I like to think that they [these essays] are drawn together by a common concern for women’s entitlement to full human rights: to say what happens to their own bodies, to develop their abilities without being defined and constrained by stereotypes of the “feminine”, to make their own choices and their own mistakes without being punished for them more than a man would be. I’ve taken my title from Mary Wollstonecraft, the first woman to present a full-dress argument for female equality. “I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes,” she wrotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, “but reasonable creatures.”Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism is a collection of essays that Katha Pollitt wrote for her column in The Nation, “Subject to Debate”, between 1986 and 1991. She covers several topics, all of which involve women but which are, it almost goes without saying, of interest for everyone: social attitudes towards rape, gender roles, surrogate mothering, reproductive rights and prejudice against older and unmarried women, among others. Two decades later, these topics are all still being debated.
Human beings, in other words. No more, no less.
Let me tell you how I came to this book: I read somewhere that Pollitt was one of the main opponents of Carol Gilligan’s theory of gender differences, and I suspected that if she opposed Gilligan, she was someone I would really, really like. I was not mistaken. Therefore, it’s not surprising that my favourite essay was “Marooned on Gilligan’s Island.” Gilligan wrote a book called In a Different Voice, which in my opinion is little more than a jargon-laden reworking of Victorian stereotypes of the Ruskinian type about female docility, purity and nurturance. On a side note, I was exposed to Gilligan during my first year as a psychology major, and I took her to be much more representative than she actually is. Because of that, I didn’t quite know what to make of feminism for a while. The emphasis on gender differences went against all my gut feelings. Of course, I have no one to blame for my ignorance but myself, but I thought I’d let you know where I’m coming from.
Anyway, what Katha Pollitt says (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that there are more differences between individual men and women than there are between women and men as a whole. Sometimes I almost think this is too obvious to need stating, but then the countless adds, magazine and newspaper articles, and everyday conversations I’m exposed to that still seem to be based on a Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus philosophy remind me that no, it's not. Pollitt puts it perfectly here:
But the biggest problem with all these accounts of gender difference is that they credit the differences they find to universal features of male and female development rather than to the economic and social positions men and women hold, or to the actual power differences between individual men and women. In The Mismeasure of Woman, her trenchant and witty attack on contemporary theories of gender difference, Carol Travis points out that much of what can be said about women applies as well to poor people, who also tend to focus more on family and relationships and less on work and self-advancement; to behave deferentially with those more socially powerful; and to appear to others more emotional and “intuitive” than rational and logical in their thinking.I love her. My other favourite essay was “Not Just Bad Sex”, in which she argues against a book that claims that because of feminim, women are reinterpreting what is nothing but “bad sex” they regret having the morning after as rape. Okay, deep breath. Just writing these words made my blood boil. You know, as much as any attempt to dismiss rape deeply repulses me, I think that what got to me the most was the I’ve-discovered-gunpowder tone of the whole thing. It’s as if the author of the book believes that society automatically sides with rape victims; that the veracity of their experience is never, ever questioned; that in a rape trial the victim isn’t as judged as the aggressor. Fortunately, Katha Pollitt says everything that needs to be said. I'd post my favourite bits, but the essay is available online, so you can read it yourselves.
A lot of the essays in Reasonable Creatures, if not all of them, deal with political issues, so your own political alignment will no doubt affect your enjoyment of this book. To me, Pollitt sounds passionate but never forceful, but as I identify very closely with her ideologically, it’s hard for me to say how someone who doesn’t would react. In any case, for me Reasonable Creatures was relevant and sensible, and I found myself nodding along through all the essays.
What we should be asking is not how the most sensational crimes against women are different from run-of-the-mill threats, rapes, bashings and murders but how they are the same. We need to stop thinking of male violence as some kind of freak of nature, like a tornado. Because the thing about tornados is, you can’t do anything about them. The onus is all on potential victims to accommodate themselves or stay out of the way (What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Why didn’t she flee/scream/fight back/stay calm?)‘Strident’ and proud: Jessica Valenti interviews Katha Pollitt
The pernicious tendencies of different feminism are perfectly illustrated by the Sears sex discrimination case, in which Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor of women’s history at Barnard College, testified for Sears that female employees held lower-paying salaried jobs while men worked selling big-ticket items on commission because women preferred low-risk, noncompetitive positions that did not interfere with family responsibilities. Sears won its case.
Although it is couched in the language of praise, difference feminism is demeaning to women. It asks that women be admitted into public life and public discourse not because they have a right to be there but because they will improve them. Even if this were true, and not the wishful thinking I believe it to be, why should the task of moral and social transformation be laid on women’s doorstep and not on everyone’s—or, for that matter, on men’s, by the you-broke-it-you-fix-it principle? Peace, the environment, a more humane workplace, economic justice, social support for children—these are issues that affect us all and are everyone’s responsibility. By promising to assume that responsibility, difference feminists lay the groundwork for excluding women again, as soon as it becomes clear that the promise cannot be kept.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)
The very awesome Kailana has been inviting friends and fellow bloggers to write guest posts for her Music Mundays posts, and this week she invited me. If you're curious about what my five favourite music videos are (well, five of my favourites, anyway), head over to her blog and say hi.