Essays in Feminism (Magill's Literary Annual 1980)
Most people would agree that the status of women in American Society has undergone some change during the past half century, although the degree of change would unquestionably be a matter hotly debated. Even more hotly debated is the central question of whether the changes in status, those already achieved and those still sought by militant feminists, are beneficial to either women or American society. Even without the self-conscious agitation for change which has become so stridently vociferous during the past decade, women’s place in the social and economic order has been evolving at an uneven pace for as long as the industrial revolution has been in progress. Economic pressures, expanding demand for cheap labor, and increased schooling have effectively though inadvertently cooperated to swell the ranks of working women, and to increase the awareness of women as to their position in the social order.
Tradition, religion, laws, and history have prescribed and presumed that women should be silent, passive, and submissive to men. The changes wrought by the industrial revolution and universal public education stimulated a series of changes in the life-styles and the thinking of American women.
Early feminist militancy was primarily vocal or physical. Marches, strikes, and speeches were the principal means of agitation and the most effective methods of impact both upon opponents of change in women’s status and upon the vast dormant body of women who had heretofore been guided in their thinking and actions by the precepts of the aforementioned guardians of the status quo: tradition, religion, laws, and history. However, with the expansion in education, labor-saving devices which increased leisure time, and inexpensive and abundant printing and publishing resources, advocacy of feminist causes has more and more been disseminated through the printed word.
During the past decade, this volume of writings about women has increased from a trickle to a torrent. Fiction and nonfiction, drama, essays, political tracts, poetry, biography, history, how-to books, and journals have come to focus in great numbers on the subject of women, their place, their potential, and their personalities. Of course, as the writings of advocates of women’s liberation have proliferated, so have the writings of those opposite points of view, but scarcely in any proportionate volume. Or perhaps authors of the vast bulk of printed materials simply accept the traditional status of women as given, and not a matter of interest or argument.
The energy and efforts of writers espousing the women’s rights cause must be directed both at educating, arousing, and encouraging change while simultaneously attacking and exposing what writers call the demeaning and unfair conditions associated with “woman’s place.” One clear and impassioned voice which has been advocating the cause of women through essays and books is that of Vivian Gornick. Her latest book is this collection of essays which originally appeared in the The Village Voice, the New York Times Magazine, Ms, and other periodical publications between 1969 and 1978. As her writings have spanned this pivotal decade in the women’s movement, they have a special historical relevance. She speaks to the present and the future, remembering always the past. She describes new patterns of behavior, new attitudes, and new values as American women are in the process of sweeping changes in their life-styles. The scope, if not the momentum, of the changes is increasing daily. Her thoughtful, provocative, and always stimulating descriptions and commentaries on the issues and activities which constitute feminism are gathered here in a volume which speaks powerfully and well to her view of modern woman’s experience.
The psychology of women, as it has been shaped by society, and as it is being newly defined and altered by self-conscious women today, is a recurring theme throughout Gornick’s essays. Her essay “Consciousness” narrates the interchanges and revelations that occurred at a consciousness-raising session of a half dozen women in 1970. The session is presented as a model for such groups, which can be initiated and developed anywhere that a group of women feels such a need for psychological support and self-examination. The dialogue speaks to several problems in the lives of...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)