Wave, published in 1970, billed as “a surprising examination of society’s most arbitrary folly,” and composed of equal parts literary and cultural criticism. Fantastic intellectual exploration that also provides juicy new vocabulary by introducing or reminding me of harridan, quisling, tergiversation, inchoate.
She starts by exposing a bunch of snippets from Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet, uncovering the power dynamic with (I assume) a wry smile. Her second chapter, Theory of Sexual Politics, “the most important in the book,” formulates patriarchy as a political institution. This powerful second chapter analyzes the situation from ideological, biological, sociological, class, economic, force, anthropological and psychological dimensions. Millett is nothing if not thorough in her surgical analysis. She also points to two important Western archetypes that condemn woman through sexuality and justify her punishment: Pandora myth (as told in Hesiod: her box is genitalia and its opening brings sexual knowledge then downfall) and the infamous Fall of Genesis.
Equally powerful is the chapter on the first phase (1830-1930) of the sexual revolution, diving into the political (paradoxes & women’s movement – education, political organization, employment), polemical (Mill vs Ruskin: the problem of nature & education, the domestic theme; Engels’ revolutionary theory), and literary aspects (Jude the Obscure, The Egoist, Villette; contrasting poetry of Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne; pitting Ibsen vs. Wilde). She describes Dickens’ Dombey and Son as a “nearly perfect indictment of both patriarchy and capitalism.”
The dissection of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State deserves space here. Engels traces the roots of patriarchy back to conception of family, and is influenced by Bachofen’s idea of ancient matriarchy. However, he fails to account for one crucial event – the patriarchal takeover. Using evidence from Aeschylus’s Furies, she points to a confrontation drama between patriarchal authority and the defeated claims of an earlier order. “In Aeschylus’ dramatization of the myth one is permitted to see patriarchy confront matriarchy, confound it through the knowledge of paternity, and come off triumphant. Until Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door announcing the sexual revolution, this triumph went nearly uncontested.”
So what allowed the counterrevolution (1930-1960) to happen? The earlier revolution concentrated on the “superstructure of patriarchal policy, changing its legal forms, its more flagrant abuses, altering its formal educational patterns, but leaving the socialization process of temperament and role differentiation intact.” This psychic structure build over several millennia was not pierced, the family still stood intact. (Trotsky: “You cannot ‘abolish’ the family, you have to replace it”) Freud joined the scene and set things back a few decades with his idiotic theories based in no reality.
My enthusiasm flagged with the remaining chapters and I admit to skimming wildly over the sections detailing the failure of feminism in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. She concludes the book with an in-depth analysis of the misogynistic literature of DH Lawrence, and revisits her earlier evisceration of Miller, Mailer, and Genet. This third part would be a tremendous resource for anyone wanting to avoid the work of reading these authors and yet being able to crib together a book report.
Some brief snippets that bit my brain:

  • “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different – and this is crucial.” (p 31)
  • “In the matter of conformity patriarchy is a governing ideology without peer; it is probable that no other system has ever exercised such a complete control over its subjects.” (p 32-3)
  • “… the priorities of maintaining male supremacy might outweigh even those of white supremacy; sexism may be more endemic in our own society than racism.” (p 39)
  • “Because the opposition (to women’s voting) was so monolithic and unrelenting, the struggle so long and bitter, the vote took on a disproportionate importance. And when the ballot was won, the feminist movement collapsed in what can only be described as exhaustion. (p 83-4)

On chivalry:

In comparison with the candor of “machismo” or oriental behavior, one realizes how much of a concession traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. (p 37)

Lower class attitudes being co-opted into middle class:

The fairly blatant male chauvinism which was once a province of the lower class or immigrant male has been absorbed and taken on a certain glamour through a number of contemporary figures, who have made it, and a certain number of other working-class male attitudes, part of a new, and at the moment, fashionable life style. So influential is this working-class ideal of brute virility (or more accurately, a literary and therefore middle-class version of it) become in our time that it may replace more discreet and “gentlemanly” attitudes of the past. (Footnote: Mailer and Miller occur to one in this connection, and Lawrence as well.) (p 37-8)

