I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead oI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe....more
So this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperativSo this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperative of undeniable power. It is also among my favorite feminist texts, and whenever I open it to look something up, I inevitably find myself rereading entire sections or chapters because I can't put it down.
Nevertheless, I only gave it four stars. I have some criticisms of it, which explain the non-perfect rating, but I love it so much I feel conflicted about that non-perfect rating. I'd give it 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 if fractional ratings were allowed on this site.
The book was first written in 1972, but the edition I have is a revised one from 2005, in which she addresses how much things have changed since she first wrote it, both in terms of science and politics. Politically, the mental-health professions are not the bastions of patriarchy they were when Chesler first wrote about them: lots of women are in these professions, and lots of therapists are feminists, and incorporate feminist principles into their practice. More obviously, our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness has improved, and with it our ability to treat them.
Another reviewer criticized Chesler for ignoring actually seriously ill women in favor of healthy women whose disobedience or nonconformity was called illness as a pretext for locking them up; I don't know if this person read the revised edition or not, but in the book I read she does acknowledge disabling mental illness. She goes out of her way to state that she does not wish to romanticize mental illness, nor to argue against any treatment that relieves a mentally ill person's suffering and enables that person to live a longer, fuller life.
She also discusses some famous case histories of women who suffered actual mental breakdowns, who clearly needed help, but who were not really helped by the treatment they got. These women included Zelda Fitzgerald, Bertha Pappenheim (better known as "Anna O."), Ellen West, Catharine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sylvia Plath.
Far more disturbing to me were her descriptions of real women who were not insane at all, and did not seek treatment for themselves, but who were committed to lunatic asylums by husbands and fathers who wanted them out of the way. Those women include Elizabeth Packard (whose theological opinions differed from her husband's, and whose crime was to speak these ideas in public), Adriana Brinckle (who sold some pieces of furniture she hadn't fully paid for, and was locked up for almost thirty years), and Freud's other famous patient "Dora" (whose father was basically pimping her out to some other guy, and who was quite understandably upset about that).
(She also discusses a FASCINATING study by a psychiatrist named Shirley Angrist that compared women mental patients who had been released from the asylum, women who had been re-hospitalized at least once, and normal housewives, and found that mental health had little to do with whether a woman was pronounced cured or not: rather, the determining factor seemed to be her willingness to keep house and defer to her husband. This study was done in 1961).
There is also a very long section, making up the majority of the book, that contains Phyllis Chesler's own original research, which was a series of detailed interviews with a bunch of women who had been treated for mental illnesses. She divided her subjects up into categories, though she admits there is a lot of overlap between some of them: women who had been in sexual relationships with their therapists, women who had been hospitalized for mental illness, lesbians, feminists, and "Third World women," which seems to be a confusing label for poor women of color. (I say it is confusing because some or all of the women in this group are Americans; "Third World" to me connotes foreign origin as well as dark skin, poverty and disenfranchisement.) All of these women describe experiences that did not help them; only some were ever actually mentally ill; and lots of them, especially the women of color, the women who were institutionalized long-term, and the lesbians, tell horrible tales of abuse. Almost all of the lesbians were committed just because they were lesbian.
There is a recurring Greek-mythology motif that never quite seems to belong; Chesler explores female archetypes from that canon, particularly myths that explore mother-daughter relationships, like those of Demeter and Persephone or Clytemnestra and Electra. These sections were very interesting, and poetic, and gave me new ways to see these stories I've known since I was a child, but they don't really mesh with the rest of the book. There are a few areas of thematic commonality --- one of Chesler's ideas is that women check themselves into asylum so much because we are so starved for mother-love --- but for the most part they seem more in keeping with her later books, which focus on relationships between women, than with this book.
I also really wanted to see her discuss women with developmental disabilities, as the same concerns about institutional abuse and power dynamics apply to them.
Ultimately, I want people to read this, even if it is incomplete and most of the stories it tells are old. I think the ethical questions it raises about how we treat mental illness, and the extent to which we do not treat people with mental illnesses like People Who Matter, and the extent to which the institutions we have set up for those members of our society who can't take care of themselves tend to breed abuse, neglect and authoritarianism, are very, Very, VERY important. So I recommend this to everyone --- not my usual practice when reviewing a book about such a specialized topic, especially a history book, but this one is just that necessary. It shines a critical light where most people are content not to look....more
I was kind of disappointed by this book. It seemed like Levy never really gets into any detailed analysis of the phenomena she's writing about, preferI was kind of disappointed by this book. It seemed like Levy never really gets into any detailed analysis of the phenomena she's writing about, preferring to argue by lengthy anecdote. Sometimes there's a germ of a really interesting idea that I'd love to read more about, like a paragraph in which Levy postulates that "raunch culture" is actually the underside of the strict conservative, anti-sex political climate we're in now --- but then she never develops that idea any further. She just goes on to describe another random scene of young women willingly making sexual objects of themselves.
That brings me to another thing about this book that kind of irked me --- sometimes, it almost seems like Levy --- Levy, the radical feminist, the critic of objectification in all its forms --- is objectifying the women she's writing about. She seems to dwell excessively on their looks, especially the sexualized aspects of their looks, like whether they are wearing a push-up bra and/or high heels, how short their skirts are, minute details of makeup, hairstyle, skin tone and texture and body type.
So, as much as I might agree with this book's thesis --- that women still aren't equal, and embracing sexual objecthood isn't empowering --- I don't think the book does a very good job of arguing the point. It feels half-finished....more
This is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as shaThis is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as sharp as it is in his other works, the characters in this one are much better realized and more subtly drawn. It's also a much more emotionally complicated novel --- we're not just supposed to laugh at Carrie, as we are meant to laugh at Babbitt, or to root for her, as we are meant to do for Arrowsmith; here, we're meant to do both of those things. Carrie might be Our Heroine, but that doesn't mean she'll always be in the right in this novel.
There are also a lot of really interesting supporting characters. My favorite was Miles Bjornstam, the atheistic, socialistic "Red Swede" who is Gopher Prairie's town crank and resident handyman. But there were a lot of others, too; I was really grateful that Lewis put so much thought into the characters of all these small-town wives Carrie alternately loves and hates --- they could easily have been caricatures (and a few, like Mrs. Bogart, were caricatures), but in this book they were not.
Carrie's husband, too, is written in a very interesting way. Sometimes, he's a buffoon, sometimes he's Carrie's oppressor and antagonist, sometimes he's her ally and sometimes he's downright heroic. In particular, his actions toward the end of the book really bowled me over. ...more