The Magazine


Apr 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 30 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Christopher Lasch

Women aand the Common Life

Love, Marriage, and Feminism

W. W. Norton, 196 pp., $ 23

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.