Feminist Living: Lynne Segal

Feminist Living

Lynne Segal’s sentimental education.


2018 is the right time to read Lynne Segal. While many liberals and leftists consider the nebulous notion of “resistance” in broad terms—how do we participate? What methods are most effective?—Segal gives us insight into “another set of worries”: “whether and how feminism remains relevant to any such resistance.” Before I opened the recent reissue of her memoir, Making Trouble: Life and Politics, first published in 2007, I hadn’t seen the current predicament framed so succinctly. Is there anything of value left in the feminist project? Or has it become “co-opted and tamed by, even complicit with, the forces that have brought us here?” (“Here,” as you might expect, means living in the time of Trump, Theresa May, Brexit, and other nominally democratically selected horrors.)

It’s difficult to receive this inquiry as anything other than rhetorical, since, in Segal’s view, one of those forces—the sort of aspirational individualism that our current stage of capitalism tends to promulgate—has proved to be the single most effective tool for neutering feminist language and precepts. We are now living, Segal asserts, in an era in which mainstream feminism is no longer “oppositional but presented as a firm ally of the capitalist market”; what’s important, for many current feminists, is that women have equal access to the starting line of an endurance race that ends in misery for most. It’s this strain of aspirational feminism that insists that Taylor Swift and Megyn Kelly qualify as feminists, Hillary Clinton as a political savior, and Fearless Girl, a sex-and-race-discriminatory investment firm’s cynical art-vertisement, as a rallying cry for gender equality.

To hold fast to this version of feminism in the Trump era is a bit like clinging to a pile of dynamite in the middle of a forest fire. Yet it’s the only feminism that some women have ever known, and it’s no easy feat to convince them that the individual power a woman might amass through self-involvement and self-promotion—and almost inevitably at the expense of other, less advantaged women—is not synonymous with true liberation. Now 73, and having devoted nearly her entire adult life to prioritizing collective triumph over individual, Segal confronts a devastating possibility: “Have we feminists wasted our time on politics?”

Despite a long career as one of England’s leading socialist feminists, Lynne Segal isn’t well-known in the United States. Though she’s focused on the so-called “sexy” aspects of feminism—sex itself, of course, and pornography, and masculinity—none of her eight often thick and sometimes dry books have made much headway among wonkish, academically inclined younger American feminists. In Making Trouble, Segal describes how her fellow Australian, Germaine Greer, has long viewed her as something of a rival, or at least a competitive nuisance; but Segal’s influence is much more limited, and she has yet to write anything akin to Greer’s The Female Eunuch or The Whole Woman.

Innovative theory and bombastic delivery are not Segal’s style, and she knows it. (In a typically endearing and generous moment, she writes of Greer: “I was always her junior in every sense.”) And yet there are many characteristics of Segal’s work that make it worthy of a wider audience: She’s a reflective, careful thinker who has served as a steadfast historian of the movement that she began contributing to in her early adult years. As her published work attests, the whole of her personal history is defined by her relationship to feminist politics. It has shaped her life in every conceivable dimension—familial, professional, social—and earned her measured loyalty in the process.

Segal’s interest in radical politics started in Sydney in the 1960s, where she “felt, in some deep but largely inexpressible way, that most people led lives based on lies, hypocrisy and cruelty.” Her mother was a dauntingly accomplished yet deeply unhappy surgeon (the second woman in all of Australia to qualify for the profession), her father a “strangely sadistic” doctor who, according to a horrifying family anecdote, seems to have sexually exploited at least one of his patients before having her committed. So it’s no wonder that Segal found darkness in the ways of the bourgeois world.

That early unease began to take its shape when a teenage Segal linked up with a “small group of anarchists” based in Australia known as the Push, whose luminaries were mostly men who spent more of their time theorizing than protesting. The Hungarian philosopher George Molnar and the anthropologist Michael Taussig were among this crowd, but the absence of superstars surely had to do with the fact that “engagements with the outside world were sporadic,” and few participants identified themselves as activists.

But the Push did give Segal much to take with her into public life: It was with this cohort that she experienced her first arrest (for putting “DON’T VOTE” stickers on public property) and also discovered the joys of the sexual revolution; both were consonant with the crew’s devotion to “individual freedoms of every kind.” At the time, Australia was staunchly censorial about sexuality, and the Push was a crucial outlet for Segal’s sexual self-discovery. “Sex and love, more than anything else, were surely what I was searching for in those early days,” she writes, doubting herself as she does. “But that is looking back, as a reluctantly ageing woman.”

Organized feminism was still nascent in much of the world, and male supremacy unmistakably at play among radicals, but the Push’s anarchist politics created “a space that encouraged women to think and act just ‘like a man,’ and hence for us more freely than anywhere else in those days,” she adds. It was, let’s face it, like many leftist circles: a fantastic space not only for political awakening but for getting laid.

