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Competition: A FEMINIST TABOO? edited by Valerie Miner and Helen E. Longino (The Feminist Press: $29.95, hardback; $12.95, paperback; 260 pp.) : Women vs. Women: THE UNCIVIL BUSINESS WAR by Tara Roth Madden (Amacom: $17.95; 224 pp.)

September 06, 1987|Ivan Strenski | Strenski is American editor of the journal, Religion (Academic Press) and author of "Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth Century History" (Macmillan and Iowa). and

These two books testify to one impressive fact: Feminism come-of-age is taking its own measure. Second-generation feminists are self-consciously marking their distance from youthful "romantic" feminism's mythological excesses (wicked myth of vaginal orgasm, wonderful vision of perfect universal sisterhood, etc.) and speaking to women no longer marginal to mainstream society. Both books aim to expand the power of women in the "real" world of scarce resources by facing head-on the great behavioral norm of that world: competition. Yet these "sister" publications are neither twins in appearance nor equals in overcoming mythology.

Helen E. Longino and Valerie Miner's anthology cannot quite let go of romance. They tell us that they wish to explore the "experience of women in competitive structures" but "through feminist eyes in which sisterhood is still an ideal." This means the "more feminist" form of the anthology prevails. (An unscheduled return to myth?) The individual, authoritative, voice-over tone of The Book must go; the editors "want to spark a dialogue." Thus, cautious self-examination aiming at self-knowledge is the goal. The editors watch hopefully for "ripples" from the 18 essays collected here and sent out across the cultural pond. But Tara Madden, free of taboos against self-assertive individuality, does not want to watch for ripples, she wants to make waves.

Brash Madden delivers salvo upon salvo against the "uncivil female warfare" in the business world. With executive women endangering so many of their own species, who needs predatory, dominant men? Even though Madden, no less than Longino and Miner, wants women to think she's really out to provoke action. Her urgent program is to "screen personal hatreds from wreaking havoc with women doing serious economic battle in today's tough business world."

Although Madden may be just too flip, too hip for some readers, they should resist and press on: Page briskly through the hypnotic litanies of central slogans; wolf down the pseudo-paragraphs (seldom longer than two sentences). Grab the basic good sense of this book even when it seems wacky and overstated, as when Madden says something like "Every time a woman has been burnt at the stake, at war or at work, other women have been there to hand over the torch and whisper words of encouragement to the executioner."

Unlike Joan of Arc (Madden's favorite image), the woman warrior in the business world needs to promote other women, not crown the next king of commerce. Women need to risk letting other women into their hard-won spheres of power--in effect, to train a new generation of women leaders--by creating their own entourages. We get no "Me" generation self-absorption here; Madden has instead written a battle manual for an entire social class of women in business and management. Sketching out the fatal scenarios of womanly competition, she asks the questions that support her analysis: Why so few women in upper echelons, when progress seems evident lower down? Without overlooking male hegemony, Madden hammers home a simple message: Male dominance aside, women need to trust other women on the job, not compete with them.

The Longino and Miner collection reads more thoughtfully, as befits its academic origins and intended audience. True to their hopes, most of what the editors give us is crisp and intelligent, summing up the state of play without fixing the final score. Recommended is the sober social analysis of the patterns of competition among academic women from Evelyn Fox Keller and Helene Moglen. Women will inevitably battle women--male dominance notwithstanding--in the "real world" of short supply. Scenarios of this adult struggle will be played out tragically according to scripts learned in childhood rivalries with siblings and parents. Beware therefore smothering "mother" bosses or jealous "sister" colleagues.

Elsewhere, Rosabeth Moss Kanter shrugs off the dead hand of biological determinism to attack readily experienced social double-binds. Successful women often pay for their achievements by becoming "prize" trophies, cynically showcased to enhance the corporate image. Elaine Bell Kaplan zeroes in effectively on competition for self-respect between white housewives and their black domestics: The disingenuous gift, the emotional bribe of friendliness and family intimacy all mask strategies of control.

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