Rescuing the feminist book

Martha Nussbaum reimagines the women's movement -- from global poverty to the right to be hot.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

“Sex and Social Justice” has no author photo. What are the
people at Oxford University Press thinking? Martha Nussbaum is an
attractive woman. And this is a book about women. Why the aged
Indian peasant on the cover? Where is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s boob?

Nussbaum is the polished University of Chicago professor of law and ethics
who surfaced in the mainstream media during an odd moment in the 1996 trial
over Colorado’s anti-gay rights amendment. She was asked to rebut the
testimony of one of the state’s expert witnesses, who claimed that even the
ancient Greeks found homosexuality morally repellant. Lately, she’s turned
her attention to feminist matters. Last month she attacked Judith Butler in
the New Republic for her “hip quietism,” which Nussbaum characterized as
infuriatingly coy, apolitical and pessimistic about the feminist quest for
justice. The diatribe provoked a flurry of responses from big-name academic
feminists who defended Butler’s political usefulness. Nussbaum responded by
dismissing the substance of each letter with the same lucid if slightly impatient tone she’d used on Butler.

As Nussbaum squares off with her fellow academic feminists, her hefty new
collection of essays, “Sex and Social Justice,” sets its sights beyond the
academy to a public forum awash in books about women’s issues. In some ways
Nussbaum’s timing couldn’t have been better. As often as not these days, books about women are written by young, mediagenic women who have noticed a pattern in how they and their friends feel about being women. From Naomi Wolf’s paean to bad girls, “Promiscuities,” to Wendy Shalit’s plea for good girls, “A Return to Modesty,” the genre has poster babes from every part of the political spectrum. If she’s at all cute, her photo lodges in the public imagination as surely as her ideas do. The ever-unsubtle Wurtzel hammered home this reality with that topless cover shot on last year’s “Bitch.” Her naked left breast, along with an uplifted fuck-you finger, helpfully literalized the
link between her own body and her argument that women with bitchy, erratic
personalities should be more socially accepted. If no one read the book, well, she still gets her message across.

As Time’s “Is Feminism Dead?” cover story last year pointed out, the bar is
set pretty low if you want to write a book about being privileged, young and female in America today. This may not mean the end of feminism, but it does represent a shift in the media’s production of feminist faces.

Can an academic like Nussbaum — trained to do actual research,
careful in her arguments and evidently champing at the bit for a chance at
cultural influence — rescue the genre of the feminist book? Nussbaum
scores a partial victory: She shows brilliantly how sex is used to deny
some people — i.e., women and gay men — social justice. But she doesn’t convince us that theories of social justice are the best intellectual tool for constructing a sexual philosophy.

The essays in the first part of the book set out to restore some
international perspective to American feminist discourse. That starkly
anti-glamour cover photo is not incidental: Many of the essays were written
while Nussbaum was working on a multinational project on quality of life in
developing nations, and she wants to correct the myopic focus of much
American feminism. Her premise is that any attention to the unequal treatment of women should begin (not end) with the unequal nutrition, health care and access to employment faced by a vast portion of women around the world. Several essays discuss the proper response of Westerners to the condition of a woman like Metha Bai, a young Indian widow with four children who can’t leave the house due to the traditions of her caste; her choices are slow starvation or beatings if she tries to work.

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Nussbaum argues that unjust social systems, such as the one that has trapped Metha Bai, and cruel practices such as female genital mutilation deserve our condemnation. Her starting point is simple: She wants a world in which “a life of fully human functioning, or a kind of basic human flourishing, will be available” to everyone. The chance event of being born into a particular culture, Nussbaum writes, carries far too much weight in determining the quality of life available to every human being, but it’s especially so for women. In Afghanistan, the female literacy rate is 29 percent that of males; in Iran, a woman who breaks the dress code gets a punishment ranging from 37 lashes to
having her feet placed in a gunny sack full of mice and cockroaches.

