Womanhood Surrendered

The following review first appeared in the October 2007 edition of Crisis Magazine.

 

Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism,
by Christopher Lasch and Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, W.W. Norton and Co., 1997, 196 pages, $19

 

Christopher Lasch’s Women and the Common Life, a collection of essays compiled with the help of his daughter shortly before his death, is a beautiful book about what has come to be known as women’s studies. Reading Lasch confirms the suspicion that subordinating the affairs of Eros to women’s studies gives us a truncated understanding of both men and women.

Building on his earlier work, Haven in a Heartless World, that provided a devastating account of the therapeutic state, Lasch turns his gaze toward modern, and in particular feminist, attitudes about women and family. His gaze is unflinching, steely when necessary, but always fair. And because his critique comes from the left, it is all the more damning.

The book is broad in scope, ranging from the medieval romance to present-day gender studies. It is quickly apparent that Lasch is charting a decline. From his discussion of the myth of patriarchal domination to his analysis of the selfishness hidden in ’50s suburbia, Lasch forces us to see things clearly: Women have been duped by feminism, not by the elevated desires for justice that animated earlier calls for reform (like abolition), but instead by the lower desire for emancipation. Although he does reveal an inherent weakness in latter-day feminism, his ultimate concern is wider than combating bad arguments: It is the collapse of human life under the ideology of the self.

Lasch always has been willing to wrestle honestly with modernity. He reminds us that modernity is always about a desire for mastery—whether over nature, others, or God. Love, and the families that are the fruit of love, require submission to something one cannot control. From surrendering one’s self in marriage to sacrificing one’s desires to a child, familial bonds circumscribe the freedom of both men and women. The refusal to be so circumscribed, Lasch argues, diminishes us.

Our refusal to be tied to the family leads to a coarsening of civic ties as well. Ironically, we are less free when we abandon family, citizenship, and God, because we are less human as a result. Lasch writes:

Submission to God makes people less submissive to everyday life. It makes them less fearful but also less bitter and resentful, less inclined to make excuses for themselves. Modern social movements, on the other hand, tend to prey on resentment. They aim to make victims acutely aware of their victimization.

Women and the Common Life is a graceful book. Lasch presents a respectful rebuke to the thin scholarship and even slimmer thinking of many feminists. He does not fail to take feminists to task for sloppy scholarship, but he does so with a gentleness that bears imitating. He demonstrates a depth of understanding rare in an intellectual historian, one that is indeed on display in all of his work. Lasch was that rarest of all breeds, a gentleman and a scholar. It is a sorrow that we will not hear more from him, but we can be thankful for this small gem of a book.

By

Susan Orr, a former official of the George W. Bush administration, is author of the book Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.

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