Susan Brownmiller 1935-
American nonfiction writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brownmiller's career through 2001.
One of the first politically active feminists at the onset of the women's liberation movement during the late 1960s, Brownmiller is best known as the author of Against Our Will (1975), which analyzes the use of rape by men from antiquity through the modern era as a tool of oppression against women. In this bestselling work, Brownmiller provoked widespread controversy at the time with her famous assertion that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (italics in original). Brownmiller has courted controversy to a lesser degree with her other works, which continue to pose arguments that question cultural assumptions about gender in terms of power. An outspoken feminist, Brownmiller is widely recognized for her seminal role in promulgating the principles of the women's liberation movement in particular and feminism in general.
The daughter of a salesperson at Macy's department store and a secretary at the Empire State Building, Brownmiller was born February 15, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Cornell University on scholarships from 1952 to 1955 and later studied at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences without completing degree requirements at either institution. After working a string of odd jobs during the late 1950s, including a stint as a theatrical actress, Brownmiller held a series of editorial and research positions during the early 1960s with various periodicals, ranging from the Coronet and the Albany Report to Newsweek and Village Voice. Meanwhile, Brownmiller joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in its civil rights demonstrations, most notably during Freedom Summer in 1964 when activists went to the Deep South to register disenfranchised African Americans to vote. In 1965, Brownmiller joined the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as a staff writer, but she signed on the next year as a network news writer for the American Broadcast Company (ABC) where she remained until 1968 when she parlayed her growing interest in women's rights into dual careers as freelance journalist and political activist. That year, she co-founded the New York Radical Feminists, who organized public protests and sit-ins advocating equal rights for women, including a demonstration at the offices of Ladies' Home Journal opposing its representation of women. In 1969 Brownmiller wrote a feature story for the New York Times on Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Brownmiller adapted this article into her first book-length publication, Shirley Chisholm (1970), a biography for young readers. In 1971 Brownmiller helped to organize a “Speak-Out on Rape,” and the speech she delivered at the rally became the basis for Against Our Will. The subsequent controversy and notoriety that followed its publication brought Brownmiller to national prominence as a leading feminist. She was named one of Time magazine's twelve Women of the Year in 1975 and appeared on numerous television talk shows. In 1979 Brownmiller helped to organize the national lobbying group Women Against Pornography, clarifying her views in the widely anthologized essay “Let's Put Pornography Back in the Closet” (1979). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Brownmiller continued to engage women's issues as a lecturer and writer, sporadically publishing books on feminist themes, including Femininity (1984) and Waverly Place (1989), her first novel. In 1992, Brownmiller toured Vietnam on assignment for Travel & Leisure magazine and recorded her impressions of the country and its people in Seeing Vietnam (1994). Her memoirs of significant events during the women's liberation movement, In Our Time, appeared in 1999.
A seminal text of American feminism, Against Our Will provides an overview of myriad ways that rape has been used by men throughout history to subjugate women. The thesis of this work proposes that rape is not a sexual act but an act of aggression determined by anatomical difference and used to assert men's dominance over women and women's subservience to men. Supported by research in diverse fields ranging from history, literature, and myth to sociology, psychology, and law, Against Our Will traces the history of rape in human society, documenting the politics of rape in times of war, outlining the evolution of American rape laws, and discussing such topics as interracial rape, homosexual rape, and child molestation. Less confrontational than Brownmiller's first work, Femininity analyzes culturally determined Western definitions of “feminine” standards, detailing such characteristics as body, voice, hair, skin, clothes, movement, emotion, and ambition. In addition, this work also explores the extent to which many women adhere to those ideals, arguing that they restrict the scope of and limit the opportunities in real women's lives. Taking its cue from the headlines of the late 1980s, Waverly Place is a fictional account of the real-life murder of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg in New York's Greenwich Village where Brownmiller lived at the time. The novel recounts events in the stormy and abusive relationship between Hedda Nussbaum and her longtime domestic partner, attorney Joel Steinberg, that led to his trial for the beating death of his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa. Seeing Vietnam is a photographic and textual record of Brownmiller's 1992 tour of Vietnam that blends historical information about the Vietnam War with her impressions of how the country has fared nearly twenty years after the war ended. Part history and part memoirs, In Our Time traces the rise and spread of the women's liberation movement in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s based on Brownmiller's personal recollections of significant events, interviews with other eyewitnesses, and extensive archival research.
