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Wednesday, April 1, 1992

Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism

By claiming that individualism is a documented failure and that modern feminism betrays itself by not acknowledging its dependence on that defunct philosophy, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s latest contribution to women’s studies has raised eyebrows and tempers at many points along the political spectrum.

Although punctuated with criticism of today’s mainstream feminists, this book amounts to a sweeping assault on individual liberty. Fox-Genovese blames individualism for all that is wrong with America today—from homelessness and the growing black underclass to pornography and the widening riff between men and women.

Fox-Genovese’s version of the “American myth of individualism” goes something like this: Ruthless and rampant, individualism took hold of America with the Industrial Revolution and has been strangling us ever since. Since the marketplace had little time for the traditionally female qualities of nurturing, caring, and community (and since men didn’t want to live without those comforts), women were suppressed to keep that corner of society alive: “The American version of the myth of individualism that promised success to those [men] who played by its rules assumed that unpaid female labor and devotion would buttress [male] individuals’ efforts in the struggle to cope with the capitalist market.” (brackets in original)

Out of that universal oppression, Fox-Genovese continues, arose a sense of sisterhood, which, while it couldn’t reverse the injustices women suffered under capitalism, at least let women know they weren’t alone in their misery. Then came suffrage, property rights, and the rush to fill jobs left vacant by men leaving for World War II. Women advanced into the men’s world, into their offices, their classrooms, and even their locker rooms. Some succeeded; some failed. But those who did succeed (and this Fox-Genovese considers an unfortunate consequence of the women’s movement) tended to become more individualistic and to identify themselves in terms of their race or economic class rather than in terms of their sex. The theory of collectivist feminism gave way to the practice of individualism. What came next, Fox-Genovese tells us, was even worse.

The feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s with its battle cry “Sisterhood is Powerful!” employed the language of female solidarity without considering the roots of that solidarity. Born as a reaction to capitalism, sisterhood was inextricably tied to the capitalist system; it was the result of women’s silent acceptance of the system of “rugged individualism.” Feminists today, Fox-Genovese maintains, should realize that implicit in the language of sisterhood is an acceptance of the status quo: the capitalist society.

With the empty language of female solidarity, today’s feminists claim to speak for all women, and Fox-Genovese is most interesting when she discusses such problems within the women’s movement. In reality, she writes, the movement is made up mostly of white upper-middle-class women—women who have the financial means and sufficient leisure to over-analyze their successes and failings as, of course, the inevitable consequences of the American patriarchy—so how can they speak as the collective voice of women of all cultures and colors?

That is a legitimate criticism. The majority, of Feminism Without Illusions, however, is confusing and contradictory; it seems as though Fox-Genovese loses her train of thought between paragraphs. Perhaps she’s taken to heart the words of her more radical feminist colleagues who insist that logic and argument cannot be divorced from the patriarchy (and therefore must go).

Fox-Genovese harshly criticizes moderate feminists marching under the banner of “Sisterhood is Powerful!” Her ideas on ethical and legal issues bring to mind women on the fringes of feminist theory, such as Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Like MacKinnon, Fox-Genovese argues that the tension between the individual (male) and the community (female) can be resolved only by replacing the patriarchy with a world order based on the virtues of the female community. Ideally, care, bonding, and a system of gender-based justice would replace individual rights and the objective rule of law.

Upon reaching that conclusion, Fox-Genovese immediately retreats, suddenly rhapsodizing about how great America is and lauding the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Such contradiction only adds to the general confusion of her prose. Asserting that a gender-based system of justice should replace our traditional rights-based system, while with her next breath lauding America’s founding principles (she never explains what she thinks these principles are), indicates both sloppy thinking and confusion about American political philosophy.

“The American version of the myth of individualism” has not brought happiness and material success to all women, Fox-Genovese complains. Well, that’s life. American individualism never promised happiness for all; it promised that we would be free to pursue happiness. Fox-Genovese needs to sit down with a copy of the Declaration of Independence and study it well. Maybe then she’ll understand that the Founders promised not a fair and happy life for all Americans but a society where individuals would find justice and the freedom to succeed—or to fail. 

Elizabeth Larson is a writer for Reason magazine.