Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Eva Figes’s 1970 publication Patriarchal Attitudes was one of a group of three books that came out that year explicating the history and root causes of women’s oppression by men. It was a banner year for women; as Figes’s book hit the stores, along with Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch the next year, the women’s liberation movement was born into a world already at a fever-pitch of political excitement over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Women who had learned how to organize working for other issues were ready to challenge the basic tenets that ruled their own lives and enforced their oppression.

Figes offered the analysis women needed in their quest for equality. Taking up the age-old question “What makes a woman a woman?” she reviewed centuries of teaching, economics, and social science. Figes concludes that the way in which people are nurtured, not their innate nature, determines their values and actions. People become what culture teaches them to be, and the mainstream cultural works that Figes had just reviewed were extraordinarily hostile to women.

Figes uses the words of some of Western civilization’s most renowned speakers to show the widespread fear of women that permeates Western society. She quotes Moses, Giovanni Boccaccio, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sigmund Freud, and others, marching through the canon of written works that contain Western...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Eva Figes is only one in a long line of women philosophers who have attempted to delineate the causes and history of female oppression. Mary Wollestonecraft first posited the notion that women’s upbringing rather than their inherent nature was responsible for their seeming inferiority. Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and countless other theorists have made the same arguments that Figes worked out. Even in the face of such history, Figes believed that she worked in isolation. Perhaps that feeling of isolation is the key to the significance of her work, for while the ideas that she outlines are not new, they are ideas that are continually being forgotten. Figes’s work marks the beginning of a great period of female scholarship that took as its primary task the rediscovery of women’s cultural heritage. Patriarchal Attitudes demonstrates the great need for women to seek their image and identity in the words and works of their sisters. It teaches that male perceptions exclude much that women find valuable in the world.

Figes’s subsequent works are largely fictional and seek to provide precisely that feminist viewpoint that she taught her readers to value. Highly experimental both stylistically and philosophically, they examine issues of identity and history through the eyes and interests of women.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Figes read this classic volume of feminist theory, and although in various articles she claims it offered too little analysis of women as sexual beings, many arguments made by Beauvoir appear in Figes’s work.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. Friedan attacks cultural views of women that keep them in the home. In doing so, she takes on Freud and a host of anthropologists, including Margaret Mead.

Tomalin, Claire. “What Does a Woman Want?” New Statesman 26 (June, 1970): 917-918. Tomalin agrees with much of Figes’s analysis but argues that the importance of family was not given enough weight in her work.

Vidal, Gore. “In Another Country.” New York Review of Books 22 (July, 1971): 8-10. Vidal points out the similarities between Patriarchal Attitudes, Sexual Politics, and The Female Eunuch. He elevates Figes’s work above the others, especially endorsing her argument that social conditioning produces human behavior. This is true not only for women, Vidal notes, but also for men.

Woolf, Virginia. The Three Guineas. London: Harcourt, Brace, 1938. Woolf was the first to suggest the connection between sexual oppression and political oppression, a connection that Figes stresses even more strongly in regard to Nazi Germany.