Women: the longest revolution.
If she had written nothing else, Mitchell would still hold an honored place in the history of feminism for this extraordinary essay--a detailed, fully developed feminist analysis of the complex, coordinated layers of female oppression, written, as she says, "before there was a women's movement in Britain and before I was aware of feminist stirrings in the United States."
As a student I had read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and thought it brilliant but somehow applicable only to some inexplicable predicament of French women. I was active in the New Left, where we were then preoccupied with the countries of the Third World. It was Franz Fanon's argument from his Algerian experience that women--a conservative force--should be emancipated only after a revolution that provoked my indignation and tied in with my personal experience. . . . In the Marxist meetings on the politics of the Third World, in the Universityu common rooms I frequented, where were the women? . . . Why this sort of common experience led so many of us to feminism at that particular time . . . I do not really know.
Mitchell wrote first for her "New Left friends and colleagues"--presumably men who were for the most part content with woman-as-conservativeforce (though this is the kind of thing Mitchell never says, preferring instead to pull punches and stay friends but also to analyze coolly and to speak with the authority that comes of distance). She began by criticizing modern socialism for its conservative, puritanical attitude toward women. As if struck with amnesia, progressives have often abandoned their usual principles when discussing women and have fallen into idealism or into the fallacy of identifying women with nature. Mitchell dug to the roots of these lapses in Marx himself: he recognized the family as a historical institution, not a given of nature, but saw women as subsumed by this institution, as creatures without a multilayered history. For the bourgeois family, Marx said, "boredom and money are the binding link." But in his text women's relation to this odd intersection remains obscure.
In reaction, Mitchell began to separate out the elements that comprise the identity, woman. She isolated four different zones of meaning and action: production, reproduction, sexuality and the socialization of children. In her radical argument, the ideological unity, the family, dissolves, leaving its functions and needs floating in an anxious ether of possibility. Women are women because a variety of factors in their situation work together, defining each other, keeping each other in place.
In the final section of "Women: The Longest Revolution," Mitchell identified the weak spots in the contemporary construction, woman. In the areas of production, reproduction and socialization she found either no change or effective cooptations of change. She also saw that change was most likely in the area of sexuality. In spite of the recent backlash, her sense then that sexual life was changing rapidly, that "the dominant sexual ideology is proving less and less successful in regulating spontaneous behavior," still sounds accurate, as does her judgment that such shifts in sexual mores can mean little while production, reproduction and socialization are untouched by sexual revolutions.
Given the difficulty of picking apart the interwoven strands of women's oppression and the difficulty, too, of converting changes in family structure, child rearing and work into gains for women, Mitchell asked at the end, "What, then, is the responsible revolutionary attitude?" Ah, words of 1966--grandiose, obnoxious, yet to the weary supporters of a Fritz Mondale, deliciously muscular. Her answer, of course, was that one must begin with clear demands, for example, for changes in public education, but that one must finally change everything, all the parts that now parade as a finished unity.
I now find this essay, which so influenced me and many of the women I knew in the feminist movement of the early 1970s, too mechanistic, with its overconfident talk of functions, layers, forces, structures. Mitchell's definitions and boundaries are rigid at the very moment when her essay calls for a less narrow economism, a more dynamic idea of the variables. Still, it is to her eternal credit that she knew her own intellectual tradition to be static. Persistent, rational, inexorable, she argued that leftists must accept "as a complement" to their work on production "a whole set of non-economic demands"--that the "rational" cannot sum up the possibilities of human social creativity.
If the cultural complexity of women's oppression is now a ferminist theorem, that is in part a measure of Mitchell's success. As she says, she doesn't quite know why elements present for years suddenly catalyzed into a movement, but she is certainly one of those who recast the pervasive, drifting voice behind the old "woman question" into a modern, left idiom. For English feminists particularly there is probably little in this famous essay that has not become commonplace. But for Americans, "The Longest Revoluton" still has a more practical and immediate relevance. Here, where Marxist paradigms can never be taken for granted in the thinking of progressive movements, where one group of feminists is claiming that pornography is the essence and cause of the oppression of women while another is ebullient over the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro, the idea that women's oppression is complexly constructed still sounds fresh, useful, worth the price of the book.
After "The Longest Revolution," Mitchell wrote the feminist classic, Woman's Estate which expanded on the themes of her first precocious essay; then, in 1974, she brought out Psychoanalysis and Feminism, another primary contribution to a quickly evolving feminist theory. There she criticized feminists for too quickly jettisoning the big men of psychoanalysis as patriarchs. She warned that without an analysis of the unconscious, feminism can never adequately understand the formation of female identity. Brilliantly--and, at the time, bravely--she insisted that women's consent is a part of patricarchy. To lessen that consent, feminists will need to understand the inner as well as the outer paths toward becoming female.