Upon its publication, Against Our Will instantly made Brownmiller a literary celebrity but it also prompted controversy. The bestselling work was named a featured selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and one of the ten outstanding books of 1975 by the New York Times Book Review. Some critics have praised the book for its extensive research, lucid argument, and groundbreaking perspective on a formerly taboo subject, with many hailing its refined treatment of criminal aspects and legal implications of rape. Feminists, activists, and lobbyists have embraced its central idea that rape is a tool of patriarchal power rather than a mere sexual act. However, other commentators have objected that the thesis of Against Our Will is simplistic; they have questioned whether the physical capacity to commit or threaten rape alone accrues power to men. Brownmiller's other theoretical work, Femininity, has yielded a similar mixed response among reviewers. While some critics have found the work's insights on feminine ideals and female conformity accurate, others have opined that it neglects the perspectives of women of color and disregards similar impediments that men encounter with unrealistic masculine ideals. Most critics have concurred that Waverly Place is poorly conceived as a novel, with the majority of complaints centering on character motivation in relation to theme. Many reviewers have also questioned the purpose and ethics of Brownmiller's decision to fictionalize a well-publicized and graphically detailed media event. Generally unimpressed with Seeing Vietnam, commentators have noted that Brownmiller missed an opportunity to make observations from her usual feminist perspective. However, she has redeemed herself in the eyes of most critics with In Our Time, which many reviewers have praised as an important contribution to feminist history, although a few have judged it little more than gossip about the infighting among major participants within the women's movement.
SOURCE: McCauley, Michael F. Review of Against Our Will, by Susan Brownmiller. Commonweal 102, no. 19 (5 December 1975): 602–03.
[In the following excerpt, McCauley praises Against Our Will for addressing a timely issue that concerns everyone.]
Four years ago when journalist Susan Brownmiller began writing Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she often encountered embarrassment concerning rape and rape victims. For the most part this attitude has changed due, largely, to the women's movement and the staggering projection that half a million women will be raped this year. In this compelling, unflinching account of Ms. Brownmiller's...
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SOURCE: Tindall, Gillian. “Sexist Appeal.” New Statesman 90, no. 2334 (12 December 1975): 761.
[In the following review, Tindall argues that Against Our Will is thoughtful, informative, and well-researched, but criticizes the volume for presenting an oversimplified, one-sided view of human sexuality.]
Reading these two studies in the same week, one on prostitution and the other on rape, you get the uneasy impression that they are somehow mutually exclusive—that the social situation described in the one could not exist on the same planet with the other and vice versa. I think this is the fault of both books; both, in different styles and at different...
(The entire section is 856 words.)
SOURCE: Cunningham, Ann Marie. “Spotlight on Rape.” Progressive 40, no. 1 (January 1976): 52–53.
[In the following positive review, Cunningham asserts that Against Our Will provides important information on the role of rape in human history.]
Susan Brownmiller wrote this remarkable, prickly book [Against Our Will], the first history of rape, because she changed her mind. A woman who always walked quickly and carried a confident look, a civil libertarian whose sympathies went out to the accused, Brownmiller had to hear victims' testimonies at a 1970 public speak-out before she stopped believing that if women were raped, it was their own fault. She...
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SOURCE: Chesler, Ellen. “Abnormality as a Norm.” New Leader 59, no. 1 (5 January 1976): 16–17.
[In the following review, Chesler asserts that the argument in Against Our Will is superficial and contradictory, questioning Brownmiller's use of sources to support her arguments.]
