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Backlash : WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE.<i> By Christopher Lasch</i> .<i> W.W. Norton: 196 pp., $23</i>

<i> Ellen Willis directs the cultural and criticism program in the journalism department of New York University. She is the author of "No More Nice Girls" (Wesleyan/University Press of New England)</i>

In the view of most of his feminist contemporaries, the late Christopher Lasch was no friend of women. During the 1970s, as feminists battled the first wave of right-wing, pro-family, antiabortion backlash, Lasch added to their troubles by launching an attack from the left. There was nothing radical, he argued, about the program of women’s liberation. Rather, it merely expanded the reach of capitalist individualism, furthering the destruction of community in favor of a predatory marketplace and a paternalistic “therapeutic state” that subjected private life to the manipulation of professional experts.

Lasch’s influential bestseller, “The Culture of Narcissism,” popularized a new brand of left-wing cultural conservatism. What resonated with the public mood, however, was not his critique of capitalism but his polemic against the quest for personal and sexual autonomy, which echoed neoconservative rhetoric. Indeed, “narcissism” rapidly entered the cultural lexicon, alongside “selfishness” and “hedonism,” as an aspersion on women deemed too fond of their freedom.

Lasch shrugged off feminist criticism as a misreading of his work. Yet the publication of “Women and the Common Life” suggests that it may have bothered him more than he let on. According to his daughter, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who edited this collection of essays and provides an introduction, Lasch put it together while writing “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” finished shortly before his death in 1994.

The latter book displays Lasch at his crankiest and most dogmatic, dismissing liberationist cultural politics as nothing but the arrogance of a rootless cosmopolitan over-class. “Women,” though it has its testy moments, presents him more humbly as a historian engaged in “inconclusive struggle,” as he puts it in one essay, to understand how women’s circumstances and aspirations fit into the larger pattern of social life.

While these essays take up a wide range of periods and subjects, from the literature of love in the Middle Ages to the 19th century cult of domesticity to contemporary gender studies, underlying them all is an implicit political claim: that it’s possible to be sympathetic to women’s desire for equality yet affirm the “common life” of the past--even prefer it to the post-feminist present. The essays try to show that women’s social history is not simply a chronicle of abject victimization but that women and their concerns have played an active part in shaping the common life. And they contend that feminist struggles against patriarchal authority, in contributing to the rise of the therapeutic state, have had the ironic consequence of impoverishing women’s lives along with men’s.

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The first proposition is not especially controversial. Few feminist scholars would dispute Lasch’s distaste for “the kind of feminism that sees nothing in history except the eternal oppression of women and swallows up distinctions, all cultural variations, in the one all-encompassing, undifferentiated, monolithic category of ‘patriarchy’. ". It won’t be news to feminist historians that Victorian women played a major role in civic life as social reformers and volunteers or that the ultra-domesticity of the 1950s was a historical aberration. Nor is anyone likely to be scandalized by the argument that ideas about passion between equals and marriage as erotic friendship have been floating around Western culture since ancient Greece.

The real conflict between Lasch and his feminist detractors stems from his adamant denial of any redeeming social value in modern liberalism. It’s not that feminists as a group are cheerleaders for corporate capitalism or the tyranny of experts. On the contrary, many feminists are socialists or otherwise critical of big business as usual. And the women’s health movement fomented a highly successful anti-expert revolt.

Yet few would disagree that the advent of the liberal state represented real progress for women. The capitalist marketplace opened up the possibility of a livelihood independent of fathers and husbands. Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and inalienable rights enabled women to fight for basic perquisites of citizenship and ultimately to make the far more radical demand for control over their sexual and reproductive lives. Modernity provided the crucial framework for women’s continuing struggle to be fully recognized as subjects rather than as adjuncts to men and children--not only in the cultural imagination but in everyday life.