In contrast to Mitchell's kinetic earlier work, the present volume of essays is a retrospective of her evolution. One marvels over the date at which a particular essay was written, but now, in 1984, one rarely feels newly singed. Mitchell is self-conscious about this, of course, carefully identifying in the headnote to each piece its year of conception, its intellectual genesis, its historical moment. She assumes, I think rightly, that such a narrative of her own development will echo larger themes in the history of recent political thought.
But problems arise. The intellectual narrative is maddeningly incomplete, a bit wooden in parts, not, perhaps, a narrative at all. The diferent context of each essay is named, but these mental and physical locales remain isolated, their significance asserted, not demonstrated. In her introduction, Mitchell claims a continuity for the essay: they are all about the Western preoccupation with growth, about how "we become ourselves--men or women." This general theme is certainly there, but the volume doesn't fuse our ideas about it into a whole larger than the parts. The sections remain apples, oranges and pears: the first collects her pieces about feminism, written for the most part before 1975; the second, some earlier literary essays on the novel; the third, her more recent work on psychoanalysis (which, since she has become a practicing analyst, proccupies mitchell).
Reading through, one is as likely to be struck by discontinuities as by resonant connections. For example, Mitchell writes often about child development, but she speaks as if there are two, quite different babies. The first is the baby that needs day care, the baby that is the mother's burden and that sets the relations of the genders aslant. The second is the inner baby of Freud and Lacan, unassuageable, decentered, raging on into adult life with only a slim chance of attaining conscious recognition of the laws that decree the shape of its endless dissatisfactions. Though of course these babies are one and the same, they never seem to inhabit the same train of thought. One is the activist's baby; the other, the psychoanalyst's. There are important reasons for distinguishing between them: feminism grows ever more sophisticated about the theoretical difficulties of seeing public and private as one. Society's baby and the raging inner baby can never fit together with the sure certainty once implied by "the personal is political." Nonetheless, feminism's theoretical and social task has always been integrative, as in theory Mitchell's work strives to be. What, then, does day care look like for the Lacanian baby? An unfair question, of course. But at moments in this collection Mitchell's abstractions drive one to just such excesses of irritation.
But to be fair, neither continuity nor an unalloyed newness should be necessary to justify a collection that serves as an archive of so much of our recent intellectual history. What of the separate essays, then, on their own terms? There are many fine ones, and I suspect readers with very defferent nees will use and enjoy them.
My own favorites are idiosyncratic choices: I like best the few that show a flicker of private passion, that are written either eloquently (the wonderful one on Ibsen) or with unusual persuasiveness (the lucid introduction to Lacan, full of the suspense of his quest for the real Freud and the drama of how he rescued that true Freud from the bland, upbeat, American version).
Wherever it appears, the subject of motherhood seems to put a flash of color into Mitchell's otherwise monochromatic style of argument. Whenever she speaks of motherhood, she resists its definition as a totality. Lovingly, appreciatively, she quotes Charlotte Perkins Gilman: "Family unity is bound together with a tableclith . . . anybody can be a mother. An oyster can be a mother. The difficult thing is to be a person." Mitchell's sense of the difficulty of beign a person pervades the volume as it does all the best radical feminist work.
She is serious and useful on central theoretical questions such as the value of the concept of equality ("Women and Equality"); or on central historical ones such as the eighteenth-century transformation of the ideal of femininity ("Moll Flanders: The Rise of Capitalist Women"). Above all, she is always willing to take on the big men--Marx, Engels, Mill, Meredith, Dickens, James, Defoe, Freud, Lacan--something feminists have understandably but regrettably been leery of doing. She offers us much thereby, and pays her own kind of price: Mitchell is more likely to find male heroes than to look closely at women writers. Still, it's a pleasure to see her at ease with such difficult mentors, granting them their greatness without being overawed by their authority (or hermetically committed--as so many theorists now are--to their vocabulary). She exploits in the interests of feminisn the special rights of the token woman, attending closely to the words of male authors without paranoia or loss of nerve. She gets to play the part of the rational rather than the hysterical woman (two concepts she explores interestingly here and there), and her one major essay on a woman, a surprising and origianl study of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, offers Bronte this highest praise: she was a rational romantic.
These words, I suspect, characterize Mitchell herself. If is the analytical historian joined with the usentimental psychologist that she values in Bronte. Minus the poetry, these are Mitchell's strengths, too.