by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who wrote the brilliant and original Feminism Without Illusions, has come out with a more folksy critique of the movement. As its title suggests, the book is an attempt to explain why so many women who want basic equality with men hesitate to call themselves feminists. She tells the story, or rather many stories, of how American women in great numbers have become alienated from a movement that is increasingly identified as anti-family and anti-male. Following in the controversial tradition of Betty Friedan's The Second Stage, Fox-Genovese argues for a new "family feminism" that takes the economic and psychological concerns of families and motherhood into account, a feminism that looks at children as something more than a burden to a woman's freedom.
Fox-Genovese's technique of stitching together anecdotes ("A 56-year-old grandmother from Pittsburgh who is now running a college post office by day and bed-and-breakfast by night, claims . . .") has the thin, strained quality of certain women's magazine articles, but her message still comes across: One's experience of being female depends on one's social class and background. She dramatizes a simple but often overlooked point: that the concerns of the professional career women who figure most prominently in mainstream feminist theory are not the same as the concerns of factory workers or inner-city mothers.
With her sensitive and subtle intelligence, Fox-Genovese manages to explore this difficult issue without the knee-jerk simplicity of many "gender, race and class" academics. She takes certain sacred feminist beliefs, such as "feminists must be pro-choice," and looks at how they translate into lives of women from different social backgrounds. Though Fox-Genovese often hesitates to draw conclusions, we end up with an earnest and heartfelt attempt to make sense of both the bridges and gaps between women of different social classes.
In her zest to be un-elitist, this well-intentioned history professor sometimes veers toward a kind of sentimentality about the transcendent sisterly bonds between women. "When I visit Bensonhurst, the working-class Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn where my husband grew up, I always find it easier to talk to the women than the men . . . because we women recognize that we have much in common that is special to us." The nature of this "specialness" is never really explored. But it's hard to hold Fox-Genovese's occasional stiffness against her when she offers this charming and honest characterization of herself in the preface to the book: "I remain very much a member of a professional elite that is more likely to write about people than converse with them."
At times, one feels the self-conscious effort of a smart academic to write for a broader public: The book sometimes makes us wish for a little more of the analytic rigor and depth of Feminism Without Illusions, a little more Plato and less Geraldo. Nonetheless, Fox-Genovese has brought balanced, careful academic intelligence to a public debate that has been too often characterized by cheap polemics. She manages to write about delicate, controversial matters in the soft, measured tones of the classroom without giving in to shrillness or sensationalism. Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life offers a fresh, complicated look at the threats to the continued vitality of the feminist movement with particularly insightful chapters on economics, abortion and motherhood.
One only wishes that the author had developed the larger question raised by her catchy title: Can any political movement really be the story of anyone's life? Feminism, more than most political movements in this century, has held out the alluring promise: This is your life. Its jargon and philosophy entered the most intimate realms of daily life: sex, families and who is supposed to wash the dishes. It offered not just social changes but an entire psychology of oppression to go with them. But somehow the political interpretations still left many of us feeling the dissatisfaction Fox-Genovese writes about, the sneaking suspicion that all of our rhetoric is irrelevant. It seems to me there is always a huge distance between our politics and ourselves, between the passionate slogans on signs, shouted at marches and debated in classrooms, and what goes on in the living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms of real life.
This review, written by Katie Roiphe, originally appeared in The Washington Post (c) 1995, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted with permission.