Lib and Let Lib
THE INK HAD HARDLY DRIED on Kate Millett's paperback contract and Book-of-the-Month Club sale of Sexual Politics, when U.S. publishers began pressing pens into the hands of feminist radicals, hoping for a rich marriage of commerce and cultural revolution. Scores of nonfiction titles have already resulted, with scores more to come. Predictably, most of these creations were hotly and hastily done by Women's righters who are not, alas, women writers. Hardly any can compare to the majestic range and mastery of the few earlier classics on the subject, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (Bantam; $1.25) or Virginia Woolf's graceful, extraordinarily affecting A Room of One's Own (Harbinger; $1.95), both happily still in print.
To cope with the torrent some booksellers have set up special Women's Lib shelves. In Los Angeles a new and fast-growing Feminist Book Club offers members 150 selected titles in a dozen helpful categories. Among them: Basic Feminist Library, Children's Liberation and, yes, Herstory. Otherwise, readers who want to keep up are hard put to make a choice among so many titles and subjects that so often sound the same. The list below of some of the best books brought out in the past few years may help.
So may a little perspective. Many of these writers operate on a number of assumptions that are questionable and sometimes infuriatingly simplistic. Samples: the nuclear family is the root of all evil; the difference between men and women is not biological but the result of male exploitation. But a country is apt to get not only the politicians but the polemics it deserves. In ignoring history, in being statistics-prone, in using hard-sell copy to deplore, among other things, the effects of consumer oversell, in invoking the individual's absolute right to absolute self-expression at all costs, in preaching that a rejiggered environment can cure all hereditary ills, Women's Lib writers are simply doing what seems to come naturally to other Americans these days. Besides, once the hectoring and hyperbole are allowed for, the collective case made in these books against feminine exploitation is compelling.
REBIRTH OF FEMINISM by Judith Hole and Ellen Levine. 488 pages. Quadrangle. $10.
The authors, one on the staff of CBS News, the other a freelance writer, seem to have read everything written about Women's Lib and then readably and objectively distilled it into a history, guide, and reference work about feminist attitudes on every conceivable subject from Adam's rib theology to the recent correction of Sesame Street's "male chauvinism." The book to have if you're having only one.
THE DIALECTIC OF SEX by Shulamith Firestone. 274 pages. Morrow. $6.95.
"Childhood is hell," Shulamith Firestone, 26, writes in passionate italics. Her book is most notable because it links past repression of children with that of women and argues that science and cybernetics have now provided the means to release them both. The answer is a society in which marriage and the family will be abolished, along with all involuntary education. Children, if conceived at all, will be incubated outside the body of the mother. Polarized sex roles will disappear in favor of polymorphous perversity practiced in new social units called "households," loosely linked, non authoritarian collections of people, including small children, who contract to live together for periods of seven to ten years, but are free to do exactly what they want. Perhaps the author should visit the United Nations.
WOMAN'S ESTATE by Juliet Mitchell. 182 pages. Pantheon. $5.95.
The author, a Freud-oriented left-wing British scholar, considers the women's movement internationally and often finds it wanting in serious political strategy and economic understanding. She thinks, for example, that American feminists have underrated the strength of the family and spent too much time tilting at vulgar popularizations of Freud's penis-envy theory. Author Mitchell herself regards the family both as the greatest implement of women's oppression and be last bulwark of capitalism. A difficult, chilling book that makes clear how a socialist revolution can use the feminist movement, and vice versa.
WOMAN'S PLACE by Cynthia F. Epstein. 221 pages. University of California. $7.95.
A clear and dispassionate study of how well-educated women perform, or don't, in serious professions and why. The author, a sociologist, examines in pragmatic and professional terms the attitudes of men, the confusion created by a multiplicity of feminine roles, the illogical shifts in what jobs are considered suitable for women.
THINKING ABOUT WOMEN by Mary Ellmann. 240 pages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $4.95.
Literary Critic Mary Ellmann's book is concerned with mind and language. She shows with wit and logic that sexual analogies and feminine literary stereotypes—e.g., formlessness, passivity, piety, irrationality—are the misleading products of masculine delusion and illogic. A pleasure, whatever the reader's persuasion about Women's Lib.
BORN FEMALE by Caroline Bird with Sara Welles Briller. 288 pages. McKay. $6.95.
One of the earliest of the recent feminist titles (1968). It offers a sophisticated and restrained survey of the fight for women's rights, takes up the social, moral and personal costs of keeping women down, and suggests that post-Pill America is heading for an androgynous condition in which men and women will be free of sexually determined roles. Author Bird has been trained in economy, and she is at her best following a series of Harvard Business School girls job hunting (most of them got menial offers), or getting down to cases as she explodes the myth that women "own" the U.S. A sober antidote for anyone who still thinks that women who demand total "equity" are likely to froth at the mouth.
THE FEMALE EUNUCH by Germaine Greer. 349 pages. McGraw-Hill $6.95.
The Women's Lib writer most free of jargon and repressed rage, Germaine Greer breezily admits that modern women tend to be helpless, querulous, narrow and boring. Then, like other feminists, but with more compassion and persuasive zest, she shows how, particularly in the years just after puberty, the Freudian concept of the female sexual role, social conditioning and the cosmetic conspiracy combine to drain girls' energy and curiosity, leaving them passive, narcissistic and mindless. One hesitates to call an opponent of marriage engaging, but Germaine Greer is certainly that.