Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Benjamin R. Barber

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 1,014 words
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Critical Review by Benjamin R. Barber

SOURCE: "Beyond the Feminist Mystique," in New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 3, July 11, 1983, pp. 26-32.

In the following excerpt, Barber summarizes developments in the Feminist Movement that he describes as anti-women and then discusses Ehrenreich's The Hearts of Men as a fresh perspective on the dynamics of male/female relationships, but oversimplified and flawed.

This is more than the internecine bickering of ideological purists. It issues out of a basic disenchantment—a revisionism that is ready to rewrite the history of the past without yet being ready to revise its blueprint for the future. Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a loyal and unswerving feminist in the face of Elshtain's revisionism, nonetheless perpetrates an even more startling revisionism of her own in her new book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment. In her fresh if highly selective rewriting of American social history since World War II, Ehrenreich argues that well before the feminist revolt, men were being led into rebellion against their traditional male roles as breadwinners and mortgage-holders by a most unlikely configuration of social movements. These included Hugh Hefner's Playboy philosophy (the magazine made its debut in 1953), which urged men to prefer an irresponsible bachelorhood where women figured only as particularly delectable consumables, to the responsibilities of marriage and the family; the medical discovery of stress as a major factor in heart disease for the hard-working overachievers who, it now turned out, were literally risking their lives to keep "spoiled" wives and children in the suburban comfort to which they had become accustomed; and finally the Beat Generation, which in its apotheosizing of irresponsibility, sexual promiscuity, male bonding, and "on the road" mobility, had redefined marriage as bondage and achievers as squares.

These three strains of postwar irresponsibility, Ehrenreich argues, infected the newly fashioned suburban family and undermined its foundations in the social culture well before Friedan got around to calling it a comfortable concentration camp.

The promise of feminism—that there might be a future in which no adult person was either a "dependent creature" or an overburdened breadwinner—came at a time when the ideological supports for male conformity were already crumbling. Physicians had found men the weaker sex; psychologists were finding them perilously "rigid." The War [in Vietnam] reinforced the medical dictum that male aggressiveness was a lethal force; and the counterculture reinforced the promise, from the new psychology, of a richer life for those who could overcome their masculine hang-ups.

This is fascinating if debatable social history. Skeptics will point out that Ehrenreich picks and chooses among a plethora of possible sources, and that her actual themes come from the fringe rather than the heart of the 1950's social environment. A quite different moral emerges if one looks not at Playboy, cardiological stress, and the Beats (lesson: men were being tempted to abandon the family long before women were being tempted by feminism to imitate them), but at The Saturday Evening Post, Salk's polio vaccine, and the growth of television (lesson: marriage was great, kids were getting healthier, and everyone was staying home more—i.e., the family was flourishing as never before), or at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the elevation of cancer into a number-one killer, and serial music (lesson: anxiety and alienation were undermining individuals and families).

There are as many lessons to be drawn from social history as there are permutations and combinations of social movements, subgroups, trends, fashions, novelties, and revolutions. To be sure, men were anxious about stress, but they also worried about communism and McCarthy, cancer and the Bomb, and on the whole they mostly stayed on the corporate ladder and limited their rebellion to Sunday football on television or chronic insomnia. Men were doubtless resentful of the pressures associated with playing breadwinner, but they did not dream of permitting their wives to work or otherwise share their "man-size" burdens. They were fascinated by the Beats and titillated by the Playboy life style, but wore button-down shirts and chinos and restricted their yen for bunnies to Easter with the kids.

Nonetheless, for the purposes of this discussion, what is interesting is not Ehrenreich's selective reading of social history but the conclusions she draws from it—or, rather, fails to draw from it. Are her 1950's dropouts heroes to be welcomed as allies in the feminist struggle against the constraints of the bourgeois family? Or cowards and narcissists to be despised for their immaturity, their materialism and their mistrust of women? Does portraying Hugh Hefner as a weird predecessor of Betty Friedan exonerate him of sexism or indict her of narcissism? If Jack Kerouac is a harbinger of liberation, then are not feminists so many latter-day hippies in search of missing selves and in flight from the responsibilities of maturity? Ehrenreich does not and apparently cannot answer these questions. She notes that the male revolt of the 1950's was "a blow against the system of social control," which flatters her socialist instincts, but she also recognizes that it was self-indulgent, materialistic, and woman-hating, which offends her feminist instincts.

In the end, Ehrenreich can neither avoid nor resolve the central dilemma of feminism: how to be free without mimicking men—how to nurture femininity without relinquishing equality. Those like Elshtain and Friedan who remind women of the joys and responsibilities of loving and generativity (the new acceptable term for "reproductivity"), end up being viewed as traitors using liberal credentials to make arguments no less reactionary than those of a Midge Decter or a Rita Kramer. (Kramer's new book In Defense of the Family, [see "What Are Families Really For?" by Peter Steinfels and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, TNR, May 16], is a neoconservative attack on feminism that does simply celebrate the traditional woman and the traditional family.)

From the point of view of practical politics, feminism's second stage is thus an unmitigated disaster. Its honorable ambivalence, if it does not actually encourage backlash, can produce political paralysis. Its welcome confusions yield factionalism, recantation, and apostasy. Dilemmas and conundrums may occasion great literature and subtle theory, but they do little to rid the world of gender discrimination and sexual inequality.

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This section contains 1,014 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Benjamin R. Barber