Once upon a time, half a century ago, American women washed dishes, packed lunches and, being good housewives, downed a pill or two to get through the day. Slowly, a panic overtook the gentler sex: Is this it? The dam broke open: Books were written, meetings were called, marches were marched. Rights–abortion, maternity leave, Title IX, sexual discrimination policies–were won. Brandishing said rights, women stormed the workplace, the halls of Congress, even the armed forces. And while inappropriate squeezes, delayed promotions and a few firings betrayed their second-class status, they persisted. They had arrived. Thirty years later, a generation of new women–young women–entered the workforce expecting to be treated as equals, despite–or was it because of?–the fact that they shaved their underarms. But they still only made 81 cents on the dollar of their male co-workers. They still had to do an awful load of dishes at night. And when there were babies to be had, well, they were the ones staying home and nodding off to Teletubbies. They were disappointed, and confused. Was this that glorious future that been promised them?
And then Laura Kipnis opened her laptop, and lo, it was good. Now the author of Against Love: A Polemic, a smart and brackish book that brought this hitherto unknown feminist scholar and video artist to the attention of The New Yorker and half the blogosphere, has struck again. Her new book, The Female Thing, examines the very question our tale leaves hanging: What happened to gender equality? Why has the movement that once seemed a matter of destiny kind of, well, broken down?
Kipnis turns a mirror on women, observing that if they wanted to smash the patriarchy, they probably could, given their sheer number–so could it be that maybe they don’t want to? Perhaps, she ventures, women ought to stop blaming men and get reacquainted with the “collaborator within,” the one who cleans feverishly, obsesses over her supposed flaws and maybe isn’t so sure she wants to be liberated–whatever that means–after all.
Kipnis devotes a chapter to each of four “topographies”: envy, dirt, sex and vulnerability. They’re linked not so much by a universal thesis (no phallic metanarratives here!) but by a methodology that examines how each has been reimagined over time to serve different purposes. Relying heavily on anecdote, and writing in a style even more befitting cocktail chatter than the very chatty Against Love, she skips around, bouncing from sociological studies to her own observations to the history books. Her goal throughout is to reveal each idea’s continued hold over women’s imaginations, as well as their refashionings over time. In this way she demonstrates that they are stories, not facts, and no matter how powerful, subject to debate.
And the terms of the debate are political. In Against Love, Kipnis used her ostensible subject–modern romance and the thrills of infidelity–to critique the political economy of late capitalism. Americans, she argued, burden love by expecting their partners to fulfill every last one of their needs, and resorting to submission, surveillance and the curtailment of freedoms when necessary. It was no accident, argued Kipnis–a Marxist and Freudian–that these conditions are “remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate.” Accordingly, she urged those shackled by the chains of “companionate coupledom” to jump out of their partners’ beds and into bed with other partners. The Female Thing similarly critiques our capitalist system, pointing out that women’s increased independence from men may amount to little more than shifting that dependency “to the vagaries of the job market: to bosses, customers and time clocks.” In other words, feminism, which once dared to imagine a radical redistribution of goods and resources, has “succumbed to the winner-take-all logic of a winner-take-all economy.” Women have not changed the nature of the capitalist workforce but merely adapted to it; she goes even farther, briskly asserting that female wages are up “because male wages are down”–so much for “real” gains.