The Books: The White Album, ‘The Women’s Movement’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion.

I read this biting analysis of the women’s movement and I think, “Way to make friends, Joan.” Ha.

Written in 1972, it comes 20 years before Camille Paglia really hit the scene like a bomb going off, but Didion is making many of the same points. It’s incredible to think how prescient it is. Many people will disagree with Didion’s assessment. I happen to agree. When Paglia arrived, and it was as though she came from outer space, she said things that had been on my mind, nagging at me, ever since I was an undergraduate. She said things that were unsayable, which was one of the things that so bugged me about the “movement”, which couldn’t really be called a “movement” by the 90s. What bugged me was the fascist insistence on “correctness” of thought, you had to line up with a checklist of opinions, otherwise you were a ‘traitor”. It all seemed very childish to me. I wanted no part of it. It was also anti-art, anti-literature, anti-ambiguity (this is one of Didion’s main beefs with the whole thing). You know, dismissing the “Dead White Male” canon … wanting women to be equally represented on any curriculum. Well, sorry, ladies, but that’s not possible up to a certain date, because there weren’t as many women writing/painting, etc. To force second-rate work onto a curriculum, sacrificing something first-rate just because it was written by a man, seemed not only stupid to me, but harmful. Harmful to the minds of young women. Harmful to the minds of young men. Yes, it is unfair that women were held down for centuries. That is no longer the case. But you cannot go back and revise history to make it more palatable to your precious 20th/21st century sensibility. What is the point of that?

Paglia’s entire career has been about resurrecting Humanities, in a classical sense.

The shrieks of outrage that greet Paglia’s work just shows how intellectual rigor has been pushed aside for “correct” ideology. You can count me out.

If you like art only because it reflects the “correct” attitude (meaning: one you agree with), then you’re not really interested in art. Or at least not the way I am interested, and therein lies

Didion is not as much of a firebrand as Paglia is. Paglia put herself on the cover of one of her books, wearing a ninja jumpsuit, with knives in her belt. I mean, she wasn’t messing around. But that just shows you how much the situation had deteriorated in the 20 years since Didion wrote her essay. The things Didion sensed, the things she didn’t like, only got worse. It wasn’t that the “movement” evened itself out and grew up. No, it infiltrated the humanities departments. If you read literature only with ideological eyes, it will be RUINED for you (and we have seen that play out in the last 20, 30 years). Books turn into either successful or failed propaganda for your cause. People stop knowing how to READ when that becomes the case.

The women who fought for women’s equality – in voting, in economics, in healthcare and birth control, in being in charge of their own destinies – are heroes to me still. The rhetoric of the recent political campaigns which seem to infantilize women is deeply offensive to me. I saw a sign at a protest held by a woman that said “I CAN’T BELIEVE I AM STILL PROTESTING THIS SHIT” and that is in general my feeling. Really? Women’s health care? Get outta here with your retro-bullshit. I see all of that more as a dying gasp from a culture war that has already been won (or lost, depending on how you look at it). The same thing with gay marriage. The battle has already been won, and so the losers are going to be very loud, and very violent. History has borne this out. They’re watching the world move on without them. They hate it. That’s their problem.

But Didion is not critiquing the valuable base of the movement. She is critiquing the movement itself and how it manifested itself in the early 70s, when it really exploded into a national consciousness. She sensed, in the focus on sexual harassment in particular, that we were regressing to Victorian times, when ladies were too fragile to be allowed to go out on the streets. That, strangely enough, the women’s movement, which was ostensibly about empowering women, became a movement about how delicate we were, how horrified we were at the attentions of men.

But look at how deep she goes here. She does not deny the reality of being a woman, and that it is different, difficult, and made so only because it is “seen” as so Other. (“that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater…”) If you are looking for Didion to agree with your little misogynistic pamphlet, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Again, I am amazed by her clarity of vision while in the midst of the movement itself. It is hard to see the forest for the trees. The same is true for her essays on the student protests and on political campaigns. Her essays on Clinton, and Dukakis throwing a baseball on the tarmac, are brilliant analyses of “how things work”.

