Saving Feminism from the Feminists: A Review of Camille Paglia’s Free Women Free Men
Summarising any compilation is difficult, and this is especially true with one as varied and wide-ranging as this. Nevertheless, here are seven areas in which Free Women Free Men is worth thinking about and wrestling with.
1. It presents an alternative genealogy of twentieth-century feminism. The feminist story I know has three simple phases—first wave (1790-1930: political and electoral equality), second wave (1960s-1980s: reproductive rights and workplace equality), and third wave (1990s-present: diversity, individualism and intersectionality)—with the second phase regarded as all-important. Paglia challenges this narrative in two respects. First, she shows that it dramatically overstates the importance of second wave feminism, arguing that the advance of women’s rights in the period were far more driven by World War II, developments in technology (washing machines, tumble dryers, the contraceptive pill) and the emergence of pop culture (Hollywood, Beatlemania, Swinging Sixties London) than they were by bra-burning protests or women’s groups. Second, she traces the lineage of her “dissident feminism,” not from Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Kate Millett and Andrea Dworkin, but from Katharine Hepburn and Simone de Beauvoir, via sixties icons like Barbara Streisand, Diana Rigg and Raquel Welch, to contemporary “pro-sex” feminists like Madonna and Paglia herself. There is plenty of score-settling here—at one point, she announces very simply “I want to save feminism from the feminists”—but the nuances and distinctions are helpful nonetheless.
2. In doing so, it provides a powerful critique from within of contemporary feminism, particularly its anti-male, anti-sex expressions which Paglia has opposed for her entire career. Historically, she argues, feminism has talked as if its guiding philosophy is somehow self-evident, and failed to recognise both its historical contingency and its debt to three philosophical and cultural developments in particular: the Western tradition of civil liberties, capitalism and the industrial revolution, and religion. (It has also, she argues, deficient in its understanding of aesthetics, biology and psychology, but that’s another story.) The bogeyman in the background for contemporary feminism is the bourgeois boredom of 1950s domesticity—Mad Men, anyone?—but the particularity of this cultural moment has been neglected, and its constraints universalised to all generations everywhere:
While men were at the front, women had to take over their factory jobs: this was the heyday of Rosie the Riveter, flexing her biceps. But when the veterans returned, women were expected to step aside. That pressure was unjust, but after World War Two, there was a deep longing shared by both men and women for the normalcy of family life. Domestic issues came to the fore, and gender roles repolarized. With so many weddings, there was an avalanche of births—the baby-boomers who are now sliding downhill towards retirement. In the late 1940s and ‘50s, movies, television, and advertisements promoted motherhood and homemaking as women’s highest goals. It was this homogeneity that second-wave feminism correctly and admirably rebelled against. But too many second-wave feminists extrapolated their discontent to condemn all men everywhere and throughout history. In other words, the ideology of second-wave feminism was or should have been time- and place-specific. Post-war domesticity was a relatively local phenomenon. The problem was not just sexism; it was the postindustrial social evolution from the working-class extended family to the middle-class nuclear family, which left women painfully isolated in their comfortable homes.
There are all sorts of comments we could make here about the parallels with debates within the church, but these will have to wait for the THINK conference.
3. Paglia distinguishes sharply between “equity feminism,” that is the equality of the sexes before the law and in society, and “special protections for women,” which she regards as inherently infantilising. (This is not quite the same as the distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome”, but it has a number of obvious similarities to it.) In a manner reminiscent of Jordan Peterson, whose recent book she blurbed, she is loath to assume that male-dominated environments are such because men are oppressive, and suggests that they may be such because men compete, whereas women expect special treatment. The title of one chapter, “Coddling Won’t Elect Women,” will give you an idea.
4. She also gives such a trenchant critique of Women’s Studies that she makes Peterson look like an apologist for it. “Women’s studies is a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink ... Their politics are a trendy tissue of sentimental fantasy and unsupported verbal categories. Guilt over their own privilege has frozen their political discourse into a simplistic world melodrama of privilege versus deprivation.” There is only one modern classic to have emerged from half a century of feminist writing, and it is now over sixty years old (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex). “Women’s studies is institutionalized sexism ... “gender” is now a biased, prudish code word for social constructionism.” The women who work there are simply not like ordinary women, and do not represent them, either nationally or globally: “academic feminists think their nerdy bookworm husbands are the ideal model of human manhood.”
Attempts to reconfigure the canon of Western literature have only succeeded in rendering it mediocre: “The claim has constantly been made that history was written by heterosexual white men and that, given the systematic suppression of women, there are unacknowledged female geniuses waiting to be rediscovered and restored to the canon. This premise of contemporary feminism has been a sentimental illusion from the start.” Gender Studies departments consist of a self-serving cartel that only exist because universities wanted to increase the number of female faculty members. “Authentic leftism doesn’t exist in our major universities”; bourgeois armchair academics are everywhere, and we have “the nursery school campus.” Judith Butler is “derivative and unlearned.” Foucault and Lacan are shockingly overrated, largely due to ignorance of history: “It’s sort of like ducks when they’re born—if they see a vacuum cleaner, they think it’s their mother. That’s what happened. Foucault is the vacuum cleaner that everyone followed.” Or, even less tactfully:
Women’s studies is a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, whiners, French faddicts, apparatchiks, doughface party-liners, pie-in-the-sky utopianists, and bullying, sanctimonious sermonizers. Reasonable, moderate feminists hang back and, like good Germans, keep silent in the face of fascism ... Great women scholars like Jane Harrison and Gisela Richter were produced by the intellectual discipline of the masculine classical tradition, not by the wishy-washy sentimentalism of clingy, all-forgiving sisterhood, from which no first-rate book has yet emerged.