Five years ago, while helping to organize a feminist speak-out on rape, Susan Brownmiller made a discovery: Rape could be seen as an extraordinary historical metaphor, a fundamental “way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength, and at power.” Now, after four years of what she describes as grueling and methodical research, she has given us a book [Against Our...
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SOURCE: Sobran, M. J., Jr. “Boys Will Be Rapists.” National Review 28, no. 7 (5 March 1976): 220, 222.
[In the following review, Sobran offers a negative assessment of Against Our Will, commenting that the work's central thesis is illogical and that Brownmiller's argument is intellectually sloppy.]
Neither Susan Brownmiller nor Against Our Will needs much in the way of introduction. There has not been a more spectacular book-club meteor since the days of, oh, Kate Millett, anyway. You do remember Kate Millett? Cover of Time, and all that? Well, Miss Brownmiller has not only made Time's cover, she has done so as one of 12 Women of...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Charles W. “Rape as Domination.” Christian Century 93, no. 19 (26 May 1976): 524–25.
[In the following review, Stewart offers a positive assessment of Against Our Will, observing that Brownmiller succeeds in her efforts to raise consciousness about the issue of rape.]
[In Against Our Will,] Susan Brownmiller is one of the first women to undertake an investigation of rape. She writes deeply, personally and polemically of what she believes is an age-old injustice in the relations between women and men. By their superior physical strength, and by their superior position in society maintained through the institutions of law, marriage...
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SOURCE: Marshall, Megan. “Our Bodies, Our Burdens.” New Republic 190, no. 6 (13 February 1984): 33–35.
[In the following negative review, Marshall criticizes Brownmiller's feminist stance in Femininity, calling it simple minded and out-of-sync with the concerns of women in the 1980s.]
Just as American feminism has reached its lowest ebb, Susan Brownmiller has published a book that should have been a rallying point for a feminist revival. Not only has the E.R.A. failed repeatedly in recent years, but many women of the new generation repudiate the movement, and even its most shining examples, the middle-aged female stars of business and politics, begin...
(The entire section is 1637 words.)
SOURCE: Wheeler, Elizabeth. “The More and Less Meaning of Woman.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 February 1984): 3.
[In the following review, Wheeler applies Brownmiller's ideas in Femininity to her own feelings about femininity, concluding that the book is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.]
When I go through an emotional crisis, especially a romantic one, I lose weight. It's not an intentional or reasoned response. I just have that sort of metabolism, or so I tell myself.
Would I, however, have that metabolism if I didn't live in a time and in a place that values thinness? Or if my father had not told me that thin women were...
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SOURCE: DeVries, Hilary. “Through the Eyes of a Founding Feminist.” Christian Science Monitor (5 June 1984): 31, 34.
[In the following negative review, DeVries describes Femininity as an expression of outmoded feminist militancy.]
As one of the intellectual founders of the women's movement, Susan Brownmiller knows times are tough for feminists.
Not only has the Equal Rights Amendment failed repeatedly in recent years, but many women of the new generation openly disown the militancy that characterized feminism's formative years.
At the same time, a recent spate of books written by such movement founders as Betty Friedan and...
(The entire section is 1456 words.)
SOURCE: Richardson, Laurel. Review of Femininity, by Susan Brownmiller. Contemporary Sociology 14, no. 1 (January 1985): 80.
[In the following review, Richardson offers a negative assessment of Femininity, criticizing the work for its overgeneralizations.]
[In Femininity,] Susan Brownmiller sets herself the task of analyzing femininity as a survival strategy. She contends that femininity, built upon an aesthetic of powerlessness, is a “slippery subject to grapple with, for its contradictions are elusive, ephemeral and ultimately impressive” (19). Unfortunately, Brownmiller, a journalist, has not provided an organizing principle through which...
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SOURCE: Pistono, Stephen P. “Susan Brownmiller and the History of Rape.” Women's Studies 14, no. 3 (February 1988): 265–76.
