Commentary Magazine


Feminism Without Illusions, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Retailoring Women’s Lib

Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism.
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
University of North Carolina Press. 347 pp. $24.95.

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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To Figure out what Fox-Genovese is trying to get at, the reader must follow her genealogy of feminism, whose roots she traces, with an implicit nod to Max Weber, to the 18th-century Age of Reason, when for the first time governmental arrangements came to be viewed not as organic developments reflecting the communal organization of society but as contracts among freely consenting individuals. Like most children of modernity, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is both exhilarated and distressed at what ensued once people were liberated from what they considered the dead hand of the past: boundless economic and intellectual opportunity but also atomization, alienation, and the radical disjunction of home and workplace. The new dispensation gave people—including, latterly, women—“rights” for the first time, but it also pitted them against one another in naked competition unmediated by traditional institutions of family, guild, or charity.

This is Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s dilemma. On the one hand, she sees enlightenment, education, liberty, power—are these not good things? On the other hand, she sees the social disorder, mild for the comfortable middle-class, intense for the poor, that has come with the disruption of family life which has been an inevitable by-product of universal liberation. For women, traditional domestic life may have been oppressive—“brutalization” and “servitude” are two words Elizabeth Fox-Genovese uses to describe it—but it was also a powerful source of shared values.

How to retrieve those values? What Fox-Genovese sets out to do is to wrest contemporary feminism from the radical libertarianism that is its least attractive side, “the celebration of egotism and the denial or indefensible reduction of the just claims of the community.” This is an exciting promise, but she either cannot or will not deliver on it. Refusing to accept that alienation and disjunction of home and workplace might be the prices women have to pay for becoming just like men, she seems to think that the substantive doctrines of individualism-based feminist orthodoxy can somehow be retailored in the latest cut of communitarianism without any loss of material on either side.

Take her treatment of abortion. Most feminists are pro-choice absolutists, and typically discuss abortion in the highly individualistic terms of “reproductive rights” and “control” over their bodies. Fox-Genovese rightly points out the contradiction between “feminist metaphors of motherhood and community [and] the feminist defense of abortion on grounds of absolute individual right,” and contends that accepting abortion as just a component of women’s sexual self-determination dissolves men’s responsibilities to the next generation and “can logically lead to murder with impunity.” These are powerful arguments, but she does nothing with them, simply acknowledging that she herself is a near-absolutist on abortion rights, and that nothing could change her mind.

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In a discussion of comparable worth—the theory the government should equalize the wages for jobs traditionally held by women with those traditionally held by men—she agrees that such a system would end up discriminating against men who perform hard dirty manual labor to support their families. Nonetheless, she writes blandly, “we must have a collective conception of society that acknowledges the possibility that the good of the whole in some way transcends the good of individuals.” Similarly with affirmative action, where she rejects the usual arguments for quotas and then figures out a communitarian way to defend them anyway, on the grounds that they serve the “collective social goal” of helping women and member of minority groups achieve equality.

Later chapters try to make a case for what she calls “a common culture” in which men and women (as well as whites and members of racial minorities) would each have a stake and each be recognized as equally worthy. She admirably repudiates both androgyny and female separatism, the two dead-end philosophical camps into which most feminists have divided themselves. But instead of going on to celebrate the difference between men and women—which might be a genuinely communitarian response, making room for the complementary roles of both sexes in a family or society—she continues the war against the masculine that the feminists she criticizes have been waging all along. “Feminists must begin by decomposing the very myth of man,” she writes, in the same old language of the guillotine.

The personal is the political, as feminists are wont to say. This books ends with an autobiographical “afterword” in which Elizabeth Fox-Genovese relates the difficulties of living with another strong and professionally ambitious personality, her husband, the historian Eugene Genovese. Reading these pages on the tense, competitive, anxiety-ridden life of the liberated woman of the late 20th century—at its best, not its worst—does help finally to explain why Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, like so many who have bought into the feminist revolution, seems unable to provide a coherent or satisfying rationale for it.

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