I’ve struggled to understand why not all women are awakened, and this helps (emphasis mine):

Aristotle observed that the only slave to whom a commoner might lay claim was his woman, and the service of an unpaid domestic still provides working-class males with a “cushion” against the buffets of the class system which incidentally provides them with some of the psychic luxuries of the leisure class. Thrown upon their own resources, few women rise above working class in personal prestige and economic power, and women as a group do not enjoy many of the interest and benefits any class may offer its male members. Women have therefore less of an investment in the class system. But it is important to understand that as with any group whose existence is parasitic to its rulers, women are a dependency class who live on surplus. And their marginal life frequently renders them conservative, for like all persons in their situation (slaves are a classic example here) they identify their own survival with the prosperity of those who feed them. The hope of seeking liberating radical solutions of their own seems too remote for the majority to dare contemplate and remains so until consciousness on the subject is raised. (p 38)

More along these lines of the psychological effect of patriarchy, why women not only don’t recognize their oppression, but actively participate in it:

When in any group of persons, the ego is subjected to such invidious versions of itself through social beliefs, ideology, and tradition, the effect is bound to be pernicious. This coupled with the persistent though frequently subtle denigration women encounter daily through personal contacts, the impressions gathered from the images and media about them, and the discrimination in matters of behavior, employment, and education which they endure, should make it no very special cause for surprise that women develop group characteristics common to those who suffer minority status and marginal existence. A witty experiment by Phillip Goldberg proves what everyone knows, that having internalized the disesteem in which they are held, women despise both themselves and each other. This simple test consisted of asking women undergraduates to respond to the scholarship in an essay signed alternately by one John McKay and one Joan McKay. In making their assessments the students generally agreed that John was a remarkable thinker, Joan an unimpressive mind. Yet the articles were identical: the reaction was dependent on the sex of the author.
As women in patriarchy are for the most part marginal citizens when they are citizens at all, their situation is like that of other minorities, here defined not as dependent upon numerical size of the group, but on its status. “A minority group is any group of people who because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment.” (footnote: It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning.) Only a handful of sociologists have ever addressed themselves in any meaningful way to the minority status of women. And psychology has yet to produce relevant studies on the subject of ego damage to the female which might bear comparison to the excellent work done on the effects of racism on the minds of blacks and colonials. (p 55)

Emotional response to violence against women in patriarchy is often curiously ambivalent; references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment. Exemplary atrocity, such as the murders committed by Richard Speck, greeted at one level with a certain scandalized, possibly hypocritical indignation, is capable of eliciting a mass response of titillation at another level… In view of the sadistic character of public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response. Probably a similar collective frisson sweeps through racist society when its more “logical” members have perpetrated a lynching. Unconsciously, both crimes may serve the larger group as a ritual act, cathartic in effect. (p 45)

I’ve been curious about the spike in overt hostility I perceive over my lifetime. Millett suggests an increase in “permissiveness in expression since the 20s (since suffrage?):

Hostility is expressed in a number of ways. One is laughter. Misogynist literature (is) the primary vehicle of masculine hostility… Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance literature in the West has each had a large element of misogyny (footnotes cite Petrarch & Boccaccio, see Rogers’ The Troublesome Helpmate for more detail)… As courtly love was transformed into romantic love, literary misogyny grew somewhat out of fashion… declined into ridicule and exhortative satire. In the nineteenth century its more acrimonious forms almost disappeared in English. Its resurrection in twentieth-century attitudes and literature is the result of a resentment over patriarchal reform, aided by the growing permissiveness in expression which has taken place at an increasing rate in the last fifty years… Since this tendency to hurt or insult has been given free expression, it has become far easier to assess sexual antagonism in the male… The rationale which accompanies that imposition of male authority euphemistically referred to as “the battle of the sexes” bears a certain resemblance to the formulas of nations at war, where any heinousness is justified on the grounds that the enemy is either an inferior species or really not human at all. The patriarchal mentality has concocted a whole series of rationales about women which accomplish this purpose tolerably well. (p 45-6)