The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

More and more, as the literature of the movement began to reflect the thinking of women who did not really understand the movement’s ideological base, one had the sense of this stall, this delusion, the sense that the drilling of the theorists had struck only some psychic hardpan dense with superstitions and little sophistries, wish fulfillment, self-loathing and bitter fancies. To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Everywoman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own. She was persecuted even by her gynecologist, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist’s table. During the fashion for shoes with pointed toes, she, like “many women”, had her toes amputated. She was so intimidated by cosmetics advertising that she would sleep “huge portions” of her day in order to forestall wrinkling, and when awake she was enslaved by detergent commercials on television. She sent her child to a nursery school where the little girls huddled in a “doll corner” and were forcibly restrained from playing with building blocks. Should she work she was paid “three to ten times less” than an (always) unqualified man holding the same job, was prevented from attending business lunches because she would be “embarrassed” to appear in public with a man not her husband, and, when she traveled alone, faced a choice between humiliation in a restaurant and “eating a doughnut” in her hotel room.

The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves. The bitter fancies assumed their own logic. To ask the obvious – why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set, or why, the most eccentric detail, she stayed in hotels where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service – was to join this argument at its own spooky level, a level which had only the most tenuous and unfortunate relationship to the actual condition of being a woman. That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy that package.

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8 Responses to The Books: The White Album, ‘The Women’s Movement’, by Joan Didion

  1. Lisa says:

    “Nobody forces women to buy that package.” Love it.

  2. DBW says:

    Didion is tough as nails, and oh so brave. Of course, she wouldn’t consider it “brave,” because that falls into the trap she describes here. She would consider it observant and honest.

  3. “How much cleaner to stay forever children.”

    Nice blast of fresh air that. I remember in my early twenties–having spent my childhood rubbing elbows with religious fundamentalists–feeling horribly alone when I realized the “left” where I had hoped to find an intellectal home had been taken over by the very sort of people who had a chokehold on my spritual home in the church. Encountering Didion was a great, great antidote. No writer is more valuable than the one who makes you feel less alone.

    Needless to say, I’m really enjoying this series!

    Just finished “Hollywood” btw…thanks so much for the recommendation. Sat on my shelf for years and its priceless.

  4. Desirae says:

    When I read that excerpt you posted of Didion’s essay about the counterculture kids, and how she could feel a longing in them for a totalitarian leader, it reminded me that I’ve seen a similiar syndrome in some social justice type circles. It’s like everyone has to agree on everything, all the time, right this second. There’s a certain kind of (very prevalent) person that has what I’ve seen called a “learned principles” fallacy. They have a set of learned principles and they apply them across the board, universaly, whether they make any sense for an particular situation or not. And it makes things very rigid and very narrow for everyone concerned, because it creates a situation where there is no room for argument or debate at all. It flattens the scope of human experience right out. There’s a lot of gatekeeping involved – you must be this radical to ride the ride, etc.

    I think that sort of thing is why, in spite of being a feminist, I have no real life activist friends. Because I cannot imagine engaging in a relationship where I’m being tested all the time.

    This era of feminism also left a hell of a lot of women by the sidelines, too, because the focus was so much of middle class or upper class educated white women. I may be a feminist, but I’m not going to pretend that the feminist movement ever did anything for, say, my Mom the Metis cleaning lady. And a lot of that crap remains.

  5. Sheila says:

    Desirae- you bring up an awesome point: feminism’s failure to deal with class (and mInority women). Didion talks about how so much of the literature is women bitching about how their husbands won’t do laundry. It spoke from a place of middle-class white privilege. That’s one of Paglia’s beefs too.

  6. Kiara says:

    I am so glad someone has touched on the pipeline between this Didion essay and Paglia’s work. I just revisited the essay tonight, after some recent reading and watching of Paglia , and was struck by their abject parallels. I immediately did some googling to find discourse regarding the connection, and I’m so glad I found this. Reading the comments, all of which are from 2012, I’m curious to know how absolutely proven right you all must feel in 2021. The culture has gotten so increasingly punishing and obfuscating. Where is the sensory-fueled honesty and poignancy of Didion? Is there any chance for it to enter any of these ‘politically pure’ echo chambers?

    • sheila says:

      Kiara – this piece continues to make waves. It’s great.

      I have had such thoughts since way back in college – something was “off” – maybe because I didn’t have middle-class conventional goals. Not to belittle people who did but I didn’t. And a lot of the things focused on were things that seemed to not include not only me but my wild group of friends who came from way up and down the class hierarchy. Also I just am not a joiner, and I distrust groups and orthodoxy. Reading 1984 in high school was like an inoculation. It’s saved me a lot of trouble.

      // Where is the sensory-fueled honesty and poignancy of Didion? //

      It’s still there but it’s been driven practically underground – way far out on the margins. Not a good situation at all and one of the many reasons I will miss her so much.

      Thanks for your comment!

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