Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 103-105
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The Descent of Women
The Descent of Women. By Frederick Sontag. St. Paul: Paragon Press, 1997.
The Descent of Women is a wonderful reminder of how silly and slapdash some philosophers can get when they think they are obligated, or entitled, to hold forth about the battle of the sexes and the state of feminist scholarship. "Achtung, all Feminists" (12): It's time, Professor Sontag proclaims, for the girls to understand a thing or two. First of all, there is no such thing as a single common identity for women. So feminists better stop assuming that there could be a unitary "women's voice." Second, there is no such thing as escaping from the powerful influence of our biology and the evolutionary battles stemming therefrom. If feminists knew their evolutionary biology they wouldn't be surprised by male backlash; in fact they might start doing more to prevent it.
Anyone who has been even vaguely familiar with the developments in feminist scholarship about which Professor Sontag now claims some expertise will have to wonder on what planet he has been living. "[T]o insist that all women must unite around one theory will have the effect of causing extensive arguments over theory, rather than bringing about the desired social change" (86). Has Professor Sontag actually read the books he cites in his extensive bibliography? Take for example Alison Jaggar's Feminist Politics and Human Nature, published in 1983, eight or nine years before Professor Sontag says he more or less completed his book (vii), fourteen years before the final revised [End Page 103] version was published in 1997. Even if he had read only that one book, how could he think it was, in the mid-1990s, high time for feminists to recognize that they can't expect themselves--let alone all women--to "unite around one theory"? How could he dare to present it as news that feminists disagree--disagree about what theories to embrace, about what actions to take? As for the enormously fruitful debates about the role of "race," class, sexual orientation, and other factors in the meaning of gender identity, and their implications for turns in feminist theory--debates that have been going on for decades both within and without the academy--don't expect much more than an ill-informed peep from the good Professor. On page 59 he makes passing mention of "the dilemma of the black woman," but the inquiring reader looks in vain for a description of that dilemma, let alone references to works by or about black women, in this connection. In an extensive footnote about the sample Carol Gilligan used in writing In a Different Voice (1982), Sontag wonders if her conclusions would apply to "black slave women, or women from the slums of Manila, or from the refugee camps in Cambodia . . . or from the Lesbian Coalition" (58), as if questions of this sort were brand spanking new. He does mention, but only in passing, two women of color whose work has been so important a part of the case against an unqualified "we're all the same as women" view: bell hooks (xii) (though he and his editor insist on the capitalized spelling), and, in a footnote (88), Angela Davis. For someone who thinks it important for feminists to take into consideration the different conditions under which women across cultures and over time live, work, struggle, and love, he shows scant understanding of what those differences amount to, and almost complete ignorance of the enormous literature on such issues that began to be available long before his research in the 1990s. Again, it is hard to be confident that Professor Sontag has read closely much of the work he actually does cite: Is it simply bad editing that can explain his references to "Hanna" Arendt (131), or to "Teffner" Allen (misspelled in yet another way as "Jennifer" in a footnote and the bibliography)? One shudders to think what the 1991-92 manuscript looked like, if the 1997 publication includes "extensive revisions" (vii). Whose notes was Professor...