Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: The World Split Open

A Fair Trade Book

Book Title: The World Split Open
Author: Ruth Rosen
Date: 2000
Publisher: Viking Penguin
ISBN: 0-670-81462-8
Length: 444 pages including notes, long bibliography, and index
Illustrations: black-and-white photos
Quote: “[I]n the fall of 1967...I noticed a small card tacked to a bulletin board in the student union: ‘Women’s Liberation Group forming—all are welcome.’ At the time, I was also working as a journalist...‘it could be a great story,’ I thought...I wanted to write a story about the group. They agreed, but insisted that I partici­pate. Two hours later, my world began to turn upside down.”
This is the story of Rosen’s revolution. And what a story it is! As a journalist Rosen met dozens of women whom most of us knew only as  celebrities or pen friends; as an active member of a left-wing “liberation” group she had an inside view, at least secondhand, of the left-wing revolutionaries that inspired the most colorful “revolutionary” feminists. She knew people who could describe the nonverbal communication that allowed them to take Stokely Carmichael’s famous remark about the place of women in the civil rights movement as a joke. She could consult Carolyn Heilbrun, Barbara Ehrenreich, and also Norman Mailer, for help publishing this book.
That’s what you’ll love about The World Split Open. Although Rosen writes as a professional journalist, with limited reference to her firsthand participation in the events she describes, she was either there, or able to interview someone who was there. Her memoirs have a significant place in the history of her generation.
That’s also what’s not to love about her book. Because Rosen got an up-close-and-personal view of the left-wing activities that got so much attention, young readers could be excused for thinking that Rosen saw the whole thing. She didn’t. She was so far out on one wing that she has nothing at all to tell readers about the rest of the bird. She’s done a great job telling the story of left-wing feminism...but the women’s movement would not have accomplished nearly as much as it did if it had been confined to the left wing.
In the fall of 1967 I wasn’t really reading yet. I was exposed first to the other kind of feminism, the quiet kind that was being quietly practiced by women like my mother and her clients. Mother was a beautiful model turned beauty consultant; by 1967 she’d left the big cities, where she’d worked with clients like Tallulah Bankhead, for small towns where she occasionally earned pocket money by trimming old ladies’ hair. Mother smashed stereotypes all over the place. She opted for natural childbirth and literally straight-armed nurses to make sure she got it. She owned her own business and breast-fed me, and later my brother, right in the shop. She had a devoted husband who did housework without being asked. Anybody would have thought feminist leaders would have been flocking to her salons for advice... unless of course they’d studied the psychology of young women.
The problem the left-wing feminists found with Mother wasn’t just that she was over thirty (she settled down late), or even that she lacked faith in Social Security and supported Barry Goldwater. They were used to recruiting moderates into their groups; Richard Nixon was a politician to try Republicans’souls, and Mother never even officially joined the Republican Party. The problem was that being around Mother made left-wing women feel so envious they could hardly see the door.
Granted, there were left-wing women, like Gloria Steinem, who had similar effects on some Republicans. I am not here even talking about women like Beverly LaHaye or Dale Evans Rogers, who said, modestly enough, that in their own relationships they’d worked things out in such a way that their husbands could be described as leaders. I’m talking about the possibility that some of the writing at may be neither fiction nor fantasy. There are indeed women who would have a surgical abortion to destroy a healthy baby if their men told them to. These women are dangerous, both before and after the men who exploit them decide to trade them in for more recent models.
That Ruth Rosen hasn’t researched right-wing women enough to see the differences between Marabel Morgan’s make-concessions-in-order-to-elicit-concessions approach to relationships, Beverly LaHaye’s partnership approach, Phyllis Schlafly’s right-wing feminism (you had to listen to the whole explanation behind “fifty-nine cents is enough”), Midge Decter’s real fear that every other woman is a threat to her home, and the desperation of the Manson Family females, is every reader’s loss. It is, however, the more deplorable because a real feminist journalist, Eleanor Burkitt, had already written a fair-minded, informative, and wide-ranging study of  The Right Women.
The Right Women deserves a review of its own. More than that, it deserves to be required reading for anyone who thinks Ruth Rosen has told even half of the story in The World Split Open (and, if you buy the books from me, it is). Burkitt carefully distinguishes between the different paths to self-affirmation that can be fairly described as right-wing feminism, and the genuine self-hatred, or hatred of other women, that motivates genuinely antifeminist behavior.
It needs to be better understood that, although the left-wing feminists of my childhood tried to tell women like my mother that they were antifeminists, or “part of the problem,” the dictionary definition of “feminist” is anyone who thinks the value of women is at least equal to the value of men. Catholic housewives like Erma Bombeck qualify. Outsiders like Margaret Atwood, whose first successful novel explored the emotional breakdown of a woman who has chosen abortion, whose most successful novel expressed distrust of totalitarian tendencies Left and Right by conflating them into a political cult that mixes Marxist and Christian rhetoric, and who then wrote three blockbusters in a row exploring the evil in the hearts of women, also qualify. Women like my mother, who progressed naturally from a focus on women’s fashion and beauty into a focus on women’s health, also qualify. Women like Linda Thompson, who care more about a very young woman’s right to keep her baby alive than about her “right” to  be pressured into abortion, so much that they’re willing to sacrifice their careers to oppose left-wing totalitarianism, definitely qualify. Women like Helen Chenoweth, who echoed a quip that’s been traced back to Ellen White when she said that she would have preferred to stay home and bake cookies but she had to be in Congress because the right sort of men wouldn’t run, qualify too.
