Friday, May 11, 2007

The French disconnection

Marilyn French made a splash in 1977 with the publication of The Women's Room. This angry feminist novel tells the story of Mira, an unhappily married woman who escapes via divorce to an independent life of study and sexual freedom. The book sold 21 million copies.

Last Saturday The Age ran a story on the now 77-year-old French ("The French Revolution" 5/5/07). What struck me most about the piece were the "disconnects" in the views of the ageing feminist writer.

For instance, Marilyn French's two children are now in their 50s and both are childless. It's understandable that French should miss being a grandmother and therefore lament the growing rate of childlessness in Western society:

She still has a dim view of marriage, but is passionate about motherhood, believing it should be the central organising principle of society. She sits forward, eyes flashing, when I ask why. "What else are we here for? I mean, if there is a god, what did the god put us here to do? One thing: have children. That's it. And what do we do? We make it into the least interesting, unpaid, on-the-side thing you can do - societies are geared so that really, you'll have an easier ride if you just don't have children. Perverse values.

She points to rising childlessness among women of the current generation and says it's only going to get worse. "You make it so hard, they're just not going to have the babies - people are going to have to pay them to have babies. Building airplanes - is that really what we're here to do? Going to the moon - is that really a primary consideration? No.

I agree with much of this. In a sense society traditionally has been organised around motherhood: around creating a protected and secure space in which women can bear and nurture their children. Most people too do ultimately think of their children as being the most important of their life achievements.

I wonder, though, how French thinks motherhood can be treated as the central organising principle of society if men aren't brought into an active and enduring support for the mothers of their children through marriage.

It's odd too that French thinks that the way to make motherhood more interesting and attractive is to commodify it. Usually the left is opposed to the commodification of social relationships under capitalism, so it's notable that French wants motherhood to be valued in terms of wages and market value.

However, there is a more jarring disconnect in French's views on motherhood and children. She proudly tells her interviewer that:

I've had more love affairs than anyone else except for my daughter ... The number amounts to the hundreds.

We learn too that French has,

a strict policy of living for pleasure. This is a big thing for French.

She won't commit to living with anyone else, choosing instead to live independently:

I've had lovers that would come for four, five days or every other weekend - and that's fine with me. I like that.

She has spent her time writing, travelling (most recently to the Amazon), and having casual affairs. It's the standard modernist lifestyle choice, if you think that autonomy (independence) is the key good in life and that traditional commitments represent an oppressive restriction.

The problem is that it's difficult to fit children into it. When we have children we give up part of our autonomy: we are no longer unimpeded in choosing what to do or be. So French is living and advocating an autonomist lifestyle, the classic single girl lifestyle, in which motherhood is likely to loom as a repressive defeat.

French wants things which are at odds with each other. She advocates autonomist views which are likely to lead people to associate motherhood negatively with oppression. Consider the opinions of right-liberal Charles Richardson, quoted approvingly at the left-liberal Larvatus Prodeo site. Charles Richardson recently attacked the Treasurer's calls for improved fertility on the grounds that:

Decreased birthrates are associated with two things: increased standards of living and improved status of women ... If Australia wants more people we don't have to return our womenfolk to domestic drudgery in order to get them. We just need to open the door (to immigrants) a bit wider ... The drivers of fertility crusades are racism and misogyny: keep the women barefoot and pregnant ...

So autonomy theory led Marilyn French in the 1970s to condemn marriage as a domestic restriction and to propose an independent lifestyle in its place; the same theory now leads modern liberals like Charles Richardson to condemn motherhood as an oppressive domestic burden on women, limiting women's independence.

There's one other disconnect in French's views I'd like to briefly mention. French believes a true revolution in the relations between the sexes has stalled because men haven't changed enough:

Too many are still trapped in the old deluded myths of masculinity, a "hollow suit" of actions and beliefs that has proved extremely stubborn to alter, despite all the talk of SNAGs and metrosexuals, she says.

But is French romantically attracted to the modern metrosexual male? When asked why she wrote, My Summer With George, a novel about an older female pursuing an eligible male journalist, this is the response:

"Well, I got a crush on a guy," she says bluntly. "I realised, I've gone through all these experiences, and here I am - how old was I? I don't know, in my late 60s - and it was like Cinderella. I'm not kidding. You really mean I still have these feelings, that somebody's going to come along, this prince, and make my world wonderful? ... Talk about the triumph of hope over experience."

