Radically speaking: Feminism reclaimed

Radically speaking: Feminism reclaimed

Pergamon Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 183-187, 1997 Copyright © 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights ...

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Pergamon

Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 183-187, 1997 Copyright © 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0277-5395/97 $17,00 + .00

B O O K REVIEWS

RADICALLY SPEAKING: FEMINISM RECLAIMED, edited by

Diane Bell and Renate Klein, 624 pages. Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia, 1996. Soft cover, AUS$34.95/Zed Books, London, UK, 1996 £14.95.

Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed is the book we've all been waiting for. It is an incredibly powerful collection of articles (66 articles by about 70 contributors) by radical feminists about radical feminism. Over the years, radical feminism has been misrepresented and maligned by all and sundry. Named variously: man-haters, male bashers, victim feminists, cultural feminists, essentialists, relics, radical feminists as a group seemed to be silenced. Of course, there were individual radical voices making themselves heard, but what feminism needed was a substantial volume of radical voices sounding out together, so that their collective noise could not be ignored. Here, at last, we have just that. A book in which radical feminists en masse firmly reject their naming by others and deliberately and courageously name themselves. It has been a long time coming but, I tell you, it's well worth the wait. Cleverly crafted by Diane Bell and Renate Klein, all 66 articles fit together in a structure that works. From the very first page, it is clear that the editors intend to present us with an anthology which refuses to be "nice," which rejects the expectation that women be careful not to upset their oppressors, and which boldly points to a new and more radical future for feminism. They begin, triumphantly, with an extract from Robin Morgan's poem (1972) Monster, which reads in part: May we go mad together, my sisters . . . May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped. May I learn how to survive until my part is finished. May I realize that I am a monster. I am a monster. I am a monster. And I am proud. Then follows the foreword which is actually an "Introduction in Five Acts." It begins with an entertaining dialogue between the two editors in which they discuss the impetus for the book, and then move on to explain its conception, its growth through an extended pregnancy, its labour and, eventually, its long-awaited birth. The body of the book is made up of five sections. The first consists of articles on a range of topics all dealing with the politics of women's everyday lives, brought together under the general heading "Speaking Radically." The second: "Radical Feminists Under Attack," exposes the many ways radical feminism has been maligned for the purpose of "taking the heat off patriarchy." Section 3 turns the tables on some of the attackers with a collection of articles headed:

"Radical Feminists Interrogate Post-Modernism." The next section is called simply, but defiantly: "Refusing to be Silenced "and, finally, Section 5: "Feminism Reclaimed," does what the heading promises it will do: it reclaims feminism as a radical activity in the world. One very pleasing aspect of the book is its inclusiveness in terms of age, race, sexuality and other differences. Regarding age, the editors comment in their introduction: The brave, prophetic voices of the late 60s and early 70s are still speaking. We need to hear them, more than ever joined by new ones (p. xix). The first thing I did when I opened the book was turn to the articles by those who had had such an influence on me in my formative feminist years - - Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, Berit Ås, Louise Armstrong, Andrea Dworkin. It is deeply satisfying to see that they continue to be true to their original radical intent. Young women are included, too. One of the articles is by seven young feminists who take on the task of reviewing the reviewers of Catharine MacKinnon's Only Words. The depth of their analysis, combined with a strong and deliberate writing style, makes this a powerful article, and one which I hope will be studied carefully by younger and older women alike. Regarding race and other differences, the editors make the point that "radical feminism is global . . . that it is women of all classes, creeds, colours, and dispositions that are the basis of the movement," and that it was their intention to put together a book that is "international, inclusive, and grounded in the actual experiences of real live women" (p. xix). To this end, there are articles from different countries and different cultures, from lesbian and heterosexual women, from working-class and middle-class women, from women with different religious affiliations and a variety of life experiences. Contrary to the belief held in many academic institutions that post-modernism is the ultimate in academic endeavour and radical feminism is light-weight and nonacademic, what strikes me about all of the articles in this volume is the depth and breadth of their social and political analysis. Whether an author is telling her own personal stoi'y or discussing her latest academic research, each article is an example of the serious academic intent of radical feminism. Radical feminism is about theory and practice or, as Catharine MacKinnon correctly puts it, it is about practice and theory. Practice comes first, theory follows. Judging post-modernism as "an utterly removed elite activity," MacKinnon describes the relationship between theory and practice in post-modernism as "discourse unto death. Theory begets no practice, only more text" (p. 45). In contrast, radical feminism focuses primarily on practice. "We know things with our lives, and live that knowl-

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Book REVIEWS

edge, beyond anything any theory has yet theorized." According to MacKinnon, the theoretical question ought to be: "what is the theory of women's practice?" (p. 46). The book concludes with what the editors call a "Po-mo Quiz" which is clever, funny, silly, and very entertaining. Any post-modernist with a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself, will enjoy it, too. Above all, this volume gives a sense of a new and more daring future for feminism. The post-modernist notion of feminism as an academic exercise and the liberal humanist notion of feminism as the pursuit of individual power are firmly rejected. The future is radical, and radical feminism is about pushing at the boundaries, refusing to be silenced, addressing the real issues of women's lives and changing structures so as to create a more just and equitable society. There is the promise of a "companion volume" (p. xxii). Yes, please! B E'lq'Y MCLELLAN WOMEN'S INSTITUTEFOR SOCIALANALYSIS TOWNSVILLEAUSTRALIA4810