Burkitt went out there and interviewed everybody on the right, from homeschoolers to Young Republicans to female marksmanship instructors. Helen Chenoweth was in her book. Linda Thompson was. Laura Ingraham was. It was an eye-opening experience for Burkitt and I wish Rosen had shared the benefit of it. It would have been pleasant to write something about how, after feminism went mainstream and developed a solid right wing, Rosen lived and learned. But no; while I was reading her book, e-friends out west e-mailed that Rosen was bashing Tea Party women in California with stereotypes that...that...
I confess, Gentle Readers, I was gobsmacked by the stereotype of Tea Party women as “always wearing dresses, never a pantsuit.” I cannot imagine to whom that line would be uttered. Pantsuits were a fashion blunder of Rosen’s and my youth. I wouldn’t expect the younger generation to remember them. They were the men's nylon-and-polyester "leisure suits" of the 1970s in women's sizes. They were dreadful. They were the uniform of young fashion victims in 1970 and of color-blind elderly frumps by 1975, but I’ve not seen one in years. Pantsuits were certainly not what serious feminists wore at work, nor were they chosen either for beauty or for comfort. They existed only as long as the garment industry was forcing all women to choose between miniskirts, jeans, and vintage clothes as alternatives. By the late 1970s the majority of women were going with vintage, and eventually the fashion industry smartened up and heeded our demand for dresses that did offer beauty, comfort, and the option of wearing them at work. For about thirty years, when newspapers report that some fashion designer tried to market a two-piece outfit with separated full-length legs, they’ve had to mention quickly that this was not the dreaded “pantsuit” but a casual "sweatsuit," a really mannish “trouser suit,” or “more of an Indian salwar-kamiz look.” So Rosen was saying that...that she’s not shopped since 1975? I suppose that might be considered a kind of liberation...

(For the record, on the day I received the e-mail containing the "never a pantsuit" comment, I happened to be wearing a cotton salwar-kamiz. I usually wear skirts or dresses to the computer center because I live in a warm climate. My choice of clothes has more to do with the weather, what I'm doing that day, and what's clean in my closet, than with politics or religion.)
And in The World Split Open, Rosen shows that she’s stuck in the one-sided politics of her youth, just as that sound bite showed that she’s stuck in the fashion sense of her youth. Rosen is writing a cultural history of the United States, not a critical study of worldwide English literature; she didn’t have to mention any Canadian novel, however good, but she mentions The Handmaid’s Tale more than once, and she gets it all wrong. The government of the Republic of Gilead is neither Christian nor right-wing. The idea of the “handmaid” is Jewish. The rationale for the enslavement of these women is Marxist. The methods of enslavement consist of destroying printed words (monarchist and/or Marxist) and cutting off access to credit in a cashless economy (the idea's been claimed by an active member of the Communist Party). Although by now the Republic of Gilead seems closer to Omar’s Afghanistan than to anything else, Atwood got her ideas of revolution and resistance from the World War and Amnesty International; she was trying to show how those things might happen in the United States. (See Atwood's prose collection, Writing with Intent.)
Although The Handmaid’s Tale is as foreign as The Second Sex, it ought to have had a tremendous impact on the United States. We should have read The Handmaid’s Tale, thought about it, and said, “We have to stop paving the way for dictatorship. We have to say no to anything that’s ‘cashless’ or ‘paperless.’ We have to be more aware of all the ways we give others excessive power to interfere with our self-determination.” Rosen read The Handmaid’s Tale as a bigot and said, “It’s about a right-wing government.” I’m not sure whether “bothers” is the right word for what this misinterpretation does to Margaret Atwood, because some writers positively enjoy correcting a misinterpretation of something we’ve written, but since Atwood has publicly corrected this particular mistake several times Rosen's comments in The World Split Open are just plain sloppy journalism.
Given that the political lines have to be drawn differently in different countries, any attempt to place any foreigner on the U.S. political spectrum is doomed to err. I think Atwood can fairly be called a liberal, in the best sense. My impression, based on her books, is that she was a leftist in youth but has learned from the historical events of her lifetime. I wish that could also be said for Rosen.
But it can’t. Why, Rosen wails cutely, are women still trying to “juggle” work and family life instead of demanding tax-funded government child care? Many women have settled for day care. Rosen has not, apparently, bothered to talk to the ones who haven’t, or read anything they’ve written. Women and men “juggle” because a child whose home is not abusive would rather be at home than in day care. Rosen can’t seem to imagine the possibility that the doctrine she drank in as a little girl, that if government were only bigger it could do everything for everybody, might not work for actual people. What would happen if one “beneficiary” of a government program told the truth about her or his experience? Rosen’s world would split open again...and I say the sooner the better.
