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Reading: The Feminine Mistake



I realized that Gloria Steinem's new book, Revolution From Within, was not merely bad but irredeemably bad when she let slip, about two-thirds of the way through, that she was in the habit of conversing with the liver spots on her hands. I had gotten used to this kind of loopiness, all too typical of the book, and had to read the passage twice before realizing that she had said what I thought she had: "I look at my hands of which I am so proud, and seeing their backs sprinkled with small brown age spots is shocking at first. So I ask them what they have to say for themselves. 'A banner held in liver-spotted hands,' they reply. I get the title for a future article, plus my first inkling that liver spots have a sense of humor."

Unfortunately, Steinem's problems transcend her new-age literary eccentricity; her feminism, liver spots and all, has lost its way. Revolution From Within is a sprawling and surprisingly ambitious work, part autobiography, part self-help manual, part feminist manifesto. Its ambitions, however, are far from realized: Steinem is unable to adequately address any of her main themes, and her indiscriminate combination of many themes merely adds to the confusion. In its most basic sense, as Steinem herself explains, the book is an attempt to reverse one of the fundamental insights of feminism: the idea that the personal is political. Moving her attention away from "the external barriers to women's equality," Steinem focuses on the internal barriers, the doubts and fears that keep many women from standing up for themselves. Too many women (and many men), she argues, lack self-esteem; her book is an attempt to trace the sources of this problem and offer helpful hints. But in her analysis she seems to have forgotten most of the central lessons of contemporary feminism.

When the feminists of the 1960s argued that personal concerns were a legitimate focus for political analysis and action, they meant to uncover the social roots of private oppressions. Women activists who found themselves battered by their husbands or hesitant to speak out at male-dominated meetings began to realize that these were not simply individual concerns. They extended their critique to society as a whole, attempting to link the forms of oppression into a coherent whole. Different feminists defined the issues differently and proposed radically divergent solutions, but all started with the same premise: personal problems had to be addressed socially.

For the most part, self-help books are based on the opposite premise: problems, whatever their roots, have to be addressed personally. As Steinem herself observes, "a lot of self-help books put even more of a burden on the individual." Ignoring the pathologies of society at large or simply taking them as givens, many self-help books offer a vision of psychic perfection in an imperfect world; one such book (quoted disapprovingly by Steinem) promises to "bind up mental and physical wounds, proclaim liberty to the fear-ridden mind, and liberate you completely from the limitations of poverty, failure, misery, lack, and frustration." Not likely. Self-help books offer Horatio Alger stories for the psychological age--promising hapless, dysfunctional nobodies that with a little effort and some psychic ambition they too can be fulfilled.

Though Steinem recognizes the dangers of this approach, she slips all too easily into it as she progresses. Her book is filled with glowing if formulaic accounts of the psychic successes of those who have grasped the magic of self-esteem. She describes how a white middle-class teacher organized a chess club among his students in Spanish Harlem; predictably enough, the students' lives were transformed, and they suddenly had "career plans that included law, accounting, teaching, computer sciences--futures that they wouldn't have thought possible before--there was no telling what continuing surprises they might share at reunions of this team that had become its own support group and family." She recounts the tale of a former prostitute who was inspired to study law by reading Ms. magazine in prison. "To make an extraordinary story short," Steinem gushes, "she passed a high-school equivalency exam, entered college at night, and gradually moved from filing, to secretarial, and then to paralegal work"--then law school and lawyering. She tells the story of Mark the Match Boy, a ragged street urchin who, with determined effort and a savings account . . . I'm kidding--that's from Horatio Alger himself. But you get the idea.

