Book Reviews

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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
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Penguin (pbk) UK: £2.50 / Aus: $5.95 / Can: $5.95
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The Second Stage
by Betty Friedan
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Michael Joseph (hbk) UK: £8.95
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Women's Voice 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.

Debbie Taylor

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El Salvador ablaze

El Salvador: The Face of Revolution
by Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk
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Pluto Press (pbk) UK: £3.95
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Credit: Hans Georg Rauch ‘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!

Tony Jenkins


Needless Hunger
being the book that showed why thousands
died of famine in a land of plenty

A PALE TURBAN RESTS in a glass museum case in Dacca, Bangladesh. Though it is thirty feet long and three feet wide, the turban is made of cotton so fine that it can be folded to fit inside a matchbox.

For centuries, the weavers of Dacca had been producing this gossamer-fine cloth on their handlooms, prized in the imperial courts of Asia and of Europe. But today, Bangladesh imports its cotton and the bones of the cotton weaver are bleaching the plains’.

What decimated Bengal’s thriving cotton industry? Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce tell the weavers’ tale in Needless Hunger. Their view is that Bengal/Bangladesh was deliberately shoved down the slippery underdevelopment slope. When Britain took over political control, they say, the Bengali cotton industry was fed as a bloody sacrifice to fatten the infant textile industry in Britain. British merchants flogged, fined and imprisoned the weavers until they acquired the cloth for a fraction of its value. Bengalis who had exported their cloth now found themselves facing prohibitive taxes.

The weavers’ tale is only one example of how the colonizers dismembered a functioning society. Most of the book concentrates on how Bangladesh’s agricultural potential was misdirected.

When Hartmann and Boyce arrived in Bangladesh in the summer of 1974, they were ravished by the. natural abundance of the landscape: ‘Rice paddies carpeted the earth, and gigantic squash vines climbed over the roofs of the bamboo village houses. The rich soil, plentiful water and hot, humid climate made us feel as if we had entered a natural greenhouse.’ Yet, only two weeks later, they witnessed the horrifying spectacle of thousands of families dying of starvation in the streets. How could it happen, so much hunger in a land of such plenty?

The book systematically answers that question. It’s really an extended essay, some 50 pages of sober analysis interspersed with heart-rending first-hand accounts of the lives of the peasants who had become their friends during the authors’ stay in the village of Karmi. A fuller version of the argument is to be published later this year. In the meantime, Needless Hunger has been voted the ‘best ever introduction to the poor world’s food crisis’ by Oxfam UK’s food expert Tony Jackson, among others. What Food First does on a grand scale, it does in microcosm. It’s the sort of book every schoolteacher and politician should read, before they pass on the conventional message that Bangladeshis are poor because of idleness, natural disaster. ignorance or over-population.

The authors’ point is that the colonial pattern of oppression — where a powerful minority controls the land and uses it to oppress a powerless majority— has never been erased. Merely, a new hierarchy has scrambled up to fill the spaces vacated by the old.

Until the British arrived, they explain, the concept of individual land ownership was unknown in Bengal. Land could not be bought and sold. Instead, peasants could till the land by right; and they paid a tax to the Muslim rulers. In 1973, the British vested land ownership in the tax collectors — and, according to Hartmann and Boyce, at one stroke destabilized the whole structure of Bengali society.

Now, when a peasant with only a pocket-sized piece of land hasn’t enough grain to feed his family, he is obliged to ask the landlord/moneylender for credit till the next harvest When the harvest is gathered, the landlord takes his whack —and then some: perhaps as much as 100 per cent more, as interest. The peasant has even less now to get him through the next year. He’ll have to sell a sliver of his already meagre land— and guess who has the money to buy it? Gradually the land is squeezed out of the peasants’ hands and is gathered up by a dwindling minority.

What about government price-fixing to protect the peasants? Bribery takes care of that protection. The government depots turn the peasants’ produce away with one excuse after another, until, despairingly. they sell it to the landlord at whatever price he sets. And the depot manager and the landlord split the profit.

In theory, the book’s message has a hopeful corollary. If Bangladesh’s under-development is manmade, then it is reversible. But who will reverse it? As a Dacca rickshaw driver said to the authors, ‘First the English robbed us. Then the Pakistanis robbed us. Now we are being robbed by our own people.’

Anuradha Vittachi

Needless Hunger: Voices from a Bangladesh village (1979)
by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce
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US: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2588 Mission Street, San Francisco, Ca 94110 (pbk) $3.50
UK: Third World Publications 151 Stratford Road, Birmingham (pbk) £2.95
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