I commented in my essay on Barbara Ehrenreich’s This Land is Their Land that I don’t find her writing style as enjoyable in short pieces and blog posts as I do in book-length treatments of issues like white collar work (Bait and Switch), blue collar work (Nickel and Dimed) and positive thinking (Bright-Sided). Reading The Snarling Citizen—another compilation of Ehrenreich short pieces—did not change that.
I would say I enjoyed The Snarling Citizen marginally more than This Land is Their Land, this in spite of the fact that the pieces are older (from the first half of the 1990s—I read the collections out of chronological order) and thus more stale in a sense, since many have to do with topical things going on in politics and such. Maybe as she’s aged she has tended to push the curmudgeon persona a little too far for my tastes.
At least as I experienced the book, it’s strongest early and gradually loses steam. For the first maybe 20%-25%, I was inclined to say I preferred it moderately rather than marginally over This Land is Their Land, but the farther I got into the more the later material seemed only about equally as appealing as This Land is Their Land. I doubt this reflects the best quality pieces being front-loaded; more likely, I just wearied of the format the more of it I read.
But it does seem like a lot of her best lines come early. Maybe the funniest line in the book, in fact, comes in the Introduction. She is describing the life of a freelance writer who works from home, and observes: “There are the difficulties attendant on any form of home work, as opposed to that performed in factories or offices. Children screaming underfoot, for example, when you happen to step on them or remark that most other twenty-two-year-olds are out in the workforce by now.”
From here I’ll just highlight a few essays that stood out to me as interesting.
In Burt, Loni, and Our Way of Life (I told you the book is dated), Ehrenreich makes an interesting point that a spouse used to be merely one of many key people in one’s life, and was expected to meet only a limited number of your needs. The traditional roles were sexist in nature (e.g., the husband didn’t need to help with the housework, and the wife didn’t need to be a sparkling intellectual companion), but at least they were a lot more fulfillable. It’s not surprising divorce rates would be so much higher nowadays, she says, as each spouse is expected to be all things to their mate. “Once, people found companionship among their old high school buddies, and got help with child raising from granddads and aunts. Marriages lasted because less was expected of them.”
In Cultural Baggage, Ehrenreich talks about her unusual upbringing. Her parents were dyed-in-the-wool rationalists (in the sense of valuing rationality, not in the sense of the philosophical movement that is sometimes contrasted with empiricism) who had no truck with religion or supernaturalism. Theirs was the kind of attitude that not only wouldn’t have much use for present day conservatives’ embrace of fundamentalist Christianity, but also would be incompatible with the present day liberal tendency to “respect” cultures (well, non-American ones anyway) by treating their traditional beliefs and practices as above criticism. “In my parents’ general view, new things were better than old, and the very fact that some ritual had been performed in the past was a good reason for abandoning it now.”
There is much in the six pieces that make up the section of the book entitled Sex Skirmishes and Gender Wars that I found thought-provoking.
Thought-provoking and emotion-provoking, I would say, as I find that my gut reaction to a fair amount of feminism is negative, and I’m curious to think matters through more to see to what degree this is warranted, and to what degree it’s just my discomfort with having my own privileges or what have you attacked.
I think it’s often warranted because single-issue zealots are not inclined to balance their causes with other values and to see things from other perspectives. If you’ve adopted fighting sexual assault against women as the chief emotional issue of your life, say, you’re probably going to adopt means-end reasoning to reduce it, and not take into account other considerations. Indeed, you may well regard anyone who suggests looking at other considerations (e.g., philosophical points about defining and redefining “rape,” free speech concerns, concerns about the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” criticisms of questionable statistics, whatever) as having thereby unmasked themselves as your bitter enemies who are in favor of sexually assaulting women.
I think in such cases the feminists in question are convinced that their opponents cannot or will not take the time to understand the experiences of women, to empathize with them, to properly value them and their rights. I agree that that’s largely true of a considerable number of their opponents. I’d say, though, that their very fury over this situation blinds them to their own failure to understand the experiences of other people (say, a man falsely accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault), empathize with them, and value them and their rights.