For her stories Steinem draws on a vast and sometimes unlikely cast of characters, ranging from participants in a confidence clinic in Oregon to famous world leaders such as Gandhi and Winston Churchill. In his early years, Steinem tells us with mild horror, the great Gandhi was so filled with self-doubt that he borrowed many of his ideas from mere Westerners, including Tolstoy and Thoreau. "It was as if he needed their theories," Steinem laments, "to support his own values." Churchill, we learn, gained the confidence necessary to lead his country through World War II from his forays into literature and landscape painting. Take note, aspiring world leaders. (Of course Hitler was a painter, and Pat Buchanan is a writer. Never mind.) At one point she's even driven to quote Vince Lombardi: "Confidence is contagious, so is lack of confidence." Win one for the Gipper!

This approach, of course, completely obscures the broader sources of personal problems and places all responsibility upon the individual. Steinem, who really should know better, slips easily into rhetoric that blames the victim, making casual reference to "self-destructive behavior" as the root cause of poverty and crime. At one point in the book this logic transforms itself into something even more insidious: a form of self-hatred wrapped in the language of self-improvement. Describing how she originally tried to ignore the fact that she was growing older, continuing to eat poorly, and avoiding exercise, she explains that she feels guilty for having stayed healthy anyway, and welcomes her eventual punishment in the form of cancer. "Thanks to good genes I got away with all this defiance for quite awhile," she writes, "which may be exactly why I needed the word cancer to come into my life." Luckily her doctors were less moralistic, and they were able to remove the cancerous lump without complications.

The confusions in Revolution From Within go well beyond the central contradiction between feminist personal politics and Steinem's brand of self-help. She never clearly defines self-esteem, and it becomes a catchall for everything from individual self-doubt to vague all-encompassing notions such as national will. Even when she stays close to the personal, her concept of self-esteem is muddled. She confuses cause and effect: low self-esteem itself is not a problem--it's a symptom of other problems. The feelings of worthlessness that generally accompany clinical depression, for example, are fundamentally different from the sense of personal and intellectual failure suffered by children in inner-city schools who are given inadequate and often patronizing attention by underpaid teachers. Clinical depression would best be remedied by therapy and possibly medication (and more funding for mental-health programs), the children's problems by an improved educational system. By lumping such different problems together, Steinem hopelessly jumbles the picture and makes a real understanding of possible remedies impossible. And by ignoring the complex clinical literature on mental illnesses such as depression in favor of a scattershot anecdotal account, she compounds the already considerable public ignorance of the issue.

The advice Steinem offers barely rises above the level of the most vapid self-help manuals, and her specific suggestions come in the form of cliches. She urges her readers to follow their hearts, to trust their feelings, to trust their inner voice. She lets us know that "you can't beat something with nothing" and that "we can't love each other until we love ourselves." From time to time she seems a little apologetic about offering up such conventional wisdom, but, she happily announces, "truisms are . . . true" and besides "everything sounds trite before we're ready for it."

The book's forays into international politics are no less troubling--Steinem reduces history to the banalities of pop psychology. "I've learned . . . that self-esteem plays as much a part in the destiny of nations as it does in the lives of individuals," she writes. "Self esteem is the basis of any real democracy." In her view, for example, the popular resistance to the attempted Soviet coup last August was a simple example of the power of positive political thinking. "When teachers believe their students are gifted, they become more gifted," she writes, easing her way from the blackboard to the barricades. "Yeltsin and other popular leaders expected people to take control of their own fate, and people did just that--an example of a leader's ability to free the powers of self-esteem." Of course, events since then have led many observers (and many Russians) to conclude that Yeltsin is as authoritarian and economically inept as any other former party hack. Steinem must be baffled by this shift--but perhaps she'll conclude those grumbling Russians don't deserve democracy if they let the lack of food stand in the way of the psychic regeneration of their country.

