Feminism Without Illusions

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an early modern historian and head of Women’s Studies at Emory University, has assembled a book critiquing individualism from her socialist-feminist perspective; it focuses on current debates in feminism and the academic community. Fox-Genovese is at her best when she is summarizing and critiquing the various positions in the debates, giving context and historical background surrounding them; she is weakest when she attempts to propose her own program.

Fox-Genovese correctly analyzes the historical origins of feminism, tracing it to the development of individualism in Western thought in the eighteenth century. But she goes on to show that, at base, feminism is caught between individualist rhetoric and social/communal needs. Individualism, argues Fox-Genovese, “actually perverts the idea of the socially obligated and personally responsible freedom” that is “the only freedom worthy of the name.” Contemporary thought has perpetuated the illusion that individualism and collective life can coexist, while its rhetoric tells us that there can be no curbs on the individual will. Fox-Genovese attempts to theorize ways to protect the rights of the individual “as social, not private, rights,” and (in good Marxist fashion) she wishes to ground the claims of society as prior to the rights of the individual. But there are precious few specific “ways” given in the book.

In the spectrum of feminist theorists and women’s studies scholars, Fox-Genovese appears to be on the conservative side. As a social historian, however, she is more liberal than many historians. She refuses the dichotomies that have rent feminism—gay/straight, radical/socialist, equalitarian/womanist—but in the end continues to advocate something like the socialist-feminist position she has always held. Given that position, it is strange that she did not bring to bear information from the social democracies of Western Europe to support her stance. Her analysis and arguments against individualism would have gained strength if she had...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Feminism Without Illusions

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an early modern historian and head of the women’s studies department at Emory University, has put together a book critiquing individualism from her socialist- feminist perspective, focusing on current debates in feminism and the academic community. Fox-Genovese is at her best when she is summarizing and critiquing the various positions in the debates, giving the context and historical background surrounding them; she is weakest when she attempts to propose her own program.

Fox-Genovese correctly analyzes the historical origins of feminism, tracing it to the development of individualism in Western thought in the eighteenth century. She goes on to show that, at base, feminism is caught between individualist rhetoric and social-communal needs. Individualism, argues Fox-Genovese, “actually perverts the idea of the socially obligated and personally responsible freedom” that is “the only freedom worthy of the name.” Contemporary thought has perpetuated the illusion that individualism and collective life can coexist, while its rhetoric indicates that there can be no curbs on the individual will. Fox-Genovese attempts to theorize ways to protect the rights of the individual “as social, not private, rights,” and (in good Marxist fashion) she wishes to ground the claims of society as prior to the rights of the individual. There are precious few specific “ways” given in the book, however.

In the first chapter, “Beyond Sisterhood,” Fox-Genovese introduces her subject, focusing on the “equality versus difference” debate among women. This debate has raged for several years in the feminist community, at its most vociferous pitting minority and working-class women against mainstream, middle-class heterosexual white women. In essence, the conflict is about whether all women have certain shared concerns solely on the basis of their biological sex, or whether the different needs felt by different groups of women override these shared concerns. It is also a debate over assumptions made by the powerful larger group of women about the needs and desires of less-powerful (but in some places numerically larger) groups.

In the following three chapters, Fox-Genovese looks at contemporary U.S. society (without saying so, she, like most Americans, generalizes from the American experience) and the issues that are most divisive among women: community versus politics (by which she means individualist, instrumentalist politics); equality versus difference (should women and men be treated the same because they are all human beings, or should women be valorized for talents and strengths that differentiate them from men?); abortion; pay equity; and pornography.

The chapter on community traces the history of the paired concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (community and society), enunciated in the late nineteenth century by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Ironically, notes Fox-Genovese, the qualities he ascribed to community are those that are traditionally associated with women and the private sphere—tradition, family, emotionality, particularism, organic relations. The qualities he ascribed to society are those often associated with men and the public sphere—achievement, contract, rationality, universalism, individualism. Although feminist theory has tended, from Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the eighteenth century to the present, to follow individualism and demand that women be treated as individual human beings, much contemporary feminism emphasizes female community and the qualities of the domestic sphere while at the same time calling for the rights of the individual. This logical bind traps feminists, according to Fox-Genovese. A few feminist theorists, notably Jean Bethke Elshtain, are agreeing with the critique of individualism made by conservative thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, and Thomas Fleming. Fleming, however, while endorsing community, ends by putting a patriarchal family at the center of that community, Fox-Genovese asserts. The most creative thinkers on this problem—Robin West, Jennifer Nedelsky, and others—are approaching it from the perspective of legal theory and feminist jurisprudence. Nedelsky proposes a new model of autonomy “that will acknowledge the impossibility of separating it from the relations that make it possible and will thus build a social component into the meaning of autonomy itself.” It should be noted that Fox- Genovese, in her discussion of the problems of contemporary community, does not mention either Robert Bellah’s influential Habits of the Heart (1984) or the attendant literature surrounding that much-discussed work.

In considering the abortion issue, Fox-Genovese comes closest to advocating a program when she proposes letting go of atomistic individualism (“a woman’s right to her own body”) in the name of social justice for all (a society making a commitment to care for its children). She perceptively notes that both sides in the abortion debate conflate pregnancy with child rearing. Likewise, she brilliantly analyzes the comparable worth and pay equity debates by noting that comparable worth advocates assume a separate spheres model—that there are some jobs for women and different jobs for men. Setting pay equity into law does not go very far toward changing the view of a “natural” division of labor by sex.

The debate over the canon of prescribed knowledge in the U.S. educational system centers on the problem of adding materials form groups that have traditionally been absent from the educational system. It does not argue the question of whether there...

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Form and Content

Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism is a work of history and social criticism, and as such it covers a wide range of opinion and a number of topics. There are nine chapters: The first four explore feminism and political life, and the next five deal with feminism and the intellectual life, particularly the issue of an academic canon. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s thesis is that a paradoxical relationship exists between feminism and individualism. The relationship is complex: One of the origins of individualism was the market revolution of the eighteenth century, and modern feminism developed during that same period. Feminism also claims rights and citizenship for an entire group—women. The author...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Context

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a major historian whose writings have much importance. This is particularly true abut Feminism Without Illusions. Basing her arguments on wide reading and deep questions, Fox-Genovese can question certain aspects of the historical development of feminism because she is an insider. Her academic achievements cannot be challenged.

Her book also is an excellent summary of feminist scholarship which suggests future issues and concerns in the field. The field of women’s history has grown and changed since the 1960’s, and this book is especially vital in discussing those changes. The text is a close discussion of varied writers in the field. The result is a handy index to many of the...

(The entire section is 125 words.)

Bibliography

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, April 1, 1991, p. 1533.

Choice. XXIX, September, 1991, p. 150.

Commentary. XCII, September, 1991, p. 62.

Degler, Carl N. At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Degler argues that women’s history has an articulate, dedicated group (women) supporting the further development of women’s history but that no sizable academic or political element speaks for the family. Because of this, its history does not have the appeal of...

(The entire section is 500 words.)