The Clare Spark Blog

March 21, 2015

Great Goddess feminism: the Phyllis Chesler model

Stone Age Venus of Willendorf

Stone Age Venus of Willendorf

I have been rereading Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness (Doubleday 1972), and wonder if it is still relevant, and how Chesler’s Jungian, mythic approach to female sex-roles and role models fits into the second wave of feminism.

This blog will focus on the promise of sexual liberation as opposed to what experience hath shown are more realistic approaches to the demands of motherhood and the welfare of children.

Phyllis Chesler and son

Phyllis Chesler and son

First, we examine the context of second wave feminism. College-age women, active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, deeply resented being relegated to waitresses and secretaries, serving the males coffee and typing manifestoes, while such heroes as black power advocate Stokely Carmichael relegated them to sex objects (though his intended meaning is contested by allies; in 1964 he had declared “”The position of women in the movement is prone”).

So the second wave of feminism came out of the Left, and then some argued about whether or not they should be “Marxist-feminists” or “Feminist-Marxists.” At the same time, real communists (Stalinists) were dismissing feminism as a bourgeois deviation. As I have suggested here, the intellectual ancestors of feminist stars were not 1930s leftists, so much as anti-killjoy womanizers of the 1940s social democratic “left”; i.e., anticommunist “liberals” who admired Jung, but not his mentor Freud, another killjoy with his settling for “everyday unhappiness” as opposed to the adrenalin rush of Romantic defiance. (See https://clarespark.com/2015/03/16/who-were-the-precursors-of-the-new-left-the-wasp-establishment-or-communists/. The New Deal-affiliated social psychologists I studied all identified Hitler with Romanticism,  e.g., with the arch-Romantic, Lord Byron.)

Enter numerous feminists (arguably the progenitors of the gay rights movement) who were averse to what was imagined as the humdrum life of MOM, stuck indefinitely in boring marriages and chained to motherhood. Unlike the leftist feminists, they were attracted to Goddesses and “spirituality,” and aroused the ire of the (materialist) Left. But whatever the flavor, feminists were of course reacting (indirectly?) to “attachment theory” as presented by John Bowlby in 1958. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory, and note that Bowlby was describing the infant’s need for object constancy, but not a jail for ambitious women that would last forever.)

Numerous activist women in the arts and humanities saw a chance for instant fame when they promoted a distinctive woman’s sensibility and the loveliness of free love, including lesbianism. Of all these book-writing young women, psychologist Phyllis Chesler remains relevant today, for she has not only offered a Goddess/Amazon book in her youth (who doesn’t enjoy the pagan, naughty Greek myths and Jungian archetypes?), but she claims expertise in the “new antisemitism” that speaks to renewed fears for the safety of Israel. But even more, Chesler saw Muslim abuse of women up close in her marriage to an Afghani (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllis_Chesler). So while her competitors are either mocked, deceased, or forgotten, Phyllis Chesler has developed an appreciative lay audience for the emancipation of women.

Amazonmom

Meanwhile, feminism seems to have adopted Chesler’s brand. The Hunger Games trilogy is a boffo success with youngsters and mothers alike (at least in my family), and the challenge of monogamous marriage and competent child-rearing is taken up all too rarely, and when it is, as in the NBC miniseries The Slap (the intelligent woman’s guide to motherhood: exhausting, negligent, over-indulgent in turn), it arouses howls of rage in television critics, who don’t want to tamper with archetypes of the Happy Mother and/or “likeable characters.”

happy-mothers-day-mothers-love-card-quotes

I helped promote the women artists’ movement on the radio, and considered myself to be one of them. I continue to believe that it is a man’s world, and bitterly resent all double standards.

It is only in retrospect that I have come to realize how intellectually and emotionally demanding motherhood (like marriage) really is. Moreover, the time frame when developing youngsters need ’round-the-clock mothering and fathering is shorter than young, single women realized in the salad days of second wave feminism.

salad-days-2343071

October 21, 2014

The Klinghoffer protest and the problem of ‘realism’

KlinghofferprotestA rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America has alarmed Jews, Israelis, and their supporters, hence the furor over the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Many of those protesting have focused on “moral equivalence” between Jews and Palestinians as the opera’s chief sin, and indeed, many journalists and critics in the mass media have fed into this impression. To my knowledge, only Phyllis Chesler has given a more detailed account of the pro-jihadist content of the opera, as she did last night: http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/1377/israel-hatred-has-scaled-the-wall-of-high-culture. I assume that Chesler would not risk her reputation by making up the details that support her allegations of Jew-hatred. She saw the opera, while I have not. (For an even tougher essay by Alan Dershowitz see http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4808/klinghoffer-opera.)

