We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The latest issue of the Women's Review of Books_ · 5 April 07

Dear Fanny,

At the risk of becoming a one-woman chorus for WRoB, I’d like to say the most recent issue (24:2, March/April 2007) of the periodical is really superb, and you are missing out if you don’t subscribe or rush and find and buy a copy somewhere or other (best on the Net probably) now. A disclaimer: I know no one personally, have never written or been asked to write a review for, nothing I’ve ever written has been noticed by, and I stand to gain nothing financially or socially from, anyone buying or reading this periodical.

The opening review by Ellen Willis is important. It’s a rare candid and reasonable assessment of conflicts between black and white women which resulted in the 1970s and still results in splintering the feminist movement in ways that weaken or destroy(ed?) it. Willis recently died and this may be one of the last of her essays to surface. She’s reviewing The Trouble Between US: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement by Winifred Breines. She explains for a start and persuasively (I am brief, tend to be blunt, and writing swiftly so I may not do justice to the argument) that what was transformatively new in the 1970s and made visible for the first time (in the manner of Marx showing the economic basis of organizations, or Freud with his theory of the unconscious, or even Darwin with his theory of natural selection) was a central way social reality is organized and presented: the “self-proclaimed” feminists of the era “put forward one fundamental big [new] idea: that male supremacy was itself a pervasive system, extending to all areas of social life.” To see this system required women “to drawn on our own experience” and retell history in a way that brought this out clearly and show how it workes, and “to rethink politics form the ground up” (someone who has been doing this is Catherine MacKinnon in her legal work).

I’d like to add the continued assertion “feminists hate men” helps stamp out this new idea. My experience is men by and large respond by saying male supremacy is 1) not so, 2) point to men who are not literally in charge of this or that, 3) point to women who are nowadays “doing well,” and, finally 4) women who are very happy (or say they are) with social arrangements as they are.

Refreshingly, in talking of black and white women’s different experiences of the family and men and world views, and different histories individually and as groups, Willis writes: “a greater degree of oppression does not guarantee better judgement.” Willis praises Breimes’ book because Breimes “refutes the absurdly reductive but nonetheless widely held view the women’s liberation movement was a racist enclave devoted to the narrowest concerns of aflluent white women.” Willis attempts to explain how this perception came about frankly it’s one I used to have), and goes on to outline not only the different goals of white and black women’s groups but also how socialist feminism differed from individualism and how important the goals of socialist feminism were. She shows that over the years while this or that idea was nuanced or refuted, new thought brought in, canons and mainstream feminism changed; nonetheless, the new feminist perception of male hegemony remained “in recognizable form” and has endured to transform the way many people now discuss social arrangements.

Well, endured in those who are still willing to speak out. As a member of the academic community, I’ve noticed increasingly papers are written where the viewpoint is feminist and the word never used, the thinking behind the paper never brought out (so it’s easy to refute in a way) or this idea and feminism simply not written about any more, but the women writer finds something safer to discuss.

What I really like about this issue is the reviews themselves are eye-openers. They are themselves worth reading as they are genuinely critical and written in natural easy English. Going a little faster, by Ellen Herman a review of a book This Changes Everything by Christina Robb called “the making of the female self.” I’m not as happy with this one as it avoids (or doesn’t take up directly) the issue of how sexualization in one’s early adolescence (puberty) is so central to female consciousness ever after (what happens then to her). Herman does, though, tell some important autobiographical facts about the women who wrote the original “social self” classics where a “dramatic departure” was made from “sexist traditions that equated humanity with masculinity and science with soulless inquiry.” The idea was to promote caring as an originating human impulse in lieu of competition. The women came from middle class Jewish homes, had been to upper class all-female expensive colleges. While I am strongly sympathetic to the point of view, my experience tells me the theory of the social self has been overdone. As Herman says, there has been precious little practical instructions (beyond the old idea of habituation) on how relational psychology can change our communities.

I’ll also single out briefly a review of two books, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause and I Feel Bad about my Neck, and Other Thoughts about being a Woman by Nora Ephron as the reviewer takes time to refute myths about menopause. I’m going to see if I can find the Ephron book this weekend and buy it :). Among my “TBS” (To be Seen) movies on a list I keep is Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. I have on my desk the screenplay for You’ve Got Mail which I’m going to read in the next week or so. I’ve been enjoying this kind of feminist humor in Helen Fielding’s inimitable Bridget Jones books.

I’ve spent a lot of time on these 3 articles so must be briefer on the others: one on two journalists kidnapped in Iraq (the article points out how journalists are now for the first time in the 20th century prime targets for killing by all sides); a really admirable article making clear how the anti-breast-cancer campaign has been coopted to promote corporation products (these corporations give very little money to such campaigns), how its ads reinforce breast-fetishism of the type that leads to popular images of huge breasted women in low-cut dresses, requirements one breast-feed, products pushed and bought like pink Playtex rubber gloves (?!), Pink Goddess hair extensions (!!) and other sexist junk. The essay is called “the tyranny of cheerfulness” as these money-raising events require the participants to be cheerful, and to tell stories of women who survived (thus stigmatizing by impliation those who didn’t). I think it should have been called the tyranny of the breast as seen by men.