[In the following essay, Pistono evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Brownmiller's argument in Against Our Will with respect to the history of rape laws.]
A decade ago, Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape first appeared in print.1 She insisted that it was a history of rape. Most historians ignored her work, perhaps, because as one of them suggested the subject of her inquiry was hitherto “as well known to conventional scholars as the dark side of the moon.”2 Those few...
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SOURCE: Vachss, Andrew. “Brownmiller's Cry of the Children.” Washington Post 112, no. 49 (23 January 1989): C4.
[In the following review, Vachss criticizes Waverly Place for failing to address the link between spousal abuse and child abuse.]
Journalists report facts. Politicians spin facts. Novelists spin yarns. The aims and constraints of these varied professions interact and overlap when a novel is used as the vehicle for the subsurface explanation of events that capture the public's fancy. Or its revulsion.
A novelist is permitted, even expected, to relate the narrative from a social-political perspective. Thus, if the novelist believes...
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SOURCE: Kaganoff, Penny. “Susan Brownmiller.” Publishers Weekly (27 January 1989): 449–50.
[In the following essay, Kaganoff discusses Brownmiller's process of research for writing Waverly Place.]
As the sun sets on another eventful day in the trial of Joel Steinberg, the New York lawyer accused of beating to death his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, PW winds down with Susan Brownmiller in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that is the scene of that hideous crime as well as the home of the veteran journalist, who is covering the proceedings for Ms. magazine. Her essay will present an analysis of Steinberg's former live-in-lover, Hedda Nussbaum,...
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SOURCE: Pritchard, Melissa. “Battered Lives.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 February 1989): 4.
[In the following review, Pritchard praises Waverly Place as a compelling and accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship.]
Behind Susan Brownmiller's fictionalized paradigm of a battered wife and fatally beaten child lie the grim, numbing statistics of a crime epidemic. In New York state, 95,000 cases of child abuse are annually reported. Ten thousand of these children suffer serious injury, 150 of them die. This year, 2,000 American children will die at the hands of one or both parents.
Waverly Place recounts, through the medium of fiction,...
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SOURCE: Kendall, Elaine. “Where Reality Outpaced Fiction: A Novel on the Steinberg Case.” Los Angeles Times (10 February 1989): section 5, E1.
[In the following review, Kendall faults Waverly Place for its inaccurate portrayal of drug addiction and its neglect of available information on the Steinberg murder case.]
First out of the gate in an inevitable commercial sweepstakes, Susan Brownmiller's version of the Steinberg case is presented as fiction, though recapitulation might be a more precise description of her method. Beginning to write on the day the Steinberg child died from head injuries inflicted by the man who had so casually “adopted” her,...
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SOURCE: Bakerman, Jane. “The Criminal Element.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 3 (spring 1989): 15.
[In the following excerpt, Bakerman offers a mixed assessment of Waverly Place, commenting that the work is imaginative, but lacks depth of feeling.]
In good crime fiction as in journalism, when and where are almost as important as who, what, and why. For sound, practical reasons, good mystery writers pay close attention to setting: They strengthen plot by intensifying the atmosphere, deepen realism with a wealth of accurate geographical detail, stimulate readers' imaginations with exotic locales, or underscore viciousness by contrasting it to commonplace actions...
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SOURCE: Davidon, Ann Morrissett. “Lethal Case.” Progressive (April 1989): 44–46.
[In the following review, Davidon argues that Waverly Place provides a vivid, engrossing account of the Steinberg murder case but notes that the work exploits the tragedy of a real family.]
As you read this, thousands of men are battering women and children to the point of hospitalization and, in some cases, to death. If the police are called and any action taken, seldom does the case attract media coverage, even when deaths occur. According to New York City statistics, 127 children were killed by abusive adults in 1988. These are only the recorded ones, in only one city....
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SOURCE: Fortune, Marie M. Review of Waverly Place, by Susan Brownmiller. Christian Century 106, no. 13 (19 April 1989): 422–23.
