Reasonable Creatures

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism takes its title from Mary Wollstonecraft, the first woman to present a book-length argument for female equality. “I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes,” Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), “but reasonable creatures.” Katha Pollitt adds, “Human beings, in other words. No more, no less.” Pollitt takes this as her basic definition of feminism. “For me, to be a feminist is to answer the question ‘Are women human?’ with a yes.” This definition informs each of the nineteen essays in the collection. The essays reflect Pollitt’s view of feminism:

It’s about women consulting their own well-being and being judged as individuals rather than as members of a class with one personality, one social function, one road to happiness. It’s about women having intrinsic value as persons rather than contingent value as a means to an end for others: fetuses, children, “the family,” men.

It is, in short, about justice.

The essays were all previously published in The Nation, The New York Times, or The New Yorker; the year of original publication is given at the end of each essay. Many were written in response to specific events and news items: the “Baby M” case, the alleged rape of a Palm Beach woman by William Kennedy Smith, the publication of a survey reporting that as single women grow older their “chances” of marrying decline precipitously, the publication of The Change (1992), Germaine Greer’s book about menopause. Other essays join the debates over more general ideas about women and social or political issues. In all cases, however, the essays are clear, instructive, well-reasoned arguments that make worthwhile reading for both women and men.

A look at the individual essays shows the range and scope of Pollitt’s stance on current issues regarding women. One of the wittiest in the collection is “The Smurfette Principle,” in which Pollitt examines videos, cartoons, and books designed for children. The vast majority of videos for youngsters feature boys as protagonists and are aimed at the boys’ market. Nearly all network cartoons and puppet shows star males. Despite the increase in books about girls, most still feature boys as the main characters and primary agents of action. Does the sexism in children’s culture influence children? It certainly does, says Pollitt. When Pollitt asked the executive producer of Sesame Street why that show’s puppets were all male, she was told that these things take time. Pollitt wryly notes, “After all, the show has only been on the air for a quarter of a century.” She adds that it would help “if the bunnies took off their hair ribbons, and if half of the monsters were fuzzy, blue—and female.”

The gender-role stereotyping that Pollitt sees in children’s culture affects and perpetuates similar sexist perceptions in the minds of adults. One of the longest essays in the collection, “Marooned on Gilligan’s Island: Are Women Morally Superior to Men?” explicitly tackles the difficult issue of “difference feminism.” What are the differences between males and females in contemporary American society? Who benefits from perpetuating ideas of difference between the genders? What specific differences are commonly attributed to women? What are the dangers—not to mention the untruths—of ascribing certain characteristics to women and not to men?

Pollitt summarizes the key arguments of such writers on this subject as Nancy Chodorow in her 1978 work, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (women are empathic, relationship-oriented, nonhierarchical, and interested in creating consensus, while men are individualistic, competitive, and focused on abstract principles); sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her 1990 work, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (male-female conversation is “cross-cultural communication,” even among children); and pacifist philosopher Sara Ruddick in her 1989 work, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (mothering causes women to have a pacifist and caring agenda). Pollitt focuses especially on educational psychologist Carol Gilligan’s influential book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (1993), which claims that the sexes make moral decisions according to separate criteria—women using an “ethic of care” and men an “ethic of right.” All these writers argue differences between the sexes in sweeping terms. Pollitt points out that often the writers seem to “massage their findings to fit their theories.” She notes that Carol Tavris in The Mismeasure of Women (1992) shows that much of what can be said about women applies also to...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)