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.

Throughout the book, Segal appeals for more ‘fluidity’—now a pet word in depoliticized circles of the Anglo-American academy—even though she herself points out that individual levitation between genders comforts the two poles as much as it ‘subverts’ them. Conceding that gender is socially constructed, she still clings to the idea that only psychoanalysis can diagnose the complexity of today’s subjectivities. Two disquieting assumptions are detectable here. One is the notion that understanding our supposedly warped subjectivities is a pressing task of feminism, on a par with developing a theory of oppression and a practice of liberation. The other is the suggestion that the two require quite different methods. A feminist account of subjectivity should be part and parcel of a constructivist theory of oppression. If, on the other hand, subjectivity is treated as unamenable to such a theory, and handed over to psychoanalysis instead, the pertinence of feminism itself is obviously called into question.

Segal would have us delve into an ‘anthropological’ and ahistorical paradigm that assumes as given just that patriarchal organization of family and society which feminism takes as historical and contingent. But why can’t gender hierarchy explain the subjective contradictions which seem to worry her? Why does she have to call psychoanalysis in, unless she believes in some trans-historical, unchangeable bedrock of human nature, whose mechanisms of ‘identification’ and ‘desire’ are impermeable to social construction? For Segal, it would appear, gender is not analytically on a par with other social divisions ‘based on’—or rather marked by—physical difference. Like advocates of the ‘feminine’ (whom she elsewhere takes to task quite sternly), she does not want sexual difference to stop being socially significant, just to stop being so hierarchical. ‘Sexual difference’, as she puts it, ‘can be re-conceived, and re-enacted, in ways which work to undermine, rather than shore up, strictly hierarchical conceptions of gender centred on affirming active/heterosexual/masculine dominance.’ Indeed, she can approvingly quote a lesbian feminist, Biddy Martin, who recommends us to ‘value’ gender as ‘an aspect of the uniqueness of personalities without letting it bind and control qualities, experiences, behaviours that the culture divides up rigidly between the two supposedly different sexes’ (sic). It is disappointing to see such acuity and erudition dwindle to so modest and trite a conclusion. We might have expected Segal to go a bit further than Margaret Mead, who was saying much the same kind of thing back in the thirties. But for her, ‘difference’ is not only a natural fact that cannot be ignored by society, it actually represents a value for the workings of sexuality. In other words, the war between the sexes has ‘secondary benefits’, which she rates quite highly. Characteristically, she makes no mention of the important articles of Stevi Jackson, herself a heterosexual feminist, on the links between gender and heterosexuality, and ignores or deprecates the work of radical feminists in general.