[In the following review, Fortune criticizes Waverly Place for failing to convey the complexities of domestic abuse.]
In this book [Waverly Place] Susan Brownmiller creates a fictional version of the relationship between Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum. Through the characters Barry Kantor and Judith Winograd, Brownmiller tells the story of the brutal and abusive man who permanently disfigured Nussbaum and killed their illegally adopted daughter, Lisa. Their recently concluded trial caught the public's attention in part...
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SOURCE: Caputi, Jane. “Stranger than Fiction.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 8 (May 1989): 10–11.
[In the following review, Caputi comments that Waverly Place is less powerful and effective than accounts of the real-life circumstances of the Steinberg murder case reported by the news media.]
On November 1st, 1987, six-year-old Lisa Steinberg was brought to a hospital emergency room, unconscious and with injuries which led to her death four days later. The two people who had been raising her in their Waverly Place, Greenwich Village apartment—Joel Steinberg, a con artist and lawyer who had illegally adopted the child, and Hedda Nussbaum, the former...
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SOURCE: Souhami, Diana. “A Short, Silent Life.” New Statesman & Society 2, no. 65 (1 September 1989): 36.
[In the following review, Souhami praises Brownmiller for successfully combining her journalistic skills with her feminist perspective in Waverly Place.]
Like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Waverly Place is a murder story based on fact. In 1987 a New York lawyer killed a six-year-old girl by flinging her across a room in a rage. The child was his illegally adopted daughter. Police and paramedics went to his Greenwich Village apartment. They found the girl unconscious. The woman they presumed to be her mother looked as if she had been hit by a...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
SOURCE: Coles, Joanna. “Against Her Will?” Times Literary Supplement (6–12 October 1989): 1104.
[In the following excerpt, Coles asserts that Waverly Place is poorly written and oversimplifies the issues raised by the Steinberg murder case, observing that the novel sensationalizes the sad events of a true-life story.]
Last year Joel Steinberg, a New York barrister, and Hedda Nussbaum, an ex-children's book editor, illegally adopted two children and murdered one of them—a six-year-old girl. Both Nussbaum and the child, it emerged, had been subjected to brutal beatings by Steinberg over a long period. The United States was horrified: not least by the...
(The entire section is 748 words.)
SOURCE: Leepson, Marc. “A Tourist in Vietnam.” Chicago Tribune (15 May 1994): section 14, 5.
[In the following review, Leepson comments that while Seeing Vietnam is an interesting travel narrative about Vietnam in the 1990s, the sections of the book discussing the Vietnam War lack valuable information.]
Susan Brownmiller is best known for her strongly argued feminist writings, including the bestselling Against Our Will, but her Seeing Vietnam barely touches on feminist issues. Instead, it's a combination travel guide, personal rumination and historical and sociological look at the nation of Vietnam and the American war that raged there in the...
(The entire section is 704 words.)
SOURCE: Linfield, Susie. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Los Angeles Times (18 November 1999): E3.
[In the following review, Linfield argues that In Our Time is nothing more than gossip about some of the major figures in the women's liberation movement, noting Brownmiller's superficial treatment of feminist issues.]
Few books have affected me as viscerally as Susan Brownmiller's 1975 treatise on rape, Against Our Will, which I read as a college student. Brownmiller's unflinching description of actual rapes was terrifying, but it was her lucid, indeed irrefutable, analysis of how sexual violence by some men served to control all women,...
(The entire section is 650 words.)
SOURCE: Trouard, Dawn. “Moving the Mountain.” Washington Post Book World (30 January 2000): 3.
[In the following review, Trouard states that In Our Time is informative regarding the history of the women's liberation movement, but criticizes the volume for its inconsistent methodology.]
At least one of the things women, or perhaps feminists, want is a history of our history. Such a work might spare yet another generation the conundrum of why, if there has always been a women's movement, no one seems to know it. In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller—activist-author of the 1975 Against Our Will, a landmark study of rape—is an account of the...