In 1969, Segal completed a PhD in psychology. She also had a son with James Clifford, an artist who became her reluctant and consequently temporary husband. (Segal’s parents were insistent on the union, which she says she knew “was a massive mistake.”) Upon the birth of their only child, Clifford effectively affirmed his homosexuality to Segal and promptly refused any further sexual contact with her.

“I was lost, confused, unsure and bewildered about what to do with my life,” Segal recalls of that year. She ended up moving to England, and it was there, in London, that she joined the growing women’s movement and became committed to feminism. Segal describes herself in those years as “an undercover academic” whose “job as a lecturer remained secondary to my life as a community organizer and activist.”

Where she’d rank her role as a mother is left unstated here, though Segal believes that her experience of raising a child was a critical component of how she understood and lived out feminism. “It is unyielding dogma today that Women’s Liberation ignored the needs of mothers,” Segal observes, and yet most of the “key instigators” of the movement were mothers, and they could only have been activists through the “supportive domestic arrangements”—communal living, chore sharing, and child-care duty—that the women provided one another.

Such judicious defensiveness exemplifies one of Segal’s gifts: Throughout Making Trouble, she pushes back against the unfair and ahistorical criticisms of second-wave feminism but concedes those complaints that are founded, including but not limited to a sort of porousness in the movement’s rhetoric that left it so vulnerable to those aforementioned deradicalizing pressures. “We did not envisage how easily women would slide into using other women as nannies and cleaners,” she admits, while providing at least a partial explanation for this blind spot. “Ambitious professional women, wherever they were in the Seventies, did not for the most part embrace Women’s Liberation…. It was seen then, probably correctly, more as an impediment than an advantage for career success.”

In that 1970s moment, the most committed players took it for granted that women wanted to transcend class divides rather than exploit them. Outsourcing child care or household chores to less advantaged women would have been apostasy, especially if done in the service of professional gain. But what a difference a few decades make when it comes to women and work. Just ask Sheryl Sandberg.

Making Trouble is a refutation of today’s mainstream feminism, not only explicitly but—more powerfully—implicitly. In the prologue, preface, and final chapter, Segal sets aside the book’s narrative to speak directly about what she’s learned as a result of all that feminist living: “even as we are encouraged to individualize at every turn, we speak only with and through the words of those with whom we manage to affiliate.” Or to put it more simply, other people matter: They matter so much that they make us who we are. And it’s in the book’s execution that this conviction comes across so beautifully. Segal seems to have read almost everything and to find value in almost everything she reads, much of which she then eagerly shares with her own readers. She thoroughly, meticulously practices collectivity in her writing as much as in her politics by drawing in the words of dozens of other writers and activists.

That’s true of her previous books as well. In Straight Sex, her 1994 book on the politics of pleasure, she methodically summarizes and evaluates a range of conflicting schools of thought on the topic. (It might aid in imagining the scope of the undertaking if you know that every chapter starts with three epigraphs.) In Slow Motion, her 1990 book on the fragile state of masculinity, she navigates her subject matter similarly, pulling not just from theory but from poetry and memoirs, too. In one typical passage, Segal draws from oral histories, a charity’s leaflets, and a reader response to a newspaper to sketch a picture of AIDS and homophobia in the late 1980s.

But this prismatic effect is most compelling in Making Trouble, where it seems to be a direct manifestation of Segal’s obvious love and respect for her comrades, as well as a detailed diagram of how indebted her life is to theirs, as opposed to the reflexive habit of an avid reader who buries herself in research. Any given passage might refer to novelists Erica Jong, Rita Mae Brown, and Anya Meulenbelt, or to the researchers Cynthia Cockburn and Ursula Huws and the global organization Women in Black. This good academic habit of acknowledgment and reference is a sad rarity among younger feminists, particularly those with large Twitter followings and columns in mainstream publications, who in spite of their university pedigrees avoid regularly bringing others’ work to bear on their own—or, at least, admitting to doing so. (Are they simply not reading what other women write? Or are they choosing not to explicitly incorporate it?)

For women who have been raised in the scorched landscape of our contemporary world, where sisterhood is often superficial and disingenuous and inequality is rampant, Segal’s cooperative analysis should be a revelation. “Citations can be feminist bricks,” Sara Ahmed wrote in last year’s Living a Feminist Life. “They are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.” That phrasing is especially fortuitous when considered in light of Segal’s seven years in a London group home with “three single mothers…at its heart.” For many single mothers today, too, you create your dwelling collaboratively or not at all, and the same holds true for any durable feminist action. No one should be left behind; if we do not go together, we don’t go at all.

