Are feminists doing an about-turn? This month’s book include two controversial assessments of the women’s movement now. And we review a vivid new report showing why El Salvador is on fire.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
In the second place
The Sceptical Feminist
by Janet Radcliffe Richards
Penguin (pbk) UK: £2.50 / Aus: $5.95 / Can: $5.95
The Second Stage
by Betty Friedan
Michael Joseph (hbk) UK: £8.95
The title of Janet Radcliffe Richards’ book holds out a heady promise to any hoary male chauvinist. Here, at last, he breathes, is a woman ready to denounce the feminist movement from within its ranks. But if a denunciation is what you are looking for when you reach The Sceptical Feminist, you should save your money. Because the book makes the moral imperative of the feminist position more — not less — compelling.
Though an acknowledged feminist herself, Ms Radcliffe Richards does not let that prevent her from taking the whole movement back to basic principles. And she has no compunction about putting the boot into her sisters. The book begins by accusing feminists of folly in abandoning — along with the other values of a man’s world — what she says is potentially a woman’s strongest ally: logic. She proceeds by applying that searing logic to feminists’ most cherished principles. She grasps the nettles, prods and dissects them, subjects them to the rigours of classical philosophy and finds that, though a few minor leaves are crushed and discarded along the way, the basic plant comes up somehow smelling of roses.
And that’s the power of the book and the value of its contribution: it gives feminists ammunition to take on the big guns at their own game and win on their terms. But this is no one-sided tirade.
While she exposes the way the ideal of the ‘natural’ has been used to bolster inequality between men and women, she still advocates research into potential psychological differences between the sexes. If there are differences, she declares, we need to know about them. If men really are more aggressive than women we need to know — not in order to justify giving them leading positions in society, but because aggression needs restraining. It may be the case that men, the super-aggressors, should be barred from positions of authority in the interests of everyone.
The book goes on to look at freedom and the accusation faced by many would-be liberators that oppressed groups don’t always want to be liberated. Here too, logic cuts a way through the dilemmas and contradictions, and after a few sly kicks at some feminists, again the imperative of the women’s movement emerges with hardly a bruise.
Even the weary old chestnut of a feminist’s personal appearance is put under the microscope. Should we or should we not wear make-up, squeeze our toes into high-heeled shoes, reshape our bulges with elastic? The answer— or, more exactly, a way of tackling the question — is in The Sceptical Feminist.
These — along with a quirky. witty and mercilessly cutting style — and the book’s strengths. But there are weaknesses too.
Ms Radcliffe Richards is often snide and unnecessarily vicious. The sideswipes are occasionally embellished by a crude bitchery that does her no credit —though they do, admittedly, add to the book’s entertainment value. And she also has a tendency to construct straw men —sorry, straw people — out of stray quotes from various feminist tomes. These she expertly and completely demolishes, but at the expense of creating a false caricature of the feminist movement
Which brings us to Betty Friedman’s book, The Second Stage. It’s the epitome of straw-person construction. If you have difficulty recognising your women friends in Janet Radcliffe Richards’ book, then Friedan’s feminists will appear positively Neanderthal in their vulgarity.
The Second Stage is a silly book, accusing feminism of sins committed by a tiny minority. Sloppy, negative, simplistic, it’s completely unworthy of the amount of attention it has received in the media Ms Friedan, one of the founders of modern-day feminism and author of the seminal The Feminine Mystique, argues that the women’s movement has achieved what its founders set out to do — but they have taken their achievements too far and now risk alienating the rest of the world. It’s time to rethink, she says, time for women to embrace once again the sweetness of femininity and the family. She wants us to on to the second stage: Janet Radcliffe Richards wants us to make sure our basic principles are sound.
Read Friedan’s book if you must. But read The Sceptical Feminist first.
El Salvador ablaze
El Salvador: The Face of Revolution
by Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk
Pluto Press (pbk) UK: £3.95
‘The United States could never permit another Nicaragua, even if preventing it meant employing the most reprehensible measures.’ Zbigniew Brzezinski, June 1980.
Since June 1980 over 38,000 civilians in El Salvador have died, mostly at the hands of right-wing death squad composed of off-duty soldiers and policemen. To put that in perspective, the equivalent in Britain would be 500,000 dead – like obliterating Manchester. In addition, 650,000 Salvadoreans (out of a population of 4¼ million) are refugees. The government’s campaign to suppress the guerrilla movement and its popular organizations has led to torture and misery on a scale almost unparalleled elsewhere in the world
The regime which presides over these ‘reprehensible measures’ would long since have collapsed were it not for the support of the United States — US-backed loans, in 1981 alone, amounted to $523 million. It is a determination to expose these measures and to altar this American policy of ‘support of brutal and corrupt governments in the interests of" national security"’ that led Armstrong and Shenk to write The Face of Revolution.
They start in 1932 with the matauza - the slaughter of 30,000 Indians and peasants. Some would argue that they should have gone back further, to 1879 and the expropriation of communal lands, to explain the growth of a rural proletariat dependent on the landowners for their survival and condemned to live in penury.
But from this point on their account is comprehensive. They lucidly describe the forces which have driven El Salvador to a war of national liberation’. We see the frustrated attempts to achieve democratic change, the military repression, the power of the oligarchy consistently backed by the US, and we come to realize the inescapable logic of the guerrilla struggle.
The authors correctly believe that the Reagan administration has no clear concept of the origins of the conflict and, above all, no understanding of the virtually irreconcilable divisions in Salvadorean society. For this reason the administration cannot understand ‘why helicopters will fail to bomb entire villages into submission’.
While the book makes the answer to this question obvious, in a refreshing, anecdotal style, some may regret the lack of a deeper analysis of the nature of US imperialism and of the growth of the popular organizations; the political perspective, say, of James Dunkerly’s The Long War.
Despite this, the political lessons and the reasons for humanitarian concern are there to be learnt The best recommendation for the book comes from last year’s Nobel literature prize-winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Face of Revolution provides a vivid and comprehensive account of El Salvador’s history and present day drama Everyone should read it!