5. As if she wasn’t in enough trouble already, Paglia also defends, even celebrates, the existence of strong men. Playing fields can be flattened by a levelling-up (women competing openly and holding their own against men), or by a levelling-down (men holding back in open competition, and saying, in one memorable phrase, “Let the women make their own sandbox and play in it”); no prizes for guessing which option she prefers. Western civilization, she argues, was built by men, and continues to be sustained by men (and their physical strength in particular). Yet increasingly it is denigrating the strength of men at the same time, in a spectacular display of biting the hand that feeds it, not least because Western elites privilege bourgeois values and culture—office jobs, managerial skills, and the like—in which women can do anything men can do. The world has not always been like this, however, and nor will it be: “After the next inevitable apocalypse, men will be desperately needed again!” Nor, in fact, is it as free from the physical labour of men as the desk-bound classes consider it to be even now:
It is overwhelmingly men who do the dirty, dangerous work of building roads, pouring concrete, laying bricks, tarring roofs, hanging electric wires, excavating natural gas and sewage lines, cutting and clearing trees, and bulldozing the landscapes for housing developments ... The modern economy, with its vast production and distribution network, is a male epic, in which women have found a productive role—but women were not its author. Surely, modern women are strong enough now to give credit where credit is due!
This reality, she argues, can either be denied or celebrated. But celebrating it is better not just for men, but for women as well, for “when an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, then women will be perpetually stuck with boys, who have no incentive to mature or to honor their commitments.”
6. Paglia’s vision of, and emphasis on, sexual difference is strikingly original, and she often expresses it in far more binary terms than I would. The cosmos is made up of male and female, the sky and the earth, the rain which fertilizes life from beyond and the land which nurtures life from within. The former’s procreative symbol is focused externally, and is visible; the latter’s is focused internally, and is hidden. The former is Apollonian: a male world of order, structured power, and hard lines. The latter is Dionysian: a female world of chaos, chthonian power, and curves. The male is linear and climactic, reaching forward into the future; the female is cyclical, “a sequence of circular returns, beginning and ending at the same point.” In a remarkable pair of chapters on the history of art, Paglia contrasts the Venus of Willendorf, all bulging curves and formless body, with the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, all sleek lines and elegant head. “From Venus of Willendorf to Nefertiti: from body to face, touch to sight, love to judgment, nature to society.” The two women represent, in their extreme difference, the distance between the watery, bulbous warmth of the prehistoric female, and the icy, mathematical definition of the classical male.
Western civilization, she explains, with its Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots, is a sky-cult rather than an earth-cult, Apollonian rather than Dionysian. It represents the triumph of male over female, “head-magic” over “belly-magic,” sun over moon, transcending nature over capitulating to it, lines over circles. This might sound terribly misogynistic—but, she argues, women have benefited from it enormously:
We must ask whether the equivalence of male and female in Far Eastern symbolism was as culturally efficacious as the hierarchization of male over female has been in the West. Which system has ultimately benefited women more? Western science and industry have freed women from drudgery and danger. Machines do housework. The pill neutralizes fertility. Giving birth is no longer fatal. And the Apollonian line of Western rationality has produced the modern aggressive woman who can think like a man and write obnoxious books.
7. Finally, there is eschatology. Paglia’s view of history, in which every empire believes it will endure forever yet ultimately falls under its own weight, is actually far more Christian, in its appraisal of our current cultural moment, than mine often is. At a political level, I have never got anywhere near believing Fukuyama’s “end of history” rhetoric, but at a cultural level, I find it hard not to think of secular, liberal, permissive, democratic post-Christendom as a permanent fixture from now until Jesus returns. Which makes Paglia’s much more realistic account a welcome wake-up call:
This sweeping appeal to history somehow overlooks history’s far darker lessons about the cyclic rise and fall of civilizations, which as they become more complex and interconnected also become much more vulnerable to collapse. The earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal ... Extravaganzas of gender experimentation sometimes precede cultural collapse, as they certainly did in Weimar Germany. Like late Rome, America too is an empire distracted by games and leisure pursuits. Now as then, there are forces aligning outside the borders, scattered fanatical hordes where the cult of heroic masculinity still has tremendous force.
An Augustinian shadow can be detected in several of her essays, not only in the explicit connections she makes with the fall of Rome, but also in her anthropology (“the horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism … But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.”) Progressivism risks grave naivety on both counts, regarding itself as both inevitable and everlasting, the Ozymandias of the modern world.
There is an awful lot to disagree with in Free Women Free Men; that much, presumably, goes without saying. Alongside the obvious disagreements I have with her on subjects like pornography, prostitution, abortion, legitimate sexual expression, sexual identity and the like, there is something deeper that is amiss, a root from which all of these various branches draw their life. It is, as I read her, the notion that the numerous pairs she presents in the book—sky/earth, rain/land, male/female, Apollos/Dionysus, height/depth, lines/curves, culture/nature, penis/vagina, and so on—are shaped by, and destined to continue forever in, opposition, competition, conflict, even violence. Within a non-theistic outlook, how could they be anything else? In the Christian vision of reality, however, as David Bentley Hart shows in his (very different) The Beauty of the Infinite, polarities like these are ultimately reconciled within the life of the Triune God, in which we have both identity and alterity, ordered heights and chthonian depths, one and three, Word and flesh, the beautiful and the sublime. So pairs like these, from male and female on down, are not inescapably competitive but beautifully complementary, and draw their meaning from the complementarity of, and final union between, heaven and earth, God and Israel, Christ and the Church. A profound mystery, that.