Lasch always rejected, with irritation, the charge that he was nostalgic for traditional patriarchal culture. Yet in extolling the richness of that culture’s common life and lamenting its “degradation” by liberal individualism, he inevitably fails to take patriarchy seriously--not as a monolithic category but as an actual social order, in which women’s subordination was integral to the communal fabric. There’s a strong whiff of privilege in Lasch’s impatience with feminists’ emphasis on self-determination. Critiquing psychologist Carol Gilligan’s work on female moral development, he writes that “she gropes for a morality that transcends the conventional opposition between egoism and altruism. But she does not understand . . . that the only escape . . . lies in the selflessness experienced by those who lose themselves in their work.” A fine sentiment. But to experience selflessness you first have to feel entitled to a self that is yours to lose, not to mention self-directed work. Suggesting that women can achieve such transcendence without having attained a more mundane autonomy is the moral equivalent of “Let ‘em eat cake.”

Lasch’s zeal to portray individualism as the source of all social ills makes for some dubious history. In an essay on postwar suburbia, he argues that the era’s rigid sexual division of labor was the result of Americans’ “growing impatience with external obligations and constraints” and their desire to make the nuclear family a “private refuge” in which homemakers were “free at last to arrange things exactly as they pleased.”

In well-documented fact, women’s retreat to the home was the result of enormous social pressures--for example, the firing of masses of women from their wartime jobs to make room for returning soldiers. But Lasch’s eccentric view of that retreat as a misguided bid for freedom prepares the way for his claim that feminists, in their revolt against ‘50s domesticity, merely ended up pursuing its underlying goal--detachment from the common life--by other means.

Mainstream feminism, Lasch charges, is concerned solely with equality in business and the professions. It has accepted the corporate definition of success, denigrating unpaid work inside and outside the home. It has acquiesced in “the family’s subordination to the workplace” instead of demanding that the workplace accommodate the family. Its demands for publicly supported day care, which “discriminates against parents who want to raise their own children,” and even for abortion rights are merely about removing obstacles to economic competition with men.

This is an indefensible rant. Since the ‘60s, feminism has been centrally concerned with the politics of personal and cultural life. A major current of feminist thinking has criticized careerism and called for a restructuring of work (as I’ve done in my own writing).

Feminists’ emphasis on equal access to jobs signifies not acceptance of corporate values but recognition that economic independence is a prerequisite of social power. Feminists have advocated day care not as a plot to enslave everyone to the marketplace but as a way for men and the larger society to share responsibility for child-rearing. They have also advocated shorter working hours and other reforms designed to allow both parents to raise their children. As for abortion, it was radical women’s liberationists--as indifferent to corporate careers as they were passionate about personal freedom--who led the fight for legalization.

What really bothers Lasch about feminism is its insistence on making the family a political issue. He attacks the movement’s “relentless propaganda against the ‘traditional’ family,” which he likens to advertising urging customers to “discard arrangements that are still serviceable” for new products. But he dances away from his clear implication that feminist efforts to democratize family life are unwarranted and destructive.

Instead, he argues in the book’s final essay that since the patriarchal family has been superseded by the state, the family values debate is irrelevant. Why then its stubborn persistence and emotional intensity? One might deduce that the patriarchal family is not quite as passe as all that, at least in people’s heads. But Lasch instead blames those all-purpose villains, the “therapeutic professionals,” whose only interest is in proclaiming a crisis of the family that requires their intervention.

Lasch also accuses feminists of targeting the family to avoid confronting men’s oppression of women. “Such an investigation,” he explains, “might lead to the conclusion, abhorrent to the sensibility of our enlightened age, that not every conflict has an obvious institutional resolution.” If the charge is a bit baffling--after all, for much of the public “feminist” is synonymous with “man-hater"--the explanation suggests that Lasch had his own avoidance problem: he could not admit that pessimism about the battle of the sexes drove his antipathy to “our enlightened age” as much as the other way around.

“The Culture of Narcissism” contains a poignant description--a radical feminist could not have written it better--of male-female relations after consciousness-raising. The woman craves true equality; the man, to her bitter disappointment, resists. The result is a gulf of mutual fury and estrangement that would once have been bridged with resignation, humor, chivalry, philosophical bromides. For Lasch, feminism shatters the common life by raising hopes that can never be fulfilled. Between the lines of his essays about women, he is mourning the losses of men.


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