As to the rest, there’s an article on two books about physically active women who want to do hard physical labor and work in the out-of-doors and enjoy aggressive and violent activities, how their authors seem to disrespect women who do not enjoy hard labor and danger, and how they themselves are stigmatized and exploited or misrepresented by the media; an interview with Katha Pollitt (lively and good). A book on poetry is reviewed: Robin Becker’s Domain of Perfect Affection. Poems are cited and two women artists discussed. An article on Bitch magazine (the word still makes me uncomfortable) is revealing and instructive, bringing out all this magazine has candidly been “wrangling out truth[s]” for years.

There’s are articles about individual women: a review of a biography of a woman political activist who has spent her life working for peace: Elise Boulding. We are told 50% of all taxes in the US go to supporting the military establishment. An obituary for & review of Ellen Willis’s last book and an obituary for Lilian Robinson, a socialist feminist. I once had a chance to talk to Robinson at a Jane Austen session and she reluctantly admitted Austen was fond of Fanny Price.

This month’s column about one woman’s favorite book[s] is by Nancy Mair’s, “Worlds in Despair:” she now has multiple sclerosis, and has a hard time reaching her books.

Not to omit all the ads for women’s books I see nowhere else.

It is customary to find fault. I didn’t like the cover cartoon. We see a blonde woman in a sexy red dress toting a repeating rifle and gun; it’s a caricature and the expression on her face is anger. Maybe such an image is thought will help sell this periodical, but were I not a subscriber and saw the magazine on a shelf in a store, I might hesitate before buying it. It reinforces what the periodical inside works so hard to show is false and bad for women.

A not-so-funny caricature of a women blogger occurs on p. 21. The idea is that women on the Net become obsessive and don’t live “real” lives outside their blogs. They lose their jobs, their friends, and become self-masturbaters. As usual, the sense given is how easy it is to find friends outside the Net, and how useful her job. One square did show a movie marque whose films are called “Boy Fuck,” “Man Movie,” and “Guys Galore.”


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. A related posting from WMST-l:

    “Sheila Jeffreys’ latest book is called Beauty and Misogyny. it will have material on cosmetic surgery in it. i haven’t read it but am familiar with the arguments, and you will certainly find a radical feminist view on cosmetic surgery therein. sheila’s bibliography will probably also give you other sources.

    There is some discussion of cosmetic surgery in an article that sheila, denise thompson & myself had published in the international feminist journal of politics early in 2002, giving a feminist critique of the UN approach to ‘harmful traditional practices’. two central arguments in that article are that

    (a) western harmful cultural practices (outside rape & battery, accurately treated as ‘universal’ in the UN literature), don’t really get covered in the UN approach – denise & i would argue that they can’t, as human rights approaches allow us to address violations inflicted by others but not female self-harm practices common in liberal democracies – eating disorders, cosmetic surgery etc.

    (b) in cosmetic surgery we can look at the surgeon and other ‘professionals’ associated with the process as ‘agents’ who perform the practice on behalf of the woman. i.e. without these agents the practice would not be possible (so there is a difference betwen this and e.g. eating disorders). i believe sheila develops this argument in beauty and misogyny.

    denise & i do not entirely agree with sheila re what can be done about western so-called ‘consensual’ harmful cultural practices, or even on some of the finer details of analysis of them, but we all agree on the fact that they exist, that there is some form of ideological/cultural coercion (as there always is in a situation of domination – c.f. nicole-claude mathieu: ‘yielding is not consenting’), and that there are beauty industries that profit immensely from them.

    Bronwyn Winter"
    Chava    Apr 5, 9:48am    #
  2. From Bob:

    "I really liked your review on your latest blog."
    Chava    Apr 6, 11:45am    #
  3. I’ve spent the day reading student papers. One was appalling self-congratulatory gush by a young woman presented as over-the-top tender feeling; this presentation of self exemplifies why women fall for campaigns by corporations which sell vanity, sexist and junk products under the guise of giving money for finding cures for breast-cancer.

    To be explicit, it was yet another of these cloyingly unreal papers by a young woman who recounted her first weeks taking care of a baby she had given birth to in terms I cannot begin to believe. Not a hint of fatigue, boredom, irritation, trouble. What makes a person pose this way? Does she believe she harbors these unqualified feelings? Trollope calls this "babv-worship": I suggest it's deluded self-worship. Johnson told Boswell you can talk cant but don't think it. What is one to say of women who seem really to feel cant. Why else write such gush? Well, they are encouraged to. See how powerful am I. See how good am I.

    The parallel is the naive self-glorification of those who put out American flags. Oh yes I want bigger breasts; let me sign up for this cosmetic operation. And so on.

    Chava    Apr 6, 8:48pm    #

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