In the famous phrase of the Anita Hill era, men (or non-feminists, or those disinclined to see sexual harassment as a very serious and widespread phenomenon) “just don’t get it.” In my perception this is routinely leveled as an angry accusation, and not accompanied by much effort—other than coercive—to help them to “get it,” but aside from that, surely many feminists can at least as justifiably be charged with “just not getting” the harms people can and do suffer from hyper-vigilance and drastic changes in social practices and laws surrounding sexual harassment.
Men reacting to women based on their sexual desirability, and in various ways rewarding and punishing them accordingly, certainly can be objectionable, especially when you factor in that as a rule of thumb men have more power and resources at their disposal. But it’s part of a complex web of social attitudes and practices, of implicit bargains, with countless subtle and not-so-subtle advantages and disadvantages for all concerned. Even if, all things considered, men’s tendency to perceive women sexually is excessive, it absolutely is not a simplistic case of oppression, nor something that all men benefit from and all women are harmed by.
If men “just don’t get” why it’s so bad because they’ve never experienced it from the woman’s perspective, then are feminists apt to overestimate how bad it is because they’ve never experienced it from the man’s perspective? For that matter, for all feminists’ talk about how all women are subject to being treated as sex objects, certainly that varies enormously by degree, with feminists disproportionately located in the lower end of the range of women who are valued for their looks by men. Can an ugly woman fully understand what it’s like as an attractive woman to experience the various pros and cons of the social games that reward women for their looks?
I think everyone needs to truly listen to people very different from themselves who have had very different life experiences to better be able to assess social practices, the means to change them, and the new social practices that would replace them. The kind of angry dogmatism and denial that I see too often from feminists and anti-feminists alike hardly facilitates this.
Ehrenreich is good at presenting the feminist side, and at encouraging people to better understand the experiences of women that feminists choose to highlight, which will help to educate many people, including myself, if we choose to be receptive to it. But I don’t see her—in these pieces at least—consistently doing the same for other perspectives. Too often, she seems more a polemicist than an ideal critical thinker when she has her feminist hat on.
One of the pieces in this section that appealed to me, not just for what it has to say about feminism, but for the way that can be generalized to other areas, is Sorry, Sister, This is Not the Revolution.
In this essay, Ehrenreich laments that feminism in effect hasn’t consistently aimed even higher. The idea, she says, when confronted by a system marked by exploitation and injustice of various kinds, isn’t just to fight against the particular injustice that keeps a woman from having as good an opportunity as a man to take their place at the top with those calling the shots, but to fight against all the exploitation and injustice, to seek a better system.
She says this is a longstanding feminist ideal—so she’s not claiming to have come up with it herself—but one that women have been increasingly apt to overlook the more advantages they accumulate in the present system. “American feminism late-1980s style could be defined, cynically, as women’s rush to do the same foolish and benighted things that have traditionally occupied men.” (I started making a similar point, by the way, back when I was a teenager.)
What she’s advocating and what she’s criticizing, she notes, doesn’t just apply to feminism, as really it’s true of oppressed or outsider groups in general. When a group is on the bottom, it can better see and appreciate the injustice in the world than can the members of the groups above them, who are psychologically advantaged by practicing denial. There is widespread idealism in the outsider group not just to improve their position in the present world, but to change the world. Then as more and more members of that group improve their position and get more of a stake in the present system, they tend to lose that valuable outsider perspective, and to lose their zeal to change the world.
I not only agree with her in the abstract, I like to think I’ve experienced something like that in my own life. I am dismissed by many in my life as a hopeless idealist in certain respects, not to mention someone who sees too many things in life as objectionable that really are just “the way things are” that one needs to adjust to in order to make one’s way in the world. But I embrace those parts of me that are most out of step with mainstream folks as much as I embrace any parts of me. I think I’m seeing things more clearly, in a less biased fashion, than those who criticize me for my foolhardy idealism. And I’ve always had the feeling that the more I become an “insider,” and become more adept at playing the games of life and benefiting thereby, the harder it will be to maintain that perspective that enables me to see the world in that idealist way. The more compromises I make, and the more connections I make and loyalties I develop with mainstream folks who don’t see the world as I do, the more I’ll lose what I’m convinced is my more accurate view of the world and what’s wrong with it.
I’m not articulating this as well as I would like, but I have the sense that if I could articulate it properly, it’s the kind of point Ehrenreich would understand and agree with.