Apr 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 30 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
The late Christopher Lasch was one of those rare men who take women seriously. He did this by taking their arguments seriously, an effort which in our time begins with taking feminism seriously. In Women and the Common Life, a collection of his last articles, Lasch considers the essential feminist argument for "choice" -- a life of autonomy or perfect freedom. Without ever attacking feminism, he finds that feminist choice does not make sense and harms our democracy.
A historian, Lasch sees feminism in its historical context. He notes that feminism defines its own context as a revolution against patriarchy. Just as the French revolutionaries invented the term ancien regime to describe everything before the revolution of 1789, so the feminists have set up " patriarchy" as a catch-all category covering all history before the 1960s. They want it made clear that only today's feminism can sustain women's self- respect, so they measure every other situation for women by today's standard. They also need a target for blame.
Responding to this simplification, Lasch insists on taking pre-feminist women seriously too. He takes up the medieval and early-modern querelle des femmes, a literary controversy over women that started in the Roman de la Rose in 1275 and continued as late as Rabelais and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Feminists are inclined to take the side of spunky women (as who is not?) and to misinterpret their sexual insults of men as subversive digs against patriarchy. But Lasch shows that the quarrel was not over women but between love and marriage (which, he remarks, do not go together, as the song says, like a horse and carriage). And it was not so much a choice between love and marriage as a conflict of necessities in human life.
Feminism takes for granted the possibility of sexual harmony based on equality between men and women, whereas this old quarrel presumes antagonism between the sexes and conflict between women's roles as wife and lover. There is no doubt that aristocracy, with its concern for family lineage, intensifies the conflict, but perhaps it also brings into relief the same difficulty we feel today in another form. For one does not choose to fall in or out of love, but one chooses to marry (or divorce). Thus choice is often -- or should we say always? -- a matter of settling for less than one's first choice.
Lasch shows that bourgeois marriage, which replaced concern for lineage with desire for companionship between husband and wife, was hedged by the requirements of parental consent and public ceremony. Today we have abandoned parental consent, and the marriage ceremony often comes after the fact, so we have marriage by reluctant decision or desperate search as well as marriage based on impulsive whim. Choice is not so easy to get from life as we think. Lasch's perceptive excursion into history avoids both sentimentality and a sense of superiority, illuminates our problems and discourages us from self- congratulation.
After dispelling the notion that the place of women is controversial only in our time, or that every previous society was simply patriarchal, Lasch turns to the present and takes up a theme of his previous books -- the danger to democracy of the therapeutic state or of neo-paternalism. A democratic society of equals implies that each of us is competent to run his own life, since it does no good for all to be equal but incompetent. Thus the choices we make as equals must be competent choices. That they will be competent is what Tocqueville referred to as the democratic dogma.
Lasch was a profound democrat because he was a firm believer in the competence of ordinary people. But their competence is denied by the idea that society can be reformed by subjecting it to scientific reason, an idea that gives birth to professional experts of all sorts. Lasch traces the progress of the scientific idea during the 19th century as it applied to women, but he is aware that it originated in the 17th century or even earlier. Descartes's separation of mind from body -- so that mind has no sex -- and Hobbes's separation of self from society -- by which sex has no natural social role -- were thoughts that enabled us, Lasch says, to envision fundamental changes in the conventions that had governed the position of women in society.
Science might seem to be an aid to choice, and of course it was originally intended to be: the more science, the more control, the more choice. But, looking at the political consequences, Lasch sees that science, or the various sciences of rational control, have subtracted from human choice because they have systematically removed the power of decision from ordinary people with common sense and given it to experts with the prestige of science. Thus, the "dead hand of the educator," for example, takes over the unsupervised play of children after school, transforming it into " extracurricular activities" that fit into a "learning experience." The use of jargon is a sign of usurpation of the citizen by a technician.
Feminism promotes this change without realizing it. Its central policy is on abortion and is called "pro-choice," for the right of abortion frees a woman from the tyranny of nature that has unfairly left her in sole possession of the human fetus. But when it comes to the choice, does she make it by herself? No, the pro-choice position is that abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor. The doctor, stating the medical options, replaces her husband or her mother, who might give moral advice.
Lasch argues that feminism culminates the trend of modern democracy toward greater choice in principle and less choice in practice. Feminism revolted against the confinement of women to the home, but that condition was very new, the result of the middle class's moving to the suburbs. Lasch points out that Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, which began current American feminism in 1963, is not about the age-old oppression of patriarchy but a very specific complaint about women's life in the suburbs. Actually, women went to the suburbs by choice, says Lasch, to free themselves from the impositions of city life, where there are always other people around you. What drew people to the suburbs was the dream of perfect freedom in which you could see whom you liked when you liked. Suburbs excluded "everything not subject to choice -- the job, the [extended] family, the enforced sociability of the city streets."
When women got to the suburbs, however, they found that the extra choice they had sought left them alone in the home with too little to do. The feminist revolt was a necessary response, but it made matters worse. The problem was the strict separation between home and work, but when the feminists tried to solve it, they maintained the separation and simply insisted on having the same work as men. They needed a calling but they went for careers. They rejected the notion of volunteer work that would allow them to be outside the home without being inside an office, and they joined the competition to become a boss by submitting themselves to working for a boss. So much for women's liberation!
Lasch is not yet finished with his wonderful analysis. He shows that the feminist understanding of rational control is practically Orwellian. One would think that when a woman takes more control of her life, and lives more by her own choice, there would be a standard by which to measure her gain and society's improvement. But for the feminists, Lasch explains, a woman's choice is not secure and her control of her life is imperfect if she tries to live up to standards set by someone else. She is only in control if she lives for her own self-esteem rather than for an ideal of perfection she may well fall short of. If you make no demands on yourself, you will find yourself easy to please. This is hardly what is meant by taking control of your own life.
In the end, our society is democratic despite the experts. The experts do not control us, but they corrupt us. They deliver us to a "culture of narcissism," the title of Lasch's famous 1979 book, and they serve us with various kinds of therapy designed to keep us content with ourselves.
Lasch seems to doubt that we will remain content with the democratic self- esteem of which feminism is only the latest type. "Science enhanced human control over nature," he says, "but it left human beings more fearful than ever of what could not be controlled." That will be the cause of our discontent. What will be the remedy? Lasch says some pages later:
"Submission to God makes people less submissive in everyday life. It makes them less fearful but also less bitter and resentful, less inclined to make excuses for themselves." Less inclined to make excuses: What a man Christopher Lasch was.
Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University, is working on a study of manliness.