Book Review: Women and Common life

Women and common life is a collection of nine essays where Christopher Lasch “tries to trace the interconnections between the modern ideology of intimacy, the new domestic ideal of the nineteenth century and feminism”. I enjoyed and appreciated this book better since I was exposed to his ideology via “The Revolt of the Elites” and “True and only Heaven”. Women and common life tries to criticize popular conceptions of liberal feminism and provides a different perspective towards what empowerment could be. The key themes covered in the essay are as follows

The first part of the book focuses on pre modern times which unravels the transformations about the ideas of intimacy, love and marriage. Lasch explores how in modern times marriages manifest to be relationships founded on respect and friendship rather than attraction and romantic love. He discusses how “The Marriage Act of 1753” prevented Clandestine marriages and forced people to contemplate before committing to marriages. I do agree with him with the fact that marriages in recent times are a result of prolonged periods of courtship, however, romantic love, passion and attraction still are the deciding factors which help us determine who we want to date. I do wonder how Lasch will feel about the over sexualization in recent times and if he would still recommend following the heat of sexual passion. In “Bourgeois Domesticity, the Revolt against Patriarchy, and the attack on Fashion”, Lasch touches upon the values of feminism that emerged in the 18th century which criticized middle class women’s eagerness in adopting aristocratic behaviour. Mary Wollencraft and Hannah More opposed women aspiring to be creatures of leisure and ornaments of status by pursuing fashionable education. He integrates all the features and shows how the middle class marriages founded on friendship/mutual-respect and criticism of the aristocratic lady model gave rise to the cult of domesticity.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Second part of the book involves the modern era. Lasch begins challenging the truism that the cult of domesticity is responsible for perceived gender differences and hence sexual inequality. Instead he proposes a theory where the growth of suburbs and middle classes’ proclivity to privacy and “freedom from obligation” decreased women’s active civil life. He shows how Feminine Mystique should be read along with Paul Goodman’s “Growing up Absurd” to understand that the void created in women’s lives (along with men at that time) was a consequence of “suburbanization of the American soul” and decline of civic culture. He draws from works of thinkers like Michel Foucault and explains how rationalization of life combined with privatization of families enforced home to be a safe haven from the marketplace. This eventually led women to dedicate more attention towards their family with help from specialists (doctors etc) for the job. Over time family units and hence developed private life were invaded by a therapeutic liberal nation-state via institutions of care. The rise of this new structure diminished the authority of women in their space and facilitated their alienation due to lack of respectable contribution to a higher purpose.

The nine essays in Women and Common life were compiled into this book by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn after her father passed away, which explains why it comes across as a patchwork rather than a coherent story. Nevertheless, Lasch respects women and I admire his effort in putting together an alternate narrative which challenges the pop-culture liberal feminist theories. I would recommend revisiting Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s introduction after working through the essays to get a comprehensive overview.

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Sowmyasri Muthupandi

Sowmyasri Muthupandi

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