Meredith’s The Egoist falls short in the end:

Throughout the novel she was a person in the process of becoming, but by the last page she has not succeeded in becoming anyone but Mrs. Vernon Whitford, which is to say, no one at all. Meredith knows how to save her from the egoist, but he can think of nothing else to do for her. A life more occupied and interesting than mere mating – for good or ill – never seems to have occurred to him in connection with an intelligent young woman. (p 139)

On Brontë’s Villette:

As there is no remedy to sexual politics in marriage, Lucy very logically doesn’t marry. But it is also impossible for a Victorian novel to recommend a woman not marry… Had Brontë’s heroine “adjusted” herself to society, compromised, and gone under, we should never have heard from her. Had Brontë herself not grown up in a house of half-mad sisters with a domestic tyrant for father, no “prospects” as marital security was referred to, and with only the confines of governessing and celibacy staring at her from the future, her chief release the group fantasy of “Angria,” that collective dream these strange siblings played all their lives, composing stories about a never-never land where women could rule, exercise power, govern the state, declare night and day, death and life – then we would never have heard from Charlotte either. Had that been the case, we might never have known what a resurrected soul wished to tell upon emerging from several millennia of subordination. (p 147)

Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation

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I discovered the pithy and entertaining writing of Laura Kipnis via Dissent Magazine’s review of this book which was so excellent I’m unable to add anything else to the mix. Beyond what’s in the Dissent review, I enjoyed the inclusion of her “debate” with Harvey Mansfield (author of the “deeply offensive and deeply anxious book,” Manliness); she shows of her wit and smarts, pinning him as he backtracks on the question of happy marriages and his slippage to include all women as feminists. There’s also a great essay, Men Who Hate Hillary, “You could recognize them by the flecks of foam in the corners of their mouths when the subject of her candidacy arose.” Overall an intensely readable collection of essays by yet another non-strident feminist (YANSF).

I find it hard to get that worked up about dumb expressions of unreconstructed sexism. For one thing, in my experience it’s the subtle forms that are most insidious (these are not practiced exclusively by men). Also, I’m just lazy: I don’t like having to rise to the bait like some sort of earnest marionette. It’s too exhausting. I prefer to just spread a thick layer of irony over the situation and hope my opponents smother in it.

On Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, her “one-woman Nuremberg trial on injustices of heterosexual sex”:

Note the passive construction – “is taken to be” – a hallmark of the Dworkin style. Elsewhere: “The normal fuck by a normal man is taken to be an act of invasion and ownership undertaken in a mode of predation.” Taken… by whom? The passive voice combined with the punch-you-in-the-face argument, the vacillation between victimization and militancy: this is Dworkin distilled to her essence.

Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in the Pacific Coast States

The copy I read was luckily sourced from the library of the University of Nevada, Reno, a first edition printed in 1914. (UN-Reno seem to have no qualms about letting these gems travel to San Francisco as part of the Link+ library exchange– I’ve had a couple old and cherished first editions delivered from them.) To hold a 100 year old artifact in my hand, marveling at the quality (and at the fact that national suffrage was still 5 years out from publication date), was inspiring. I was tipped off to Duniway’s works by Shulamith Firestone, herself enough of a badass to make the recommendation urgent. Duniway was a prolific writer, wielding her pen for a few dozen books between 1859 and 1914, along with starting her own newspaper, the New Northwest. The writing is readable to the modern eye and chock full of great stories from this formidable pioneer.
She begins with an admission of coming late to the game:

I was not an easy convert to Equal Suffrage. I had been led from childhood to believe that women who demanded “rights” were man-haters, of whom I certainly was not one. But a long train of varied pioneer experiences led me at last into the light, which, when it burst upon me, found me willing to take up the burden of efforts, through which, as I look backward over the receded years, I can recall so much that is worthy of record, that the trouble is what to omit rather than what to transcribe.