Beyond this kind of historical naivete, Steinem offers vague suggestions to promote better worldwide living through self-esteem. Most of them sound like little more than politically correct versions of Robert Fulghum's kindergarten wisdom--the world was on fire when I lay down on it. "Religions could stop telling us we are innately sinful," Steinem proposes. "The military could ask us to live for a cause, not die for it. . . . Children could feel loved and valued from the beginning." When she moves from practical suggestions into the more abstract realm of political theory, the discussion gets a little headier. "From Eastern Europe to South Africa, democratic uprisings are softening and humanizing hierarchies into more circularity," she concludes. (Huh?) She goes on to elaborate a faintly mystical, very faintly feminist new-age environmentalism, which she seems to think is somehow related to the idea of self-esteem. She suggests learning from the animals: "Only humans create inequality by simply believing in it." (Tap your toes three times and repeat, "There is no inequality, there is no inequality . . . ") She urges us to consider how similar our bodies are to the earth: "Just as the planet is three-fourths ocean, our bodies are three-fourths water. When we shed tears or drops of perspiration, they are salty too." I feel much better about myself already.

Steinem is no more successful at telling her own story than at explaining social theory. For years she scoffed at too much introspection--she joked that "the examined life is not worth living." This book represents her first attempt to probe deeply into her own psyche, but her self-discovery becomes a kind of hobby, like stamp collecting, or a simple chore. She waxes eloquent (or as close to eloquent as she can get) about the bountiful psychic joys of "solving a problem, making a bookcase, inventing a dance step . . . writing a poem," all of which are made possible "by reaching within for a vision and then making it real." Introspection is such a new thing for her that she holds up every realization, no matter how small or banal, as a startling discovery. One suspects she censored many of the more interesting aspects of her interior life--she can't be this dull.

Still, her accounts of an often difficult life are not without poignancy. But these moments of poignancy arrive almost in spite of Steinem's prose, which is so wooden that it can barely convey what she's willing to reveal of her interior life. Even the exteriors of things present a problem. She describes a book as "laserlike," though it probably doesn't emit thin beams of light, figurative or otherwise. She describes a friend and former lover as looking "like a large friendly tree . . . with an occasional response when the wind of our talk rustled in his branches." (Would they have linked up if he'd looked like a medium-size unfriendly tree?)

Struggling through Steinem's clumsy psychobabble, I couldn't help but be reminded of another attempt to offer America a painless psychic salvation through individual self-redemption--Charles Reich's The Greening of America, an enormously and embarrassingly popular best-seller of the early 1970s that has fortunately been forgotten. Reich breathlessly announced the coming of a new and higher consciousness--he called it Consciousness III--signaled by outward manifestations of higher psychic life such as bell-bottoms and the expression "Oh, wow." (I'm not making this up.) Like Steinem, he suggested that social change begins with the individual--in effect, if enough people began to wear bell-bottoms, the revolution would be won. Reich was taken seriously at the time because his book did deal with serious issues (though poorly), and because his ideas connected up with the various social and psychological innovations of the 60s counterculture. But his was a bland and safe vision of liberation--a revolution through narcissism, a vision of social change without structural change. It was, in short, the blueprint for our two "me" decades--the self-actualizing 70s and the self-aggrandizing 80s.

Like Reich's book, Revolution From Within is steeped in the culture of its time. But instead of the counterculture Steinem has absorbed the dubious psychological wisdom of Donahue and Oprah, and her book refuses to challenge the institutions that create injustice in the world. I only hope that it doesn't serve as a model for the future. We are, after all, living in the aftermath of the nation's greatest self-esteem binge in years, the gulf war, which makes me even more troubled by Steinem's unthinking calls for "national self-esteem" and "national will." For most Americans the gulf war was not a personal trial, a glorious crusade, or even a bloodthirsty outburst--few even considered the consequences. But it was great therapy, a chance to show America's war-making skills to the world, a chance for America to "heal" the "psychic wounds" of Vietnam, as Dick Cheney suggested at the time. If the goal was promoting American self-esteem, it was much more effective than Steinem's suggestions--building bookshelves with the help of our inner children--though rather more destructive to Iraqi civilians. Now, of course, the real world has again intruded upon our psychological fantasies, and the mood of the nation is angry and irritable. This time, let's forego the therapy. These days, war is the continuation of group therapy by other means.

Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem, Little, Brown, $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steve Mendelson.

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