Book Notes: Feminism Without Illusions

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

This book by the late lamented historian would have saved me from becoming a Republican had I discovered it when I was in college (1989-93, so it could have happened). Fox-Genovese rejected the entire way that the “canon wars” were framed at that time, and argued that “potential lies not in the repudiation of [gender] difference but in a new understanding of its equitable social consequences.” (p.256) 

Conservatives in the 1990s defended the universality of Western Civilization, and its democratic-individualist ideal of knowledge that could be approached on equal terms by everyone, regardless of “race, class and gender” (the Holy Trinity of political correctness in my youth). The liberals at that time often sounded like determinists, reading texts only through the lens of the author’s, or their own, biological and economic classifications. This paradigm foreclosed communication between groups, and diversity of opinion within them.

However, individualism also has an ironically homogenizing effect when pushed to its limits. It’s liberating to be told that you can be a person first and a woman second. But if I don’t in some sense read this text as a woman, am I reading it as me? Or am I aspiring to become a disembodied intellect — the bargain that male-dominated civilization has typically demanded of women in exchange for access to the republic of letters?

Fox-Genovese saw excesses of individualism on both sides of the canon wars. Conservatives plucked writer and reader out of their personal histories and communities, disguising the power imbalances that affected interpretation. Liberals overshot in the other direction, breaking down the very idea of a common culture into a subjective chaos of individual voices, and ignoring the liberating potential of women’s identification with something beyond their gender. 

In Fox-Genovese’s view, feminism needs to honor women’s experience of two-ness, instead of forcing women to choose between gender and other aspects of their identity:

The principal feminist responses [to gender inequality] have consisted in a celebration of difference and in a denial or repudiation of it. Feminist consciousness, confronting the massive legacy and present power of male culture, has tended either toward female separatism, with an emphasis on essentialism, or toward integration, with an emphasis on androgyny….

Sooner or later all feminists are compelled to face the inescapable, gut-wrenching angers that inform the aspirations of women, too long cast as impure, inferior and inadequate and cast out from the sanctuaries of truth, knowledge, and the Word. This current in any feminism fuels female resentment of male prerogative and encourages women to accept one another’s (and their own) pain. But when this anger crystallizes in separatist tendencies, it easily slips into indiscriminate attacks on “male knowledge” and “male values.” It seeks beginnings in imagined pre-patriarchal utopias, histories in heresy, and futures in gynocentrism….

Another feminist current, seeking to escape the anguish of anger, aspires to the “purer” spheres of androgyny: the true word knows neither male nor female, nor does the rational polity, the equitable task, or the order of the just….Indeed, any vigorous individualism carries androgynous overtones….

The categories of individual, citizen, and artist refer to the self-conscious being, the political being, and the creative being in such a way that the attributive takes priority over the substantive — becomes the substantive. And once being is identified with its attribute and becomes in some sense categorical, being comes to be understood primarily as the unit of a system. Any variety of physical being (male, female, tall, short, black, white) may, theoretically speaking, occupy the category, for individuals become interchangeable. Or so traditional conservatives have always insisted in reproaching radical egalitarians….

[Androgyny feminism] too closely resembles the model of the angels, or of rational politics, or of the occupational possibilities of multinational capitalism. It abstracts too much from the varieties of life in different human bodies, proposing homogenization of the ways of being — of male and female — rather than advocating free access to social and cultural categories for very different beings. (pp.226-28)

I chose conservative individualism over collectivist feminism in college because the intellect seemed like a much more level playing field than the vagaries of the body, popular sentiment or sisterly goodwill. I was smart and therefore unpopular, and whatever feminine wiles I might have had, I was afraid to use, because the callous sexual precociousness of my peers seemed light-years away from my private dreams of romance. The touchy-feely educational environment of the 1970s allowed for a lot of arbitrary favoritism by teachers and cliquish bullying by students, factors that turned me off to emotion-based, particularist philosophies. Impersonality was my friend. I wanted a system where I would get an honest wage for honest work even if nobody liked me.


Even now, when I have the power to choose which collectives I belong to, and therefore the privilege to sentimentalize connectedness and particularism, I am conflicted about how much my gender matters to my identity. The traditionally “feminine” aspects of myself are the ones I feel most self-conscious about, because I see them as signs of weakness: my preference for the domestic over the corporate realm, my love of luxury, my emotional sensitivity and volatility, and what we will tactfully call avoirdupois. The traits I am most proud of are “masculine”: my analytical mind, my independence, my outspokenness, my aggression in debate, my impatience with “relationship drama”.

One reason I support gay rights so passionately, in fact, is that my attraction to men feels more essential to my personality than the shape of the body I happen to be in. It’s only the luck of the draw that I’m a straight woman and not a gay man! Many women would say that their identity-formation was very much a gendered experience. That wasn’t true for me, and so for a long time feminism turned me off, because it seemed to invalidate a childhood and adolescence in which I was pretty much a floating brain in a jar. Pleasurable experiences of being female were largely unavailable to me then (except for clothes-shopping!). Being told to have warm fuzzy feelings about the Goddess only increases my anxiety that there is a template for female normalcy that I will never fit. I guess I am still an individualist after all — more comfortable expressing my physical side than before, but unwilling to let anyone turn my body into a symbol of values I didn’t choose. 

2 comments on “Book Notes: Feminism Without Illusions

  1. Leah says:

    I can really relate to this, esp. the distaste for the touchyfeeliness. Along with the the feminist aspect of it there is also the scary conservative Christian side of the coin, sometimes it can be eerily similar. It’s interesting how disinterested the bible is in defining ‘manhood and womanhood” per se yet its is clear that man and woman are in the image of God, and that that is important enough for Jesus himself to emphasize it.

  2. zhenimsja says:

    I’ve got to post resembling like this on my web-blog and you gave me nice idea. Cheers!

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