The Creation of Feminist Consciousness Critical Essays

Gerda Lerner


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lerner points out how, time after time, perceptive women discovered important arguments to combat women’s supposed inferiority, and yet had not known or used the work of their predecessors a generation or several hundred years before their time. This is particularly true of feminist interpretations of biblical passages. Even more critical is the fact that a woman thinker did not have the encouragement and mentoring of her foremothers, but believed that she was the only woman attempting to tackle the problem. Even into the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) made erroneous assumptions about women writers and women’s history because they simply did not have access to their own history. Lerner’s great insight here is that women’s subordination cannot be changed as long as history is obscured. For women, this long denial process of more than three thousand years has been devastating.

Reviewing the patriarchal assumptions that she had analyzed at length in the first volume, Lerner uses ancient philosopher Aristotle’s Politics and the modern debate over the U.S. Constitution to show how such assumptions continued to deny women membership in the polity. Both Aristotle and the framers of the Constitution debated the rights of slaves but not of women. The notion of women’s rights lingered below the threshold of the conceivable. Men had the power to define, and women were not a part of the discussion.

Lerner analyzes women’s struggle for education (“The Educational Disadvantaging of Women”); the importance of mysticism, biblical criticism, and religious thought for women’s autonomous being; how the concept of motherhood gave women authority; the uses of female creativity; the beginnings of female spaces and networks; and the development of women’s history. Two generalizations are made about women’s education: Women were almost always less well educated than their brothers, and any education was a privilege of class. When education became institutionalized (instead of being handled by the family and apprenticeships), then the disparity between male and female education became obvious. Women were not prepared for university education by being taught Latin and Greek, unless they were of nobility and in line for rule. Nevertheless, there were islands of possibility for some women to be well educated at different times in...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)