Anita -- Journalisms -- This is what gender equality looks like? -- 06.07.03

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Anita -- Journalisms -- This is what gender equality looks like?

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Regarding Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag
A review by Anita DiBianco
06.07.03

To read previous Journalisms on Susan Sontag:
http://www.16beavergroup.org/journalisms/archives/000149.php

This is what gender equality looks like?
Regarding Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag

So it's open season on Virginia Woolf. Alas, among her prolific career as literary critic, feminist essayist, novelist, and publisher of Gorky, T.S. Eliot, and Katherine Mansfield, among others, she makes even suicide a far livelier flourish than the sum of all recent ripoffs ? namely the Mrs. Dalloway-lite of 2002 Hollywood fame. In the distinguished tradition of suicidal literary geniuses of both sexes. Luckily, one need not rely on Michael Cunningham and Nicole Kidman for interpretation on the desperation of "women". If you didn't specifically study "Women's Literature", since for the most part, Woolf, Stein, Eliot, Welty, O'Connor are still not part of the gender un-qualified Anglo-american literature canon among such apparently universally-applicable storytellers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck -- check out Mrs. Dalloway, or Orlando, or A Room of One's Own. They are not the dated, generalizing or provincial ravings of some madwoman in the attic railing against the injustices done by her husband. Half a century before queer, in A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf, referring to Coleridge, explored the idea of an androgynous mind as the possible solution for the limitations of male and female identities and subjectivities.

Were Woolf alive, however, I would pity the mortal who challenges her to a debate on the question of gender equality, in 2003. Equality is a mathematical concept, no? Assessable by comparing numbers, or statistics, like any other, right? I dare not trot out old-fashioned feminist outrage and indignation for fear that it may bore or alienate those who have moved on to less stable subjects. Even taking the U.S. as one of the more likely examples of such equality ? look at statistics on the gender breakdown of property ownership (including land, residential and commercial properties, wealth, in easily quantifiable terms of income and money invested, in numbers of elected officials (town by town, or at the state or federal level), CEOs and upper echelon management of corporations. Check out that glass ceiling - forget middle management, partners in the law firm - look at the top, at the button-pushers and merger-signers, at contract-awarders and recipients - not the people that prop up the people at the top, or the ones that take direct orders, or act as the disguisers of ultimate interests or their spokespeople, or public faces and voices of the leader. Or count the wall plaques at Venice next week, or at the Dia in Beacon. Or try to locate evidence of 50/50 gender equality in medical research spending, in museum directors, owners of media networks, film directors, in city mayors, full-time professors at New York art schools, slice it any way you can. The gauntlet remains thrown.

That Susan Sontag, mistaking her own discomfort at the ethical quandary of the pain of others for either compassion or even less likely, for philosophy, has found Virginia Woolf conveniently defenseless for her own meandering purposes, does not effectively implicate or deny the substance of Woolf's statements about the warring proclivities of men. Sontag's detached inquiry into the documentation of other people's suffering initiates a kind of one-sided, by now somewhat predictable, dialogue against over-simplification of war photography. And while we are dealing in metaphor, Woolf is the first casualty of "Regarding the Pain of Others"; dragged through the first part of Sontag's narrative as the classically-erring essentialist. "Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them [Woolf and the lawyer] may not be possible. For though they belong to the same class, 'the educated class,' a vast gulf separates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is 'some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting' that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy."

In fact, this may be one of the things that the left and the right can still agree on, or at least (for differing motivations) cannot effectively mount an argument against. Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Indira Gandhi, Martha Stewart, female soldiers in combat, and a few female serial killers along the way hardly counter Woolf's assertions, which evidently, when examined in context, concern power, rather than nature. Which of course is neither here nor there. Putting aside all obvious arguments against her particular manner of speaking, every generation has regarded the last generation's feminist strategies as dryly puritanical and no fun. But it is highly suspect, and politically derivative, that Sontag would call on such statements, and such a rich intellectual tradition, when in fact she is no more interested in exploring or aligning herself with a gendered critique of international diplomacy than she ever was. It might be opportunism if there were anything to gain by joining the losing team after the game's long over.






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