Essays in Feminism

by Vivian Gornick

Start Free Trial

Essays in Feminism (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1786

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 women. Their mutual help in analyzing their underlying assumptions and motives, their frank confessions of their fears and mistakes, and their sympathetic support coupled with candid perceptions can convey to the reader a sense of the bonding which women experience as a sustaining force in their lives, arising out of such sessions. The essay is decidedly melodramatic, but it does have impact.

The essay “Boesman and Lena: About Being a Woman” is a moving essay celebrating the discovery of a woman’s soul as staged in a dramatic presentation in New York. It deals with the slave mentality, the subjugation to a man, the fear of hunger, and all the assorted threats and stresses of life which overwhelm Lena. Vivian Gornick vividly and with the clarity of sympathetic perception describes the action in terms of the transformation that is occurring within the psyche of this woman as she comes to terms with her situation and with her self.

Two of the essays, “Why Women Fear Success” and “Why Radcliffe Women Are Afraid of Success,” deal with a psychological phenomenon which is currently receiving some attention, since it was revealed just a few years ago. It speaks to the fears of both men and women because it deals with the social expectations of both, and with the discomfort or even anxiety one experiences when expected behaviors and customary outcomes do not materialize. The essays express a joy and fervent hope that women and men will come to see women’s aggressiveness as normal and necessary for the development of a complete and wholesome personality. Women, Gornick urges, need the striving for, and expectation of, success just as much as men do; for it is exactly such striving and such orientation toward success that develops the personality in the most complete way. The essays are developed with a well-reasoned logic and are supported by researches of psychologists. The effect of dependence has been stultifying on women; it has kept them at an immature state of personality development and in a state of fear of change or of independence.

Indeed, the most pervasive message informing this series of essays is that the crucial task of feminism is self-knowledge; social and political issues will work themselves out as women gain the inner strength of self-understanding and self-realization. Gornick’s essays are alive with the passion of conviction, and her writing is sometimes more polemical than polished. However, she also has a well-sustained ring of conviction to her prose which gives even her more melodramatic and radical statements a reason for being.

The essays which deal specifically with the relationships between men and women—relationships of love, kinship, marriage, rivalry, and those which deal with their differences and likenesses as our culture has defined and established them—reveal a bitterness and anger which animates them and which gives them the usefulness of partisan tracts. However, this manifest hostility negates any semblance of objectivity. Her statements are reactions, animated by indignation at the attitudes of men, and the treatment they consequently have accorded to women.

Vivian Gornick is, as she says, a radical. Her essays exhort women and men alike to redefine women in the most liberating sense. She wants all women to define themselves and to shape their own lives, taking full responsibility for themselves. She wants men to cooperate in this process by accepting women as equals in the human experience. She insists on women’s potential, on their capabilities, and on their urgent need to achieve the status of equality. Women, she reiterates constantly, are being emotionally and intellectually crippled by the restrictions and indignities which are imposed by society as a matter of course.

The biographical essays in this collection are about women novelists such as Virginia Woolf and Agnes Smedley, about political activists and political writers such as Alice Paul and Dorothy Thompson, and about strong personalities such as Rahel Levin Varnhagen. These essays are designed to present role models of strong women, to analyze their lives and to indicate how they achieved the successes they did, how they developed these strengths which motivated them, and what their weaknesses were—especially how their careers and their personalities were negatively influenced by the traditional expectations of the woman’s role in the world and with respect to men. Gornick mentions the abrasiveness and sometimes hostile nature of these women’s personalities. These characteristics, she indicates, were necessary in order for the women to achieve success in a culture which discouraged and deplored such “unfeminine” behavior. If women must behave in socially unacceptable ways to achieve their personal fulfillment, then so be it. She urges women to accept and to champion the right to freedom of expression of all other women, no matter that lesbianism, abrasiveness, and aggressiveness are behaviors sure to arouse condemnation in a society dominated by males, who feel (and probably are) threatened by such manifestations of women’s independence.

An important point made by these essays, and one which probably especially needed to be made during the early years of the 1970’s, is that the movement toward women’s liberation should not become narrowly issue-oriented. The author worries over the appearance of fragmentation, divisiveness, and precious time and energy wasted on bickering about which issues to stress and what definitions must be imposed upon the language. She urges that there is room for all, that the central issue is freedom to develop, freedom to choose, and the acceptance of responsibility along with this independence. She urges political and legal reform, but by no means considers these crucial in the way that personal development and self-knowledge are crucial.

Gornick’s analysis of heroines in literature, especially in the final essay, “Female Narcissism as a Metaphor in Literature,” incisively probes the personalities of women crippled by social restrictions and by their fears of breaking these bonds. Such women, she demonstrates, are pathetic because they remain infantile, unfulfilled, and unrealized.

Now, in the second half of the twentieth century, Gornick and many other women are decrying the state of civilization, which so demeans and retards the female half of humanity. Through her writing, and through the efforts of many dedicated women and their organizations, she sees changes occurring which can transform women’s lives and enhance the quality of life for us all. Gornick speaks with the shrill voice of a radical, with the uneven quality of writing which comes of haste and passion; but she also speaks with conviction, considerable knowledge, and sufficient idealism to lift these essays far above the level of a mere carping attack on the status quo.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access