Lynne Segal seeks to ‘make sense of the mélange of contemporary feminism’, wondering whether ‘we can still look to it for a confrontational and broadly transformative politics’. But Why Feminism? does not offer a historical view of second-wave feminism, or a systematic discussion of contemporary feminist debates. Rather it brings together a number of—more or less interesting—individual topics on the author’s mind. The opening chapter promises a reflection on why the women’s movement—or least, part of it—has turned inwards. But the question is more or less dropped thereafter. Instead, Segal moves to a sharp analysis of the impasses of queer theory and ‘gender as (individual) performance’. But this critique is not pursued, leaving little trace in her own theorization of gender. This is a recurrent pattern. Segal is a diligent reader and a capable critic—her next chapter, on the return to Darwin, should be mandatory reading for students in sociology, history, psychology and women’s studies. If her critique of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is not in itself original, it sets out the convincing rebukes of serious scientists like Rose and Gould in a highly compact and readable form.
What follows is more puzzling. A discussion of ‘psychic life and its scandals’ explores conflicting accounts of memory by different psychologists, without any adequate reference to their principal background—namely, the relatively recent exposure by feminists of the extent of child abuse. This is itself a topic of the greatest interest. How was such a taboo subject, whose existence was for so long all but universally denied, yet which formed such a deep sump of sexual violence, finally forced to the surface by feminists? Why and when was it first broached, and by whom, exactly? How was it gradually accepted by mainstream society, despite continuing resistance, not least among the judiciary?
There is something strangely timeless in Segal’s treatment of this question, and slightly out of focus: as if the main issue was whether feminist charges against Freud were founded or not. Does it matter so much what he said? Or is what matters rather the innumerable therapists who have used his authority to persuade teenage victims of abuse that they had dreamt it all? Segal’s concern to rehabilitate Freud becomes even more pronounced as she moves to the topic of ‘gender anxieties’. She does not, it is true, extend the same helping hand to Lacan, who is convicted of misogyny, if cleared of biological reductionism (to the absurd refrain ‘the phallus is not the penis’). To many feminists—dare I say the majority?—this does not come as quite the scoop Segal may think it to be. We’ve known it from the beginning. The real question is: how did it happen that Lacan, who was on his way to being forgotten save by a handful of quarrelsome disciples, was rescued from oblivion by Gallop, Moi, and other soi-disant ‘French’ feminists—virtually all Americans? Is this not an illustration of just what Segal started by deploring—‘the turn inward, often to psychoanalysis’?
But as the book progresses, its commitment to psychoanalysis becomes increasingly pronounced. Segal proudly announces that feminist therapists have ‘abandoned the belief in the Holy Trinity: the view that it is only via the intervention of the “father”, and the acceptance of sexual difference, that the infant can free itself “from the helpless subjection to the omnipotent mother and enter the reality of the wider world”.’ But who believed in that to start with? Why are these theorists still working their way towards Klein—one wonders if they will ever even get to Horney, let alone contemporary psychologists like Bem—rather than acknowledging that when historical ‘gender’ is taken seriously, there is no more room for ahistorical ‘sexual difference’? That concept itself becomes part of the problem, not of the solution. Segal cannot resolve these issues, because she is basically at sea with gender. She wants to retain the term, but without the subversive meaning that materialist and radical feminists have attached to it, as a social instrument of patriarchy, which cannot stay if patriarchy is to go. Segal waters it down in the way so often found in American feminism, in which it is forever linked with sex. Gayle Rubin’s expression ‘sex/gender’, fusing the two, receives her approval. Here is the central weakness of the book—one, of course, not confined to Segal. On the back cover, Sheila Rowbotham congratulates her for wanting to ‘hold on to what being a woman means, while contesting the cultural and social meanings given to “femininity”’. Segal wants to think that this contradiction in terms is not only desirable, but feasible.
The result is to land her in endless tangles of her own making. Thus, she warns men who seek a new ‘masculinity’ that they must renounce this fantasy, for ‘“masculinity” is by definition opposed to “femininity”’, as ‘these are relational concepts which derive their meaning from their difference from each other. This is why “masculinity” is always at war with “femininity”.’ But why does she stop short of the unavoidable conclusion? We have to let go of that illusion as well, of ‘femininity’ in any shape.