Sisters at Odds

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Author: Diana Schaub
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,257 words

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[(review date winter 1995) In the following review, Schaub compares the representation of feminism in Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? with the representation of feminism in Henry James's 19th-century novel The Bostonians. Schaub comments that Sommers's book is disappointing in that it fails to take into account a broader social and cultural context.]

Just as the movement for "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" had its Jacobins, so too the feminist movement, with its parallel call for women's liberation, the equality of the sexes, and politically conceived sisterhood. According to Christina Hoff Sommers [in Who Stole Feminism?], it is the final term of the triad that has inspired dangerous radicalism in the feminist camp and led to something on the order of feminism's own Reign of Terror.

Liberty and equality, yes--those are the hallmarks of what Sommers terms "equity" or "First Wave" feminism: "the traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism that was initiated more than 150 years ago." Original feminism demanded and won fundamental political rights for women and opened up educational and economic opportunity. Sommers considers herself and most Americans to be feminists of this sort--heirs to the Enlightenment and its principles of individual justice. Her quarrel is with the "Second Wave" or "gender" feminists who have abandoned universalism for gynocentrism and traded enfranchisement for seemingly permanent victim status. Solidarity with women has come to mean hostility to men, and particularly to that alleged system of male dominance: the "heteropatriarchy."

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women is an attempt to reclaim feminism from these female Jacobins (prominent among them, Catherine MacKinnon, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, Alison Jaggar, Susan Faludi, and Catherine Stimpson). In her Girondist dissent, Sommers joins a growing number of women, from Katie Roiphe to Camille Paglia, trying to wrest power from the radical Montagnards.

Sommers claims that "misandrism [man-hating] ... was not a notable feature of the women's movement until our own times"; indeed, she finds that "the idea that women are in a gender war originated in the mid-sixties." Sommers may be right that the triumph of this perspective is new, but certainly its existence is not. There were Amazons of old, or, rather, there was the legend of such a tribe, bespeaking the antiquity of separatist sentiment.

More significant for Sommers' genealogy, this strain was present within organized feminism from the beginning. Many of her astute observations about the character of the current scene can be confirmed by a reading of Henry James's novel The Bostonians, which traces the peculiarities of American sexual manners and mores. Writing in 1886, James already discerned a split between equity feminism, represented in the figure of Mrs. Farrinder, and gender feminism, personified by Olive Chancellor:

Evidently Mrs. Farrinder wanted to keep the movement in her own hands--viewed with suspicion certain romantic, aesthetic elements which Olive and Verena seemed to be trying to introduce into it. They insisted so much, for instance, on the historic unhappiness of women; but Mrs. Farrinder didn't appear to care anything for that, or indeed to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100061420