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Review: Two books by two feminist scholars

Marilyn French, From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume 1: Origins. MacArthur & Company, 322 pp., $34.95

Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure, Alfred A. Knopf, 253 pp., $36.00

Dear Reader,

I have been asked by the Globe and Mail to review two books by two famous American feminist scholars. This is a progress report.

I have been reading and thinking about these books for more than three weeks. I have considered them over at least 1200 kilometers of road (back and forth between Toronto and Stratford, Ontario), in the dental hygienist's chair during cleaning, in the doctor's office awaiting an appointment, as I weeded and planted my new garden, during an otherwise blissful three-hour bike ride in the countryside around Stratford, over several glasses of red wine and in bed – before, during and after a night's sleep. I have read most of both of them, fallen asleep during readings of both, been alternately riveted, bored, charmed, irritated, intrigued and again irritated.

Marilyn French and Carol Gilligan belong to the elite clan of high-powered, glamorous, influential American feminists, the coterie of Glorias and Marilyns and Carols and Janes and Gails. French is best known for a 1977 agenda-laced novel called The Woman's Room, terribly important, widely cited, lauded and translated, but in my opinion not a fabulous piece of writing. Thought so then, think so still. Gilligan is best known for A Different Voice (1982), also terribly important, arresting because it argued that women were fundamentally a) different and b)morally better than men. I found her book gripping, and persuasive, when I first read it; this is one of those bellwether books that people kiss or diss to signal allegiance to sometimes contradictory theories, notably, most recently in the US, about whether boys or girls suffer more at school.

French's new project is From Eve to Dawn, a three-volume, worldwide history of women, based on more than fifteen years of research with a team of apparently countless researchers, writers and graduate students. Margaret Atwood, to whom this first volume, Origins, is dedicated, calls the work "monumental," thus graciously acknowledging the indeed impressive scope of the project without commenting on its quality. The central thesis of From Eve to Dawn was argued in French's 1982 book, Beyond Power: before there were patriarchal states, there were matrilineal societies; something equivalent to the Big Bang happened to the human race about 10,000 years ago; states and patriarchy resulted and changed profoundly the nature of all societies; understanding this history will enable the world to move beyond patriarchy, but not to matriarchy which would also be a bad thing. Matriarchy, in which women have power over men, has never existed, according to French.

I admire French's chutzpah. She takes full responsibility for her boldly stated theories and cheerfully admits she is criticized for blithely mixing history and anthropology. She tells men they will be offended, but that they should just get over that and agree to make things better. This is a damn-the-torpedoes approach to writing history and presenting political theory. Statements like "Marriages were unhappy, by law" are hurled out, without customary qualifiers –possibly, some suggest, might have been – and rigourous scholarly backup references, "for a different perspective, see x," etc. Some of the footnotes are comprehensive, suggestive of breadth of research, others are breathtakingly sketchy. Single paragraphs are the sole introduction to enormously complex ideas and theories.

I do not especially admire French's writing. In fact this book is impossible to read except in short bursts, or by browsing. It reminds me of a website, with the footnotes as links to other sites; in fact it might work better as a massive website, because extensive, flowing, carefully argued essay-style writing does not work on the Web. There are thirty-five pages of glossary, footnotes and bibliography. Much of the book is written in a kind of cryptic shorthand, almost a code, which assumes the reader knows both the scholars and the contextual debate, is deeply familiar with the geography of the past (Mithila? South Behar? Hacilar?) and accepts all of the premises without question. If so, for whom is the eccentric glossary intended, with esoteric terms like "usufruct rights" and "izzat" defined along with "labour intensive" and "dowry," but not terms such as "Transjordanian shibboleth dialect."

The book moves back and forth between theories and potted histories. Here is some of the theory about patriarchy: "[Patriarchy's] primary reason for existing is to assert that men are superior to women....Male superiority is the psychological core of patriarchy, but its political and economic purpose is the subjection of other men." In a lecture hall, these claims could be made, in this style, but a book I think must carry the burden if not of proof at least of argument or persuasion. It is almost as if French does not really care whether or not she is challenged; she just wants to get all this stuff out there.

French says in the introduction that she wrote the book because she wanted to write a story, shape a narrative. But narrative, story-telling quality is precisely what this book lacks. It is a fascinating cornucopia of historical tidbits and arcane detail: a half-page on the Tlingit of Alaska, a page on the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, an "overview" of ancient Mesopotamia, longer chapters on Judaism, Christianity, Islam. If you are satisfied with just a superficial graze (heh, primitive wall-paintings show women ruled, cool) or can use the book as introductory (the bibliography is thorough), it has served purpose. It will be effusively lauded by the feminist establishment and loudly ridiculed by anti-feminists. It deserves neither; it is fascinating, but problematic. For purposes of comparison, look at the excellent, although more narrowly defined A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, by Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser.

Gilligan's book, The Birth of Pleasure, is less overtly ambitious but imperious in a different way. She wishes to affirm the possibility of enduring love, by questioning the myths of loss that men and women bring into adulthood. The book weaves together straight literary textual analysis, case studies (couples, adolescent girls, very young boys) and psychological research, an extended re-interpretation of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, and Gilligan's memories of her mother and reconstruction of their relationship.

The book is as confusing and overwrought as it sounds. There are some truly wonderful passages: readings of Hawthorne, Proust, and The Diary of Anne Frank and The English Patient, a compassionate re-reading of her childhood, observations about the sensitivity of very young boys and the twisted yarn of adolescent girls' relationships with their mothers, strong material on losing and re-discovering one's own voice, and bang-on insights into the hollowness at the heart of some couples' relationships – all of these are absorbing and revealing, and they touch both heart and mind. I had extraordinary dreams after reading parts of this book, about people I have loved deeply.

But there is also some terrible writing: "Like pleasure, girls and women are a perennial feature of the human landscape." The re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth is at times clear and quite lovely, and then, suddenly, ridiculous: this second-century myth is no less than "a deeply encrypted insight into the nature of love in patriarchy." It is unquestionably a rich, complex myth, but Gilligan's insistence on its meaning is forced, bent to her analysis of "contemporary couples in crisis." Analysis is too austere a word; Gilligan winds up a feverish rhapsody, describing literally the birth, on white pillows, of Pleasure (daughter of Cupid and Psyche), swaddling her understanding of her family in feminist psych-speak: "My grandfather was a man of relationship, and my father was also a man of relationship who climbed the hierarchy of patriarchy."

I believe there are profound insights in Gilligan's book, but it takes time for them to swim up to the surface. I still cannot say, finally, what I think of both of these books; they are both provocative and flawed. But I will go on thinking about them both.

Marian Botsford Fraser is the author of Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women. She now lives in Stratford, Ontario.