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Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered.

Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered. Joan Kennedy Taylor. Prometheus, $24.95. It's not easy finding a woman who's proud to call herself a feminist these days. On college campuses, survey after survey shows, feminism has a bad reputation among the generation of women who've benefited most from it; Taylor notes disparagingly in her introduction that even her own friends and colleagues (presumably middle-aged intellectuals) shy away from the label. And yet, at a time when abortion rights are under siege and professional and domestic demands on women are on the rise, the need for a broad feminist movement is as great as it's ever been. So how can those of us still willing to go by the f-word make ourselves and our movement more palatable to the American mainstream? Shave," quips my friend Lauren (who doesn't).

Taylor's reply is longer. She argues that feminism should return to what she considers its roots: a commitment to securing individual rights for all women-and nothing more. The feminist's political imperative, as she sees it, is to oppose government interference in business or personal life, whether that interference bars women from male privileges, "protects" them in their role as mothers, or compensates them for past injustices. If the state is oppressive as Big Brother, she argues, Big Sister would be no less a threat.

Despite the cutesy chapter headings ("A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the ERA," "Inside Every Socialist is an Individualist Trying to Get Out"), this is a pretty dense book. In the early sections, Taylor argues convincingly that most prominent early feminist thinkers (Mary Wollestonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan B. Anthony) adhered to an essentially libertarian philosophy, focusing on abolishing laws that denied women their rights to life, liberty, and happiness. Of course, this was only natural in an era when common law prohibited a married woman from owning property, signing contracts, voting, or escaping a brutal husband. But Taylor believes the libertarian (she calls it "individualist") impulse remains the most valuable aspect of modern feminism, and the most likely to "galvanize women into the feminist camp."

She opposes affirmative action, saying it would end up quota-ing women out of certain jobs or making their qualifications suspect if they are hired. She's against government-enforced coeducation or forced mixing of single-sex organizations because she wants women to retain their right to keep some schools or clubs all-female. She opposes anti-pornography legislation on free speech grounds.

Strong anti-rape laws and abortion rights are necessary, she argues, because they are based on the rights of the individual to be protected from harm and to control her own body. Taylor approves of the Equal Rights Amendment as it was originally conceived, to prevent discrimination by the government itself. But she believes it lost its popular support when its opponents-followed by misguided advocates-began to claim it would impose restrictive anti-discrimination rules on the private sector.

In a particularly provocative section, Taylor applies her individualist dos and don'ts to current legal debates. She criticizes the prosecution of Jennifer Johnson, the Florida woman convicted of "delivering" cocaine to her unborn fetus, arguing that during pregnancy, the interests of the woman must supersede those of the fetus. Similarly, she opposes any rules that would bar women of child-bearing age from working in potentially dangerous jobs, saying they hardly differ from the "protective" (read: sexist) labor laws that shut women out of 19th-century workplaces. And she calls for an end to the governmental ban on fetal tissue research, citing the remarkable case of a staunchly anti-abortion minister's wife who allowed surgeons to use tissue from an aborted fetus to save her own disease-ridden fetus. Her husband later told a congressional hearing that the operation's success was a message from God that fetal tissue research should go forward." It's feminism ACLU-style. (Taylor cites the ACLU's Women's Rights Project several times as an example of what feminist activists should be doing but dismisses the National Organization for Women in five paragraphs for "adopting an increasingly narrow political agenda.") And, to a feminist predisposed to a civil liberties viewpoint, most of it works pretty well. But as for capturing the imaginations of mainstream American women, Gloria Steinem probably comes closer with her best-selling revelation that self-esteem is critical (something any Oprah"-watcher could have told you years ago). I happen to agree with Taylor that prostitution should be legal, but it's not exactly a position that's going to win the hearts and minds of most Americans -including the many feminists who think prostitution should remain illegal because it exploits women. And Taylor is overly optimistic in her suggestion that changing the feminist agenda can stem the backlash against women's rights. You might get the impression from this book that the widespread aversion to feminism is based on a rational critique of the movement's political philosophy and legislative goals. Unfortunately, it isn't. In 1972, when then-White House aide Patrick Buchanan wrote a memo calling the women's movement "the Butch Brigade" and "an object of ridicule," he wasn't reacting to specific policies advocated by the movement; he was just responding viscerally-as others have before and since-to the extremely threatening prospect of women asserting their rights. Which brings us to a word you won't find in Reclaiming the Mainstream: misogyny. Taylor runs like hell from any analysis that portrays women as the victims of male oppression. And the radical feminists who hold to such an analysis come off as a bunch of conspiracy theorists and kvetches. According to one woman quoted by Taylor, such women are so politically correct that the only person who could pass their test would be "a lesbian prostitute on welfare who lives in a separatist community and has aborted several male embryos."

To Taylor, it seems, the sole oppressor is big government. She even goes so far as to argue that discrimination was created by "governmentally enforced inequality," suggesting that sexism did not predate the laws that condoned it. Maybe it sounds whiny to say so, but our society still harbors a strong current of opposition to women's progress, one that will continue to operate with or without government sanction. How else to explain Hollywood's biggest recent female icons: an ice-pick-wielding slut and a nanny with an ax to grind-literally. Relax, libertarians, I'm not suggesting a ban on sexist movies. But it's probably worth acknowledging that intrusive laws aren't the only thing we're up against.

Julie Cohen
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cohen, Julie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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