It’s an inspired move to start a feminist book with these startling injustices. Not since Mary Daly’s tract on global brutality against women, “Gyn/Ecology,” has a prominent feminist philosopher made the world of female inequality her subject matter for a popular book. In post-Title IX, post-Roe vs. Wade America, feminist attention has turned toward questions of “representation” — how women are depicted, how gender is depicted — and away from concrete problems of inequalities in institutions and legal structures.

This is in part because there are fewer institutionalized inequalities in the United States now. A rape victim’s sexual history can no longer be used as evidence of her willingness; schools must now allot equal resources to boys’ and girls’ athletic activities. But reading a book like Nussbaum’s is a reminder that feminist analysis is still most convincing when it starts with questions of legal and political inequalities. (Linda Kerber’s ingenious “No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship” (Farrar Straus) — which suggests that in order to live as equals, women may have to forgo some privileges of their gender, such as being exempted from the draft — also contributes to this uncompromising new trend in feminism.) While it’s true that, as Judith Butler’s defenders argue,
representations can have deep implications for the kind of world we create, it’s still a wake-up call of a whole different order to
think about a nation where it’s legal for a 4-year-old girl to be held
down as her clitoris is sliced off.

But it is in the book’s second half, called “Sex,” that Nussbaum’s brilliant reasoning falls short. Her central question — how can we have just and loving but still sexy relationships in a world where our very sexual desires are formed by an unjust world? — is essentially a search for a sexual philosophy for the contemporary heterosexual. The most successful essays apply her ideas about human dignity to thorny legal issues. There’s a nice argument for legalizing prostitution, which methodically shows that it’s a bodily service like any other. When it comes to other American-style sexual topics, however, Nussbaum is much less confident, and her high-minded, scholarly modus operandi doesn’t help.

Instead of writing about real people and their sexuality, Nussbaum looks to literature to offer her examples of human feeling and behavior. After analyzing a range of sexual writing, from a Playboy caption to “Ulysses” to hardcore porn, she argues that D.H. Lawrence’s lusty, working-class male characters are models of humane sexual hunger. Unlike many men who use sex as a means of bettering their social status, they simply revel in animal desire. And while Lawrence’s female characters do surrender a degree of autonomy in the sex act, they do so in ways that make them “whole and full” as people.

But Nussbaum’s reading of literature is somehow a little naive; these fictional characters — no matter how well-drawn — cannot simply stand in as people, as the last half-century of literary criticism has labored to make clear. Her conclusions about the viability of a Lawrencian sexual philosophy are laughable abstractions of the author’s earthy world view. “Emotional penetration of boundaries seems potentially a very valuable part of sexual life,” she writes, “and some forms of physical boundary penetration also, although it is less clear which ones these are.” Um, OK, but couldn’t we just have read “Women in Love” instead?

Unfortunately for Nussbaum, eros resides in art and life, not analysis. In avoiding depictions of actual sexual experience, Nussbaum constructs her sexual philosophy with a tight hold on her own imagination, offering us only tentative glimpses into the contours of her own sexual landscape. In one strange essay, she pays homage to one of her mentors, the classicist Sir Kenneth Dover, while simultaneously reeling from his decision to publish a sexually graphic autobiography. She’s honest about the mix of “anxiety, embarrassment, gratitude and affection” Sir Kenneth’s revelations caused her. She even dedicates “Sex and Social Justice” to him. But she’s not following in his footsteps. Ironically, this reflexive aversion to any kind of sexual revelation is her book’s biggest limitation. We may applaud her unwillingness to indulge in her own first-person confessional, but for a book about sex, it’s got precious little about real people having real sex. It’s telling that her final essay, on Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” doesn’t have to do with sex even in a literary sense, but instead upholds the Ramsays’ devoted marriage as an example of two minds truly open to one another.

If Nussbaum doesn’t make much of a dent in the current conversation on
sexual ethics, it won’t be because she skipped the topless cover shot or
refused to chronicle her orgasm rate. Without giving us the sense that there’s a living, breathing sexual being behind her orderly sentences, she seems to be hiding behind her academic status rather than using her formidable intellect to delve into the moral and emotional tangle of sex.

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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