Duniway then launches into the tale of migration from Illinois to Oregon where she taught school until marrying a young rancher and becoming his unpaid servant:

… I, if not washing, scrubbing, churning, or nursing the baby, was preparing their meals in our lean-to kitchen. To bear two children in two and a half years from my marriage day, to make thousands of pounds of butter every year for market, not including what was used in our free hotel at home; to sew and cook, and wash and iron; to bake and clean and stew and fry; to be, in short, a general pioneer drudge, with never a penny of my own, was not pleasant business for an erstwhile school teacher, who had earned a salary that had not gone before marriage, as did her butter and eggs and chickens afterwards, for groceries, and to pay taxes or keep up the wear and tear of horseshoeing, plow-sharpening and harness-mending.

She created a school for girls and then became a trader, and from that day never experienced extreme poverty again. She earned and spent over $42,000 in the struggle for Equal Rights, which she casually mentions would have made her a millionaire several times over if invested in trade or real estate. In 1871, she moved to Portland, then a village of 8,000 pioneers living in “primitive houses, among fallen trees and blackened stumps,” in order to start her weekly newspaper dedicated to Equal Rights for women. She becomes adept at public speaking and befriends the leaders in the east, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. For the next many decades, she travels by stagecoach to the far-reaches of Idaho, Washington, California, to promote the cause. Churches are not open to women speakers (I’m assuming due to the ridiculous Corinthians 14:34) so money must be spent to secure halls where people can gather to listen.
Apparently the vote was easier to achieve in the West since land ownership laws allowed women to own. And once they owned land, they paid taxes. And taxation without representation… well, yeah.
Very interesting to note her position on temperance – I’d no idea that the threat of prohibition derailed the equal suffrage cause; men didn’t want women to vote because they assumed women would vote for prohibition. Duniway explains that prohibition isn’t necessary – give women the vote and they’ll kick their drunkard husbands and sons to the curb. Suffrage is about expansion, prohibition is about restriction. Duniway quotes a letter from Susan B. Anthony, writing from San Francisco in 1896, “My personal belief as to prohibition, pro or con, is nobody’s business but my own, but I have done all I could to keep the two questions (Woman Suffrage and Prohibition) separate in the California Woman’s Suffrage Campaign. The two movements cannot successfully unite to win for either cause. But I am glad to see women awakened from their apathy through any movement that is backed by the churches, since so many of them cannot be aroused in any other way.”
On the insane passion of prohibitionists:

Everything in human experience emphasizes the fact, that when any particular craze takes possession of the minds of any considerable portion of the people, the men and women who are its chief promoters become incapable of coherent reasoning, and many of their followers, unconsciously to themselves, become the victims of hallucinations that overstep rational bounds.

She lives to see Oregon pass the amendment allowing women to vote and is the first to register as a woman voter in Portland. The book closes out with clippings from Alice Stone Blackwell’s newspaper, “The Woman’s Journal,” of Boston in April 1914, including these bits:

Today the girl who seeks higher education finds the doors of many colleges open to her. After graduation she has her choice among many occupations. Few young women realize how new these opportunities are. They may find both amusement and profit in a brief account of the experiences of three pioneer college girls (Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown, and Elizabeth Blackwell)… little Lucy early made up her mind that these laws and customs (married woman’s property belongs to husband, professions closed to women, women not allowed to speak in public or write for publication) must be changed. But one day, in the family Bible, she came upon the text, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” At first she wanted to die. Then she determined to go to college and learn Greek and Hebrew, and satisfy herself whether such texts were rightly translated.