Review of Woman: An American Idea
Updated: Feb 22
The starred Kirkus Review of Lillian Faderman’s book Woman: The American History of an Idea very accurately describes her book as an “intelligently provocative, vital reading experience…” as she explores what it means to be woman in America.
Although individual women are as varied as individuals in any species, the social construct of the idea of what a woman is has varied over the last 400 years. Faderman’s brilliantly researched history shows how the idea of woman as a class has been shaped by those in positions of power (usually men) and outside forces such as war, the economy, or a pandemic.
For those of us who are appalled at how the US Supreme Court has just sent us backwards regarding human rights for women, Faderman’s book may provide solace. The pendulum swing of women’s economic, social, sexual, and legal equality has always progressed with two swings forward and one back. Although big gains were often short-lived, the conservative right could never erase them completely.
What Faderman’s book made clear to me, was that class and privilege has always affected the idea and freedom of women. Butch lesbians like Anne Lister in the early 1800s were able to cross dress and step out of the traditional confines of women’s roles in public life and even live openly with another woman instead of marrying. “Boston marriages” were common in the late 1800s among college educated women who could make their own living or who had inherited money. Not true though for the working class or women of color who had no choice but to live under the rules of the patriarchy.
Interestingly, even women who argued against women getting the vote or stepping out of traditional roles that were “God’s plan for women” early in the last century were themselves unmarried or did not adhere to the restrictions of the traditional roles they espoused. Phyllis Schlafly, “perfectly coiffed and ramrod straight looking like a well-off 1950s housewife”, campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. She was well-educated with a doctorate degree in law, even running for political office while urging other women not to compete with men on an equal basis. Sadly, this hypocrisy of women on the radical right has continued with Amy Coney Barrett, a privileged educated white woman who managed to have a career in law and multiple children because she had educational opportunity, money, live-in childcare, and a supportive spouse who took on the role of “wife.” Yet, she would deprive poor women and women of color--with far fewer supports and options—of the ability to control their reproduction and thus their own lives.
Faderman’s book illustrated for me how the changing concept of woman affected my own life. As a girl growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I lived through the era of restrictive roles for women. Lesbianism was defined as a mental illness, abortion was illegal, and women’s education and entry into law and medicine was severely limited. Like Emily Blackwell over a century earlier, I experienced multiple rejections to medical school early on despite near perfect academic scores. I also had to travel to Mexico for an illegal abortion. Still, having come of age during second-wave feminism with its gains in women’s reproductive freedom and equality in education, I rode the wave of the changing concept of woman in my ability to enter the medical profession and enjoy a thriving career.
As a lesbian, I always had to work to support myself so the backward swings of the pendulum in the 1980s and 90s for married women urged by the culture to “opt out” and return to the traditional role of stay-at-home Mom did not affect me. Faderman shows, however, that each backlash and reversion of women to traditional roles of wife and mother and provider of sexual pleasure to men was followed by another step forward. More women than ever entered the workforce in a variety of jobs previously held by men and made progress on closing the education and pay gap. Punk rock groups like Bikini Kill sang that woman can do everything and were entitled to the same sex privileges men had hoarded for themselves. The Me-Too Movement demonstrated the extent of sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power. Women were no longer willing to put up and shut up.
As Faderman notes, even gender itself has undergone transformation with Generation Z introducing multiple gender choices with a whole spectrum of identities and associated behaviors. Well educated women can now earn their own living and no longer need a man for support. Women are no longer confined to traditional marriage and can establish diverse ways of being in relationship. This is all too much for the radical right who are once again attempting (and partially succeeding) in swinging the pendulum backwards to define the concept of woman as second-class citizens once again.
Though Faderman’s treatment of the idea of woman is academic with extensive references and notes, the book is very readable and held my interest throughout. I gained new perspective on the social forces affecting my grandmothers going back over three centuries in this country as well as the social forces affecting women (and lesbians) in my own lifetime. I read it straight through, going back to peruse sections several times. That is the sign of a really good book.