This blog, however, has a different take on the problem of the opera’s presentation in this polarized environment (with current ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio supporting “free speech,” while the more conservative ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani supported the protesters). I will not address the politicization of “art” for I believe that all art of any genre is ideological, and that no artist in any medium can escape ideology reinforced by patronage, institutional context, and family or personal history. In this era of formalist criticism (at best—we should be so lucky to get even that in this ignorant period), I dare not hope to find broad agreement with my assumptions. Nor do I believe with politicians of either left or right that “speech” is ever “free.”

What is neglected in the current excitement is the problem of “realism” and what I write here is more about what we expect from art: do we hope for an enlargement of our imagining past, present and future, or an affirmation of our religion and politics (as in Nazi or Soviet glorification of labor and sacrifice (“socialist realism”), or do we latch onto the Enlightenment project of demystification—i.e., the tearing away of all veils to get at something either absolutely truthful or, if not that foolishly (?) ambitious, the unpacking of symbol and myth? [Readers of my blogs will not be surprised that I prefer the latter, but not without the recognition of opportunism, ambiguity, or unconscious errors of interpretation on my part or of those critics I admire.]

We would like to think that our favorite artists (usually those that affirm our belief systems) are beyond anything so tawdry as prejudice or hitching their stars to fashion and publicity; similarly, we like to believe that family photographs are not simply a posed or candid moment in time, but convey the essence of family bonds, not bondage to sadists and masochists.

Take the case of depicting a Palestinian terrorist, for instance the murderer of Leon Klinghoffer. How would a librettist or musician convey what drives such an individual or social movement to barbarism? How would we, in the brief period, s/he is onstage, grasp all the factors which drove him or her to murder? Michael Walsh, for instance, is defending great depictions of villains, but he does not interrogate the history of melodrama, and why we take its vocabulary of heroes, villains, and victims to be pure representations of real people and real events, persons and events which are beyond the ability of even the greatest geniuses to fully decode. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/. With melodrama we enter a dream world only.

We may imagine that there is something called art for art’s sake that is purely aesthetic, beyond cavil. It is the same with the writing of history. The 60s and 70s generation was fond of studying history painting in order to point out its ideological content. But in many cases, that led them into hatred of all art as propaganda. No less than the heroes they demystified, these critics are the victims of melodrama and its myth-laden vocabulary.

As an art lover myself, I cannot join these New Leftists in their tearing down of all cultural artifacts as fatally tainted by politics and myth. I like gripping ‘art’ of all genres. Nor can I join rightists in their call to “take back the culture” (at the expense of a more accurate history, psychoanalysis, and science).
What then is the solution to the Klinghoffer fracas? I have nothing to offer but the marketplace of ideas, and suspicion of our own motives in crossing out that art, culture, or political argument that makes us squirm. We need all the insightful criticism that we can get, including criticism that takes down the elevation of value-free art and commentary. “I am not so innocent.”

klinghoffer2

January 7, 2012

Feminism and its publicists

Naomi Wolf, 2008

{See a related blog https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/, retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke.]

Naomi Wolf is purported to be the founder of “third wave feminism” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Wolf. I have no idea what that means. I have tried to read The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991), an international best seller. It is heavily derivative of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in that Wolf is clearly aiming her arrows at domesticity, a situation that makes many daughters of professional parents uncomfortable, for they have competed with men to enter the best private and public schools, then perhaps Ivy League or Seven Sister colleges, only to find themselves saddled with the same job that lower-class women perform as wives and mothers. Indeed, when I married in 1959 (after attending two Ivy League schools) and looked around at the wives of my  husband’s lawyer friends or the wives of other graduates of Harvard Law, I shook my head and wondered how elite women would adjust to lives as consumers, thrown into the same pot as the women thought to have been left behind in the great race of life.

I knew very little about feminism until the late 1960s, when everyone was reading Kate Millett or Germaine Greer or Phyllis Chesler. I thought that young mothers who were fleeing their children were unnatural, and remember saying that to our friends. At that time, my three children were very young, and I felt that the duties of marriage and child-rearing were exhausting. I had not yet read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and have often thought that had I read her work, or even that of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, that I would have been a stronger woman, more ambitious, and less docile in my marriage. But having chosen motherhood and marriage in my early 20s, I didn’t think it was a demeaning or unchallenging set of roles; quite the contrary. And now that I have become acquainted with attachment theory (as promoted by psychologists Bowlby, Mahler, and Winnicott), as well as discoveries regarding the crucial first five years in laying down brain connections that would affect intellectual performance throughout the life span, I am more committed than ever to the significance of parenting, with special attention to the full range of family relationships as they affect marriage and child development.

