Slaying the Mermaid

In a survey which includes Saint Catherine of Siena, Emily Dickinson, Simone Weil, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Stephanie Golden argues that Western society has held up extraordinary sacrifices and suffering as the model for women’s lives. As it is with saints and literary heroines, so it is with ordinary women, she says. Many accounts follow of how women give and give for their families or even for political or charitable causes. And even so, Golden adds, they often feel that they aren’t “doing enough;” that they need to give up their very self to be a good person.

SLAYING THE MERMAID: WOMEN AND THE CULTURE OF SACRIFICE is a cross between feminist analysis and a self-help book. As the former, it claims that self-sacrifice destroys one’s access to real power in an organization. The belief that suffering is a moral good in itself, even if no one benefits from it, is certainly exploded. However, the text’s portrait of a woman who arranges for sandwiches for a meeting as one who automatically sacrifices, and hence loses credibility, is less convincing.

As a self-help guide, the book concludes with a few glimpses of women who have made appropriate sacrifices. Their sacrifices have enhanced, rather than diminished, their lives. Some examples are older black women whose work at menial jobs bought greater opportunities for their children, and activists who chose to simplify their lives in order to focus on other goals. Golden believes the hallmarks of positive sacrifice are that it be freely chosen within the realities of the person’s world, and that it supports her sense of self rather than destroying it.

Two perceptive sections look at reasons for demonizing welfare mothers, and for blaming battered women for their own plight. Both groups, the author says, must be “sacrificed” to other interests which our society is unwilling to confront.

Readers may or may not see their own lives reflected in these pages, but the book will give them much to think about.