In the view of most of his feminist contemporaries, the late Christopher Lasch was no friend of women. During the 1970s, as feminists battled the first wave of right-wing, pro-family, antiabortion backlash, Lasch added to their troubles by launching an attack from the left. There was nothing radical, he argued, about the program of women's liberation. Rather, it merely expanded the reach of capitalist individualism, furthering the destruction of community in favor of a predatory marketplace and a paternalistic "therapeutic state" that subjected private life to the manipulation of professional experts.
Lasch's influential bestseller, "The Culture of Narcissism," popularized a new brand of left-wing cultural conservatism. What resonated with the public mood, however, was not his critique of capitalism but his polemic against the quest for personal and sexual autonomy, which echoed neoconservative rhetoric. Indeed, "narcissism" rapidly entered the cultural lexicon, alongside "selfishness" and "hedonism," as an aspersion on women deemed too fond of their freedom.
Lasch shrugged off feminist criticism as a misreading of his work. Yet the publication of "Women and the Common Life" suggests that it may have bothered him more than he let on. According to his daughter, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who edited this collection of essays and provides an introduction, Lasch put it together while writing "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy," finished shortly before his death in 1994.
The latter book displays Lasch at his crankiest and most dogmatic, dismissing liberationist cultural politics as nothing but the arrogance of a rootless cosmopolitan over-class. "Women," though it has its testy moments, presents him more humbly as a historian engaged in "inconclusive struggle," as he puts it in one essay, to understand how women's circumstances and aspirations fit into the larger pattern of social life.
While these essays take up a wide range of periods and subjects, from the literature of love in the Middle Ages to the 19th century cult of domesticity to contemporary gender studies, underlying them all is an implicit political claim: that it's possible to be sympathetic to women's desire for equality yet affirm the "common life" of the past--even prefer it to the post-feminist present. The essays try to show that women's social history is not simply a chronicle of abject victimization but that women and their concerns have played an active part in shaping the common life. And they contend that feminist struggles against patriarchal authority, in contributing to the rise of the therapeutic state, have had the ironic consequence of impoverishing women's lives along with men's.
The first proposition is not especially controversial. Few feminist scholars would dispute Lasch's distaste for "the kind of feminism that sees nothing in history except the eternal oppression of women and swallows up distinctions, all cultural variations, in the one all-encompassing, undifferentiated, monolithic category of 'patriarchy'. ". It won't be news to feminist historians that Victorian women played a major role in civic life as social reformers and volunteers or that the ultra-domesticity of the 1950s was a historical aberration. Nor is anyone likely to be scandalized by the argument that ideas about passion between equals and marriage as erotic friendship have been floating around Western culture since ancient Greece.
The real conflict between Lasch and his feminist detractors stems from his adamant denial of any redeeming social value in modern liberalism. It's not that feminists as a group are cheerleaders for corporate capitalism or the tyranny of experts. On the contrary, many feminists are socialists or otherwise critical of big business as usual. And the women's health movement fomented a highly successful anti-expert revolt.
Yet few would disagree that the advent of the liberal state represented real progress for women. The capitalist marketplace opened up the possibility of a livelihood independent of fathers and husbands. Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and inalienable rights enabled women to fight for basic perquisites of citizenship and ultimately to make the far more radical demand for control over their sexual and reproductive lives. Modernity provided the crucial framework for women's continuing struggle to be fully recognized as subjects rather than as adjuncts to men and children--not only in the cultural imagination but in everyday life.