But the intellectual, emotional, and moral challenge of motherhood was not the focus of either second wave feminism or the Naomi Wolf variant (which seems to be no more than the ridiculous statement that the beauty myth is a backlash against the 1960s-70s feminist movement). I remember one famous artist’s wife handing out leaflets telling women that housework (and baby-tending?) was demeaning. While teaching part time at California Institute of the Arts, I recall the Feminist Art program run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. One of their students came into my office, weeping, because a rule had been laid down that women artists could not represent phalluses or their symbolic representations; females did vaginas and focused on male cruelty, a sadism that was literally binding them to the home, a home that was a prison. Their creation Womanhouse was very clever and creative in expressing this theme, for instance the fried eggs that climbed up and down the walls of the kitchen (meant to represent breasts) and the bedroom that was devoted to makeup as imperative and mask. I myself did a slide show on “sex and violence in the art and photography of women artists and photographers,” and got large audiences for this demonstration of female rage, mockery of males, and the celebration of the female orgasm or other bodily functions (i.e., menstruation). (This was in the 1970s.)

To return to Naomi Wolf’s first book, a book that was as repetitious and as hard to read as Friedan’s earlier one, the feminists of the second wave did not respond to Betty Friedan as much as they responded to their treatment by New Left males, whose bohemianism and womanizing needs no elaboration here. Educated antiwar women had been consigned, as usual, to demeaning tasks, and to sexual promiscuity. (This was before the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s). Here was the source of second wave feminism, and women in the movement soon either subordinated their feminism to left-wing politics (especially anti-imperialism) in general, or took to writing about the oppression of women, attaining notoriety and fame in the process (for example Gloria Steinem).

The overriding theoretical construct was the term “patriarchy.” That implied, as both Wolf and Judy Chicago maintained in The Dinner Party, that all men victimized all women from time out of mind. With gender oppression the mighty variable, it was logical that separate Women’s Studies departments be established to accommodate growing female demands to be written back into history. Indeed, when I took Katherine Kish Sklar’s course on 19th century female reformers during my doctorate preparation at UCLA in the early 1980s, I was called on the carpet for separating working class women from upper-class women, and for objecting to an influential article Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of Domesticity.” [Background: we did learn in Sklar’s course that there was a big debate among feminists as to whether the status of women changed after men left the home to participate in industrial society. When women’s labor was visible to men, did they enjoy higher status? The point I am making is that some feminists are motivated by status politics and fame, and seem uninterested in the material condition of less privileged females, unless these are addressed within the protocols of the Democratic Party. I.e., these feminists were treating the woman question as a problem of caste, whereas a case can be made that it is a class problem, with women, as such, a subordinated class similar to that of chattel slavery in the earlier America. David Brion Davis made exactly that claim in a recent book of essays, Created in the Image of God. So a case can be made for Women’s Studies, but even so, it would have to be integrated into a larger historical picture and set of determinations.]

Of course what these particular feminists overlooked was the perception by many men that women had too much power as it was (including sexual power), a widespread belief motivating many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Also https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/. In my view, the key was the clinging mother, who not only demanded that she be idealized, but set impossibly high moral standards on her sons, sometimes inflicting double binds on her children. (As described throughout my book on Herman Melville and the source of his prison imagery; e.g. the conflict between truth and order, or local loyalties with concern for the faraway. One was supposed to reconcile the irreconcilable without fuss or choosing sides.)

There are things taken up by Naomi Wolf that every woman knows: that too much time is taken up with make-up and the losing battle with aging; that successful men are relatively free to dump their aging wives for younger models; that many men are disgusted by women’s bodies and functions, that women’s magazines are retrograde, and so on. What she does not harp upon is the lingering fear that many women have of treading on male turf, for instance, the study of political, diplomatic and military history, of city planning, architecture, economics or of all the sciences. But that too is changing.

To conclude: nothing in this blog should be construed to mean that I am not a feminist. Far from it. Our society is largely hypersexualized and dumbed down. I am simply unqualified to make grand statements about women from antiquity to the present, or even women from the 1960s onward. That would require a lifetime of close study and more critical tools than I have at hand. For more see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/18/history-as-trauma-2-rosebud-version/. Also the first segment of this two-part series, see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/.

Blog at WordPress.com.