So the fundamental relationship between men and women, the fundamental attraction between the sexes, is still experienced, even by an ageing radical feminist, in terms of traditional gender. Yet, Marilyn French is calling for a revolution in which traditional masculinity is overthrown.

In other words, she admits that she herself responds romantically to the traditional male, and yet she criticises men for being too traditionally masculine. It seems to me that her own heterosexuality is getting in the way of a consistent politics here. Personally, I'd suggest that she modify the politics at this stage, but I think it's more likely for expectations of love to be sacrificed. A pity, though, if women in general are encouraged to follow suit.


  1. I can't really see how one out-of-context statement by a character in a novel indicates how the writer experiences anything. Do you have any other evidence that she actually prefers the hairy-chested he-types? What is the younger man to whom the speaker is attracted like? You simply haven't given us enough evidence to support your conclusion.

    Furthermore, do you really believe that mothers were respected in the past? My grandmothers, who lived exactly the life you advocate, told me that the only reason men stuck us with cooking, cleaning, and childrearing was because they thought women were too stupid to do anything else. I realize that's an anecdote, but do you have anything more concrete?

  2. Kit, the statement was made by Marilyn French herself about her own love life. It was not made by a character in a novel.

    Yes, it's only one piece of evidence. I don't believe, though, that much evidence is really required in terms of this argument. The argument can rely on the force of logic.

    After all, heterosexuality is in its nature an attraction to the opposite sex. Therefore, it's reasonable to expect that heterosexual women will be attracted to masculinity in men, rather than to androgyny. Therefore, liberal women are likely to experience a disconnect between their romantic impulses and their politically motivated attacks on masculinity.

    As for your grandmothers, they do seem to have adopted the modernist mentality when they describe motherhood as something women were "stuck with" by men because they were thought "stupid".

    These are exactly the kind of negative associations that are likely to be applied to motherhood once autonomy becomes the ruling principle of society.

    Logically, your grandmothers, on having adopted such ideas, should have "liberated" themselves from what they were "stuck with" by abandoning a commitment to motherhood, and then "proven themselves" as equals to men by getting Phds and writing books etc.

    Your grandmothers may not have taken this step, but there are generations of Western women who have done so.

    That's why there's a disconnect between Marilyn French's insistence on the central importance of motherhood and her continuing advocacy of autonomy theory in politics.

  3. "Personally, I'd suggest that she modify the politics at this stage..."

    It's a suggestion that usually falls on deaf ears. "Feminism" of this sort is akin to a religion; the holder renders it non-falsifiable by a wide spread of intellectual and emotional aversions. Those who open their minds to the possibility that they might have been wrong are often shattered in the process, their emotional capital investment is so deep.

    Reality is indifferent to our opinions, but if you try telling that to a leftist, a feminist, or a multiculturalist, you should do so at a safe distance. Preferably by post.

  4. Furthermore, do you really believe that mothers were respected in the past?

    Well, I'd submit that they *were* up until about the so-called Reformation, at which point women reverted to being thought of *only* as baby-makers.

    The Catholic appreciation for celibacy had been a marvellous antidote to this view of women as valued only if she could have children, which had previously permeated both pagan and Jewish societies, prior to the spread of the Gospel.

    The "golden age" was not the fifties, but the thirteenth century. Things have been going downhill ever since.

    And I will add this, that the secular conservatives - in reaction to the many injustices brought to us by feminism (via liberalism and secularism in general) - are just reiterating the ancient view of women being pretty meaningless without men or children in their lives.

    We now live in a bizarre society which values neither celibacy nor parenthood, only sexually active non-parents.


    And ultimately doomed to extinction, if you think about it.

  5. Charles Richardson's remarks seem really strange to me. He seems to be saying that it is OK for Australia to be populated with people from overseas (produced by "barefoot and pregnant" women) but not by local Australian women having babies. What is the difference? What these people seem to forget is that some women, somewhere, have to have babies if the human race is going to continue. I honestly don't understand his point. He actually sounds like the racist, saying "let foreign women bear children to populate Australia - our local ladies are too good for that!" Weird.