(The entire section is 872 words.)
SOURCE: Rebick, Judy. “The Guest Room: The Radical Roots of Feminism.” Herizons 13, no. 4 (31 March 2000): 44.
[In the following review, Rebick recommends In Our Time as a delightful work that informatively discusses the successes and failures of the women's liberation movement.]
With memories of the Battle of Seattle still dancing in our heads, and thoughts of the World March of Women later this year beginning to take shape, it is good time to think about how social movements actually develop. In this age of celebrity worship, it is hard to remember that most social movements begin with the actions of a small group of radicals working outside of the glare...
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SOURCE: Winslow, Barbara. “Radical Recollections.” Women's Review of Books 17, no. 7 (April 2000): 12–14.
[In the following review, Winslow asserts that In Our Time makes a significant contribution to the available literature on the history of the women's movement.]
Susan Brownmiller is one of the best-known pioneers of the radical women's liberation movement. An early activist in New York Radical Women, she was a leading organizer of some of the first, groundbreaking actions—the sit-in at Ladies Home Journal, the Speak Outs on abortion and rape, the battered women's movement and the campaigns against prostitution and pornography. In Our...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)
SOURCE: Douglas, Carol Anne. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. off our backs 30, no. 5 (31 May 2000): 12.
[In the following review, Douglas describes In Our Time as both a personal memoir and an historical account of the women's liberation movement.]
Susan Brownmiller, author of the classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, in this book [In Our Time] attempts both a personal memoir and a history of the Second Wave women's movement. She succeeds at both, particularly the history, which she wisely emphasizes. Clearly, she interviewed many feminists to shed light on what they did and thought at the time—the late '60s and the...
(The entire section is 2134 words.)
SOURCE: Endres, Kathleen. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Journalism History 27, no. 1 (spring 2001): 44–45.
[In the following review, Endres praises In Our Time as one of the best “insider's” accounts of the women's liberation movement, calling the book meticulously researched, well-written, and “painfully honest.”]
Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time is not the first book that tells an insider's story of the Women's Liberation Movement of the second half of the twentieth century. However, from the perspective of the journalism historian, it may be one of the best. She provides an insider's perspective of the role journalism...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
SOURCE: Dunn, Jennifer L. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Gender and Society 15, no. 2 (April 2001): 318–19.
[In the following review, Dunn comments that In Our Time provides a vivid, complex account of the development of the women's liberation movement.]
This book [In Our Time] is a vivid and vexing account of the Women's Liberation movement from an insider's perspective. Brownmiller draws on personal experience, archival materials, and interviews with more than 200 activists to paint a portrait nearly as complex and controversial as the revolution it describes. Richly anecdotal and written in a highly readable, journalistic style,...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
SOURCE: Steiner, Wendy. “Rape Belongs to Everyone.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5114 (6 April 2001): 10.
[In the following review, Steiner offers a positive assessment of In Our Time, calling the work informative and engaging.]
In 1922, the young Ernest Hemingway stood on the shell-shocked side of the First World War exposing his psychic disarray in the prose experiments of In Our Time. Susan Brownmiller, standing in the ruins of radical feminism, appropriates the old chauvinist's title without apology or explanation. It is a grab redolent of the glory days of feminism. What they will not give you, take. If they will not make common cause, fight...
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Balaban, John. “A Tiresome Journey to Vietnam.” Washington Post 117, no. 113 (16 June 1994): C2.
Balaban argues that Seeing Vietnam is a poorly written travel narrative, adding that Brownmiller would have been more effective had she addressed the history and social conditions of Vietnamese women from her feminist perspective.
Collins, Anne. “The Binding Contract of Femininity.” Maclean's 97, no. 4 (23 January 1984): 57.
Collins faults Femininity for failing to acknowledge the valuable qualities associated with femininity, concluding that the book leaves female readers feeling even more...
(The entire section is 253 words.)