INFERTILITY AND PATRIARCHY: THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF GENDER AND FAMILY LIFE IN EGYPT, by Marcia C. Inhoru. 296 pages. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA. 1996. US$16.95, paper only. In this companion volume to her 1994 award-winning monograph, Quest for Conception: Gender, lnfertili~' and Egyptian Medical Traditions, Marcia Inhoru completes her medical anthropological study of the social and psychological consequences of infertility for poor urban Egyptian women. Over a period of 15 months, she collected detailed reproductive life histories from almost 200 fertile and infertile Egyptian women at a hospital in Alexandria, the second largest urban area in Egypt. Each chapter of the book opens with a poignant story of an individual woman struggling to overcome a devastating triple jeopardy - - to be female, poor and barren in a "society where the patriarchal fertility mandate is emphatic" (p. 1). Asking why infertility can so seriously tarnish an Egyptian woman s character and quality of life, Inhorn resists the seemingly obvious answer. Rather than rely on an uncritical portrayal of patriarchy or embrace the prevailing view that all poor, urban Egyptian women form a homogeneous group, the book historicizes the Egyptian cult of domesticity and places it in the wider political economic context of contemporary Middle Eastern patriarchal, religious, and class relations. For women, infertility means more than simply remaining childless. Most Egyptians fervently believe that no marriage can survive without children; in fact, no word exists in Egyptian Arabic for couple (p. 46), reflecting the social sentiment and legal standards that a wife and husband alone do not constitute a legitimate social dyad. Emotional duress, alienation, and harassment from the husband's family and the couple's neighbors are painful but common consequences of infertility for women. Poor women will sell their gold wedding jewelry to finance expensive and often futile biomedical therapies. Divorce, polygnous remarriage, and domestic violence remain a constant threat for married women who are unable to conceive or carry a child to term. "Instead of challenging the oppressive, patriarchal norms that make motherhood imperative," women, in particular the husband's mother and sisters, often "serve as the greatest upholders of these norms" (p. 158). Inhorn suggests that

this is partly the result of an emphasis on corporate ('a ila or patrilineal extended family) identity over individual (usra or neolocal nuclear family) identity, indicating that personal status in Egypt is defined more by membership in a reproductively successful group than by individual achievement. However, this social norm is changing as young Egyptian families seek to establish their own usra, or independent urban households. For poor, urban, infertile women, this withdrawal from the 'a ila swaps the daily pressures of living within an extended family for the emotional isolation of a tiny city apartment. But more than this, the industrialization of the Egyptian economy and the nuclearization of the family dramatically reduce productive roles for women, thereby concentrating household power in a single male patriarch. This process is compounded by the current revival of religious conservatism which further devalues women's productive labor and encourages an almost exclusive focus on female biological reproductive roles. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the practice of female seclusion is now a new status symbol for poor urban families. Seclusion frees urban women from often dangerous factory wage labor, but it decreases their mobility and economic independence as well. Yet one of the most remarkable findings of the research challenges this entrenched belief that children are the "glue" that binds marriages. Against the intense pressures of a man's natal family to replace his wife if she doesn't conceive within 6 months to a year after their marriage, childless marriages proportionately enjoy a higher degree of "conjugal connectivity," or mutual emotional satisfaction, than marriages with offspring. Inhorn argues that while patriarchy reinforces the structural importance of natal relationships to the detriment of conjugal or personal commitments, poor urban marriages which survive the heartbreak of infertility enjoy a surprising egalitarianism. Couples in infertile marriages forge new identities by challenging social norms with their unique conjugal practices. Inhorn argues that this emerging heterosexual intimacy is evidence of a social potential to subvert contemporary systems of segregated patriarchy. It is encouraging news, but the question remains whether these new developments can survive the dictates of religious conservatives. By examining infertility, Inhorn clearly demonstrates how motherhood is a culturally constructed role and how failure to achieve motherhood can magnify other forms of oppression women commonly experience. She argues that the literature on Middle Eastern women needs to move away from its focus on male honor, female shame, purdah, polygamy, and female genital mutilation onto new questions about the erosion of the extended patriarchal family, women's education and role in the workplace, and reform of Muslim family law. This is a compelling story which challenges as well as enriches Western feminist theories of patriarchy, gender politics and female-female power relations and deepens our understanding of the complex forces driving strident Islamic pronatalism in Egypt today. KEARSLEYA. STEWART DEPT. OF ANTHROPOLOGYAND WOMEN'S STUDIES PROGRAM UNIVERSITYOF GEORGIA

PEOPLE WHO COUNT: POPULATIONANDPOLITICS,WOMEN AND CHILDREN, by Dorothy Stein, 238 pages. Earthscan, London, 1996. £13.95, paperback.