Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Woman’s Estate is a compilation of several essays written by Juliet Mitchell in the late 1960’s and in 1970, combined with new material that both connects the older essays and elaborates upon the implications of Mitchell’s arguments. Mitchell describes the women’s liberation movement (the term she uses to designate the most progressive wing of the women’s movement) as the vanguard of radical political activism in the late 1960’s. She likewise sees it as the key element in a new revolutionary political movement. The text itself is divided into two related sections. Part 1, entitled “The Women’s Liberation Movement,” gives a general description of the background and politics of the movement itself. Part 2 provides a theoretical discussion of a movement grounded in a combination of materialist and feminist theory.

Because the text is obviously a product of the intellectual and social climate of the 1960’s, Mitchell appropriately begins part 1 with a chapter on the background of the 1960’s. She argues that the women’s liberation movement can only be understood in relation to the other major political movements of the period, those of blacks, students, and youth. Of these three movements, Mitchell finds the shift from the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s to black radicalism in the late 1960’s to be that most closely analogous to the struggle of women. Women’s liberation, she theorizes, owes less to historical...

(The entire section is 586 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Along with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), Mitchell’s text represents one of the culminating products of the women’s movement of the 1960’s. Mitchell’s theories are thoroughly grounded in the European and British traditions of radicalism and socialism. Thus her argument concentrates on class and social struggle instead of the American concentration on individual rights and spontaneous protest. She also presents a skeptical account on the important questions of a feminine essence, or an essential feminism.

Millett and Greer present a socialist and an anarchist view of women’s oppression, respectively. Mitchell criticizes both for what she sees as an overgeneralizing tendency particular to American writing and ideology. While Millett presents a convincing and necessary critique of patriarchy and its prevalence in contemporary society, Mitchell criticizes her work for its antihistorical and undialectical approach. Mitchell prefers to demonstrate how patriarchy works in the individual lives of women instead of proving that it does indeed have an affect. Greer’s theories are dismissed by Mitchell as being the female equivalent of the hippie and yippie movements, middle-class misbehavior that is easily reassimilated into a consumer culture increasingly based on the consumption of images (including those of entertainingly outlandish behavior).

Mitchell is even more equivocal on the issue of the essential nature of women’s oppression. She asserts that all women are oppressed and that women’s oppression is the oldest fact in human history, but she draws short of claiming a unique women’s psyche or women’s language, as many continental or American feminists have done. She eschews the term “feminist” in favor of the term “woman” in order to highlight the biological basis of women’s oppression. By insisting on and accounting for both the biological and the historical nature of women’s oppression, Mitchell adds a scholarly and political facet to women’s studies that was previously absent or buried by abstraction.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Darshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The early influential work on women based on the theory of historical materialism. An important source for Mitchell’s work.

Engels, Friederich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. 1884. Reprint. Moscow: Progress, 1977. The paradigmatic work by one of the founders of socialist theory. Based on the anthropological findings of American writer Henry Lewis Morgan, Engels argues that the family is the basis of all social structures.

Hayden, Dolores. The Grand Domestic Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. A groundbreaking work in materialist feminism and historicism. Hayden presents convincing historical evidence indicating that the women’s movement has been much less discontinuous than Mitchell asserts. Her emphasis on architectural design provides fascinating proof of the materialist interest of nineteenth century feminists.

Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. Words and Women: New Language in New Times. New York: Anchor Books, 1976. A work that argues for a linguistic, instead of a materialist, approach to women’s issues. The authors share Mitchell’s interest in the linguistic traces of women’s oppression.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. A influential work on women’s issues contemporaneous with Woman’s Estate. Millet shares Mitchell’s materialist paradigm but pays much less attention to the question of dialectical and historical development.