Inevitably, noble principles become messy when executed in the flawed world of right now. Segal was “both house owner and highest earner” in the group home, where no one paid rent and conflict over chores, children, and romantic partners was fairly routine. Even the most conscientious praxis can’t overcome the inconvenience of human emotion, be it jealousy, resentment, or basic hunger-induced moodiness. Nevertheless, Segal’s “memories of life in that decade are mostly of the friends I made, and the fun we had.”

One of Segal’s guiding convictions, which resonates throughout Making Trouble, is that activist engagement is not just about political success and collective triumph, but about joy—like the sheer pleasure she had when living with her friends in the London home—and in the book’s conclusion she calls for “a resolve, wherever possible, to keep friendship, warmth and sociability alive in political work.” Joy, for her, is inextricable from caring about others and treating them well, in a spirit not of charity but of camaraderie.

This becomes the explicit concern of Radical Happiness, Segal’s latest book. “While there is much official talk about happiness today,” she argues in its opening, “it rarely includes any rhetoric of joy, least of all mention of collective joy.” Happiness is often taken to be a personal experience, not one with political implications. But for Segal, it is integral to our political struggles. Joy is not only desirable; it “may actually be necessary for us even to envisage real social change, that is, may be essential for us to resist mere accommodation to the known harms of the present.” In other words, we need to conceive of and yearn for happiness, not just for ourselves but for each other.

Like her friend Barbara Ehrenreich, who tackled the witless and intrinsically conservative nature of “positive thinking” in her 2010 book Bright-Sided, Segal rejects today’s dominant discourse concerning happiness. The “happiness agenda” of governments and employers is “concerned above all with softening the costs of ever-rising social wretchedness” without disrupting the conditions that produce that wretchedness. As a result, the responsibility for being happy is ladled out to each individual rather than conceived as a cooperative project.

This is not to say that happiness is categorically inaccessible to individuals, but rather that “the triggers for joy are almost always something others might share…even if we experience them alone” and, further, that joy is particularly acute in “situations we feel we have worked to help create.” Segal’s predilection for politically derived pleasure is obvious, so she tries to temper her own enthusiasm by acknowledging that “politics is just one form of collective bonding.” Even so, she cannot help but hasten to add that it is “an enduringly significant and transformative one”—in other words: the best.

Much of Radical Happiness consists of very smart, if familiar, overviews of the history of depression, the fraught nature of romantic love, and how modern culture is hostile to exuberant behavior and those things that make us happy. Segal can be an elegant writer when she gives herself space to expand at length on her insights. But her default mode is that of the synthesizer or documentarian, and parts of Radical Happiness, like Straight Sex and Slow Motion before it, are packed so full of others’ ideas that it’s hard to discern her own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though such extended summarizing risks and occasionally yields enervation for the reader.

Yet what’s most striking about Radical Happiness and Segal’s work, taken as a whole, is how completely they seem to have been conceived in the spirit of service. It’s an old-fashioned notion in 2018, especially outside of spiritual or religious circles; today’s activism is usually understood less as taking care of others and more as opposition, righteousness, or emergency response. (In her argument for utopian thinking, Segal quotes the feminist theorist Wendy Brown: “political identities [are] founded upon a sense of personal injury, and the need for protection, rather than generating any more progressive political vision of the future.”) But Segal’s writing is not about herself, even when it ostensibly is. (“This is not a memoir,” she insists at one point in Making Trouble.) Instead, her feminism, despite being profoundly personal, pursues collective liberation; even the fact that “liberation” sounds so corny to contemporary ears is further evidence of what feminism has lost over the years.

Given this view of feminism’s power to truly unite women, as opposed to merely forging superficial alliances of convenience that catapult a few to fame, Segal’s unsung status begins to make better sense. She wants to understand and to educate; she wants to advance her politics but not herself, and she hopes to achieve a sense of individual liberation—the sort of personal freedom envisioned by the Push in her teenage years—through community-minded work that promotes the elevation of others.

Radical Happiness ultimately arrives at a convincing argument about our need to overcome the now-common tendency to view dystopian thinking as a political act in and of itself. “Neo-liberalism has had one remarkable success, despite all its own contradictions and disasters,” Segal writes. “It has convinced so many that its version of predatory, corporate capitalism is inescapable.” To formulate a utopia to take its place, we must concern ourselves not with “final goals or end-points, but rather with desire: the collective longing” for better conditions for us all. If happiness is “not so much an emotion, a psychic state or inner disposition, but rather a way of acting in the world,” then so is the path to real social change. It is defined not by a list of demands, but by a commitment to the common good. A feminism that’s about showing up for each other and not merely ourselves: how radical.

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