Inexcusably in view of the influence of Marx on her youth, Rosen ignores the actual process of dialectics. When people have adopted a general belief, e.g. the myth that all or most women would want to be “angels in the home,” and the shortcomings of this belief have produced a need for change, the change is always made by two kinds of movement. There’s an extreme reaction, carried out by what I call the heyokas of the movement whose excesses everyone else rejects, and there’s a moderate reaction that usually ends up being adopted because it seems so much more sensible than the extreme reaction. We wishy-washy liberals tend to win.
In the women’s movement of the late twentieth century, the left-wingers who made the headlines were the extremists. The conservative women who stayed in their churches (only they were now recognized as scholars and teachers), stuck with their jobs as nurses and office managers (only they demanded better pay and working conditions), cherished their children (and even demanded less government help, in some cases, by homeschooling), enjoyed male attention (only they used that male attention to teach men how to behave), might have taken more interest in the mating behavior of fish than in that of lesbians (only, for that reason, they weren’t afraid of lesbians), and so on, are the ones whose “movement” has largely succeeded.
Blinkered by her politics, Rosen remembers Sonia Johnson’s clamor for the Equal Rights Amendment, but can’t seem to remember that, while Johnson was getting herself excommunicated from her church, Sandra Day O’Connor was quietly welcomed into the Supreme Court. Rosen remembers the women who complained that they didn’t know how to “juggle” work and family, but merely resents, rather than learning from, the women (like Phyllis Schlafly) who did. Rosen remembers the women who selfishly opposed abortion (for everybody) because they saw children as a means to keep a breadwinner supporting them, but has nothing to say about the ones who opposed abortion (for themselves) because they noticed a positively genocidal pattern in the way abortion was selectively recommended to their ethnic group...or, for that matter, because they were simply afraid of physical injury.
The inevitable result is a one-sided book that’s informative for young readers, nostalgic and illuminating for older readers, as long as Rosen is describing what her friends were doing...but, as a description of what American women were doing, about as accurate as a study of movie-star magazines would have been.
It also polarizes the generations more than necessary. Whether Brittany Doe, daughter of Jane, age 22, felt more sympathy with the Tea Party or the Occupiers, she has to be aware that the twentieth century welfare state was never sustainable and is unlikely to last through her adult life. She has to see the remnants of the Old Left, flapping about like disillusioned Millerites in 1845, observing that Jesus had not returned to this world in the flesh and insisting that He must have done something; in the case of Obama supporters, the insistence is that there has to be a way to tax and spend ourselves out of bankruptcy, there has to, there has to, because people can’t be asked to tighten their belts. If Brittany Doe finds any logical reason (as distinct from blind faith) to support this idea, her reason must be that she doesn’t expect to live long in any case and she jolly well wants to grab her share now. Then there’s the New Left, hugging trees for camouflage; their plan of saving, then ruling, the world by thinning the human population might in fact work, apart from the minor problem that people who had done it wouldn’t be quite human. If Brittany has any hope for the future at all, it’s closer to the Old Right than to the Old Left. Do we really want to teach Brittany a view of the women’s movement that she is bound to identify with the oppressors of her generation? Shouldn’t her first full-length survey of the movement be written from a centrist position that recognizes the contributions of both the left-wing heyoka celebrities and the quiet, easily forgotten women whose “modest, conservative” moves actually got somewhere?
Ideally, of course, Brittany would read The World Split Open for Rosen’s account of the outrages that used to be normal, the separate columns for “Help Wanted, Male” (career jobs) and “Help Wanted, Female” (clerical, babysitting, and food service jobs), the jobs that weren’t recognized as part of the sex industry but were available only to women with the right body measurements, the teachers who blithely assured students that girls were supposed to be “beautiful and dumb.” (Yes, Brittany, all those things used to be true, and also young girls used to be blamed for “getting themselves raped” since they must have done something to “inflame the poor fool’s lust.” I was seriously told, as late as 1980, not to train for a career job because in spite of all present facts I was likely to become an attractive woman, like my mother, and should stay indoors and not inflame men's lust.) Brittany would wonder why women who remember those abominations, and more, would ever have bogged down in special-interest issues like abortion, homosexuality, or "goddess spirituality." She might wonder whether the touching faith women like Rosen placed in a Nanny State had something to do with their generation’s unequal access to education. And then she’d talk about it with Jane Doe. And to her list of celebrity extremists she could add the names of the women who’d done most to liberate her, personally, which is always a pleasant exercise, and would also show Brittany the difference between the heyokas and the real movers in the movement.
We don’t live in an ideal world, so I’ll wrap up this long rant by recommending that everyone who reads The World Split Open read The Right Women—preferably, read The Right Women first. When you can read it in its complete historical context, The World Split Open is a valuable book and a good read.

The World Split Open is available as a Fair Trade Book package together with The Right Women. The package costs $10 plus $5 shipping (other books may be added to the actual package to reduce shipping costs), and out of this Rosen and Burkitt, or charities of their choice, will receive $1 each.