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Nonfiction in Brief

THE FAILURE OF FEMINISM by Nicholas Davidson (Prometheus: $24.95)

January 31, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

The author is such a strong writer--accurately summarizing the concerns of men and women in the '80s, casually and confidently overviewing determining influences in sexual culture--that we become oblivious to the fact that he's couching an emotional argument in intellectual terms. Radical feminists have given "men no place in the feminist discourse except as objects of scrutiny and attack," he writes. What concerns him more fundamentally, however, is the stigma that feminists have placed on men who want to marry a woman whose career is at home. "The Failure of Feminism" is essentially an attempt to dignify gender differences.

Davidson gets off to a good start, convincingly criticizing feminists who insist that differences don't exist. Germaine Greer, for instance, said women would develop equally large muscles if they only exercised as much as men. Davidson offers a psychological theory for Greer's denial of physiological differences. She "externalized the loathing she felt for her family," he writes. "Her mother's inadequacies left her with an antipathy toward femininity and a deep fear of having children." Davidson also faults the aggressive stance of feminists such as Kate Millett, who "legitimates lesbianism" but "scorns" male homosexuality (In fact, Millett does not criticize homosexuality; rather, she speaks out against the violence she, erroneously, believes is inherent in it).

Ultimately, Davidson is unable to show that gender differences are caused by nature (and thus are inevitable) instead of nurture (in which case feminine roles can be seen as stifling constraints). Davidson offers little proof, for instance, to back his assertion that men are inherently "aggressive" and women inherently "serene." He tells feminists to "relax" and accept current gender inequalities but doesn't tell them why they should fail to be concerned about the sexism inherent in language, women's exclusion from the clergy or the lack of an ERA.

In his conclusion, Davidson admits that his "program" is more "emotional" than "social." Perceptively, he recognizes that one need not have a "finished philosophy" in order to begin discussing basic issues. Unfortunately, though, Davidson doesn't extend this tolerant attitude to feminism: He blanketly condemns much of the movement's message because some of its adherents are militant more for psychological than for social and political reasons. The truth is, the feminist movement, like Davidson's philosophy, is still evolving; contrary to a common, lazy presumption, we didn't figure it all out in the '70s. All in all, "The Failure of Feminism" is to be commended, for in showing the sometimes callow state of the movement, it will not silence the debate, as the author hopes, but enliven the issues.

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