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Feminism Without Illusions, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

- Abstract

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, founder and director of the women’s-studies program at Emory University and author of an award-winning study of women in the antebellum South, Within the Plantation Household, may seem the very model of a politically-correct scholar. But in her new collection of essays she displays a profound dismay at the pulpy fruits of the “liberation” movements, including women’s liberation, that budded from the genial liberalism of the 1960′s but quickly fleshed out to the radical illiberalism of this generation. Declaring herself “temperamentally and culturally conservative,” Fox-Genovese asserts in her first chapter that feminism has played an “ambiguous and sometimes destructive role” in helping to corrode the social order over the past 25 years. “The implementation of women’s rights,” she contends, “has whittled away at the remaining bastions of corporatism and community—notably the family—even as women, released to the dubious mercies of the public sphere, require new forms of protection from the state.”

It would be a mistake, however, to read Fox-Genovese as a convert, say, from the National Organization for Women to Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Quite the contrary. She scorns conservatives for their “nostalgia” for a past that strikes her as irretrievable, and the first essay in this book, “Beyond Sisterhood,” is a pastiche of clichés right out of a 1972 consciousness-raising session. (Before the dawn of mid-century feminism, women were “stifled,” they were not “free to rage,” they could not “function as whole human beings in the large world,” etc.) Nor is Fox-Genovese a neoconservative, for whom liberal reforms jogged along pretty well until some point in the late 1960′s when things went violently awry. This book, written in prose that is occasionally striking but too often reads like the term papers of the dutiful “A” student Fox-Genovese says she was during her years of male-dominated graduate school, shows a deep and never-resolved ambivalence toward its subject matter.

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