Straw Dog

Anne Roiphe's Arguments Against Feminism Fall Short.
By Nancy Mairs

Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World. Written by Anne Roiphe. Houghton Mifflin, 1996. $22.95

INSIDE THE 260 pages of Anne Roiphe's peculiar critique of modern feminism, Fruitful, languishes a single substantial essay, too smothered in repetitions, logical inconsistencies, and a gush of prose to give birth to itself. Where, I found myself wondering as I read the book, was the editor whose midwifery might have delivered a lucid little gem?

Such editors belong to an all-but-extinct species, alas, and the writer who can't or won't discipline herself winds up producing passages like this one: "[My husband] still grows silent and hard to reach when something goes wrong. He drives too fast. He curses at cars that try to cut him off. He never asks directions. He never admits to pain. If something is wrong he grows quiet."

Wait a minute, dear, didn't you say that just four sentences ago?

The multiple flaws in Roiphe's presentation are especially regrettable because feminist concepts are still commonly misapprehended, as I discovered to my startlement several years back. "As a feminist you won't approve," my daughter told me shortly after falling in love with her future husband, "but I just want to marry this man and have his children." What on earth did she suppose a feminist to be? I had done just what she described: married her beloved father and borne his children. Why would I want to deny her similar satisfaction?

"As a feminist," I said, "I want women to have a full range of choices, and that includes marriage and motherhood." My daughter's limited understanding, at 23, might be excused. Roiphe must be 30 years older, yet she presents the feminist viewpoint in fundamentally the same terms--as anti-male, anti-marriage, anti-family--and herself as a heroine for having resisted its blandishments to stay at home with her "fragile patched-up family": her daughter from her first marriage, her second husband and his two daughters from his first marriage, and the two daughters they produced together.

The problem with Roiphe's portrayal of the war between feminism and motherhood is that it rests on the flawed but common assumption that "feminism" is a singular noun, a monolithic system within which "being a mother [is] an unfortunate surrender to the old social design."

In truth, however, feminists come in many stripes. Some really do hate men. Some love men but despise the social structure that has fed their desire for dominance and thereby distanced them from the very beings--lovers, wives, children--who could most benefit from their full and equal participation in familial life. Some have elected not to bear and rear children (which is probably a good thing, since this is one endeavor that can ill afford reluctant recruits), but the majority of my feminist friends have formed unions and produced offspring with approximately the same mixed results achieved by the rest of the human race.

In short, Roiphe rails against a straw woman, the image of "the feminist," created in large measure by the media and thus based on a relative few of the most press-worthy models, such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer. Her reference to these influential figures from the early days of the women's movement, but not to more recent and theoretically sophisticated feminists, renders her approach to the issues reductive and a little quaint, as though one had been sucked into a temporal vortex and spat out into a black-and-white version of the 1970s. She even drags out the old chestnut that only childless women may create distinguished work, that "the female biological story in some way limits the woman artist with children."

For Roiphe, biological determinism accounts for the urge to motherhood--except when it doesn't. "Whether we like it or not Darwin gets under the bedclothes and drives us on" to produce and care for our children; yet in the context of adoption, mothering is "an act of mental connection not genetic connection." Whichever theory she subscribes to at a given moment, she depicts the condition in overblown, almost (you should pardon the pun) hysterical terms: "To care for a child was not an alien duty imposed on me by a hostile culture, it was rather the core, the emotional wellspring, the gravity that held my soul in place."

Its consequences sound dire: "Something in the way that we were mothers makes it impossible for us to regain the beauty of a freestanding human being: we are more like ghosts attending a feast after our death, haunting the happy guests." Good grief, if ghoulhood is the state the soul requires for anchor, let me drift!

"It seems that the clash between feminism and motherhood is an artificial one," Roiphe writes two pages before the book ends. I wish she'd made this point at the outset, so that I could have spent the past few hours doing something more productive than slogging through an argument based on a false premise. Sound, if hardly startling, assertions are scattered throughout: that abortion permits every child's birth to be wanted; that fathers need to be incorporated fully into the project of parenting; that for working parents, adequate child care is imperative; that "women have real needs that include being near and with their children. The effort to deny these needs is as cruel as the pre-feminist effort to deny women their minds. It is in fact the same maneuver, just turned inside out." There aren't enough such insights, however, to counteract the book's questionable argument, frequently querulous tone, and pedestrian prose and turn it into a rewarding read. TW

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