Feminism Without Illusions

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)