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Sex and Power by Donald Meyer (Wesleyan University: $35; 640 pp.)

July 26, 1987|Jane S. Jaquette | Jaquette is professor of political scinece and director of the Core Program in the Liberal Arts, Occidental College, she is also chair of women's studies and is working on a book on women and power.

Donald Meyer's ambitious study of women's history begins with a very modest intent: to discover why the early feminist movement in the United States "subsided" in the 1920s after its "great historical success." To answer this question, Meyer has delved into the comparative histories of women and power in Italy, Sweden and the Soviet Union. Not content to settle for "just the facts, ma'am," he has gone on to write a second set of comparisons, presenting women novelists, male writers whose works might shed some light on how men felt about women, and film makers who elaborate his historical themes.

The thesis of the first half of the book is that women's history cannot be written in a vacuum. Key historical factors--the pattern of industrialization, the rise and content of nationalism,543256164different feminisms that have taken shape in each of these four countries. In Italy, the weakness of industrial development hindered the rise of a middle class and thus the rise of liberal feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Feminism was overtaken by Mussolini's fascism and then subsumed by the Catholic/Communist polarization of the postwar period. By contrast, the rapid and democratized pattern of economic growth in the United States provided a fertile environment for feminism and its demands for full participation, while the myth of the frontier and the realities of the marketplace reinforced separate spheres for men and women.

In Sweden, the feminist agenda was co-opted by the state as Sweden moved from rural family based culture to urban polity. Values of mutual care were projected onto the state through the Social Democratic Party, with unions playing a significant role. The result was the creation of a welfare state and the weakening of an autonomous feminist movement. In the Soviet Union, the revolutionary promises that socialism would liberate women and transcend the forces of nationalism were bent by Lenin and broken by Stalin, shattering the nascent but radical Russian feminist movement in the process.

By now the reader of "Sex and Power" is overwhelmed by history but still searching for the analysis that would fulfill the promise of Meyer's titillating title. The attempt to integrate women's history into a broader whole is commendable, but the impossibility of the task often leads him to make sweeping generalizations that are maddeningly pat. Lenin's New Economic Policy "was Russia's last chance at becoming a Western nation." Alexandra Kollontai, the feminist theorist of the Russian Revolution, is a "glowing individualist" who sensed that "socialism, with its constructed wholenesses and harmonies, would only make the ache of individuality worse." Rousseau was "afraid of losing mother." Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" was "never a feminist novel."

Yet Meyer offers some useful insights. Mary Beard's "Women as a Force in History," published in 1946, does read like "an act of dutiful justice." Women's exceptionalism could only underline the degree to which women were excluded from men's histories. The relative success of the feminist movement in the United States was matched, as Meyer argues, by a deep separation between men and women that belies the egalitarian ideology of American politics, both private and public. By becoming mothers, Swedish women may have escaped the alienation Meyer finds characteristic of Swedish men, as Meyer argues at one point, or Swedish men may simply represent the fully "modernized" personality and thus the future of all of us, as he implies later on. Either way, the future seems less than promising. Ironically, the relative backwardness of Italy and the Soviet Union will become their historical advantage, postponing their "progress" toward a future that is lacking in human connectedness and morally uncommitted.

On one level, a kind of passionate relativism would seem to be Meyer's principle. He insists that he's not interested in constructing a systematic explanation and that it would be inappropriate for him to draw conclusions from his study. Yet there are some recurring themes. Socialism is stifling; individuality is exhilarating and creative, despite its costs in terms of human isolation. The subordination of women is not to be explained in terms of patriarchy or capitalism, but by the inadequacy of the feminist agenda itself, which has failed to develop a successful strategy for gaining (or even defining) power.

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