Christopher Lasch’s Women And The Common Life

According to his daughter, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who helped assemble and introduce this collection of Christopher Lasch’s essays, the impetus for their writing came from reading both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François Poullain de la Barre – two writers famous for this vision of an infinitely malleable human nature – and meditating on the developments of feminist thought in the second half of the 20th century. “I’m trying to trace the interconnections between the modern ideology of intimacy, the new domestic ideal of the nineteenth century, and feminism – something like that,” Lasch explained. Cancer cut short his ambitions, and the original work, as intended, never materialized, but Women And The Common Life collects a series of essays on this vitally relevant theme, and introduces what was then – and remains today – a deeply unpopular thesis: that the history of Western culture cannot be reduced to or understood as the oppression of men by women (now the dominant thesis in third-wave feminism), but must take into account women’s contributions to shaping the mores by which our ancestors lived. Lasch, in fact, goes one step further: our modern refusal to acknowledge the role women played in creating the spiritually nourishing, socially vital “common life” has led us to pursue a destructive, myopic individualism and eroded the bonds of our societies. As his daughter puts it, “The common life not only nurtures the individual responsibility and courage demanded for democracy but provides the kind of life that is worth living in the first place,” and it is precisely that life Lasch feared we were losing.

The opening essay, “Comedy of Love and Querelle des Femmes” (typically translated as “the woman question”) surveys the centuries-long debate over men, women and the role of marriage that took place in European literature and philosophy between the 13th and 18th centuries, and contrasts the suppositions of that debate with those of the modern “woman question” taken for granted by feminism.

Modern feminism, until recently at least, promised not to intensify sexual warfare but to bring about a new era of sexual peace in which men and women could meet each other as equals, not as antagonists. The earlier controversies about women, on the other hand, took sexual antagonism for granted. More precisely, they took for granted the contradiction between love, which rested on sexual equality, and marriage, a hierarchical arrangement in which a wife was expected to submit to her husband’s authority. The querrelle des femmes had its material roots in aristocratic customs governing marriage, which defined marriage as a dynastic institution, not as an expression of sexual attraction.

One thinks of Betty Friedan, credited with launching second-wave feminism with The Feminine Mystique, who expressed the hope that her work might heal troubled marriages and ultimately bring men and women closer together. From the perspective of the querrelle des femmes debate, Lasch argues, this project was always doomed to failure: men and women have competing interests, and are destined for strife. Marriage, in such a view, is not an emotional union but a political and economic alliance, where passion not only has no role to play, but is suspect. “The issue that presented itself to those times was not whether woman is equal to man in the abstract but rather in what social relationships is she his equal, in what relations his subordinate?” The centuries-old debate known as the querelle des femmes seems strikingly relevant, an early investigation of exactly the same questions now being posed on forums, videos and blogs across the Internet:

Should a man marry? If he does, does he marry anything but trouble? Do the pleasures of marriage outweigh its innumerable irritations and inconveniences? Do husbands have the right to be jealous of their wives’ lovers? Are they justified in accusing the female sex of inconstancy, calculating seductiveness, and insatiable lust? Was it male lust, on the contrary, that lured women into adultery and fornication? Should adultery and fornication be condemned in the first place? Isn’t the free union of adulterous lovers morally superior to the forced union of husband and wife?

The new culture war, whose salvos have rocked the Internet for the past decade, is intimately concerned with exactly these questions – the querelle des femmes lives on.

Perhaps the most interesting essay is “The Sexual Division of Labor,” which argues that a comic misunderstanding has occurred in 20th century sex relations, whereby each gender came to feel itself unappreciated and unfulfilled and envious of the role of its opposite. We err, Lasch argues, when we project the concerns of the 1960s into the past: women were never so fully confined to the domestic sphere, and particularly to motherhood, as they were after the invention and widespread adoption of the automobile, and the suburbanization of America.

In reality, full-time motherhood – the rejection of which touched off the latest wave of feminist agitation in the sixties – was something new and historically unprecedented. It was largely a product of the rapid growth of suburbs after World War II, and the feminist revival initiated by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique originated as a direct response, often a very self-conscious response, not to the age-old oppression of women, but to the suburbanization of the American soul.

He contrasts the lives of American women in the mid-20th century with the role of women in prior centuries, where civic engagement was much greater.

They organized benevolent societies, female reform societies, and foreign missions. They put together a vast network of temperance societies. They took up charities and philanthropies of all kinds. Many of them enlisted in the antislavery crusade, the peace movement, prison reform, and of course the movement for women’s rights. Historians have known for a long time that women played a central part in all the reform movements that swept over the country in the nineteenth century, not to mention the evangelical revivals that furnished much of the moral inspiration behind those movements.

Lasch then points out what, in retrospect, seems a comedy of errors, for at the exact same moment in time that Friedan was mobilizing suburban women against their enforced domesticity, a counter-culture movement was gripping the hearts of young men, who were growing increasingly disillusioned with the nature of 20th century, post-industrial office work. The suit-and-tie, 9-to-5 lifestyle, the flight to the suburbs, the 25-year mortgage and the ungrateful wife – all became emblematic of a cramped, inhibited life, a life lived for others, and the celebrated figures of the 1960s rejected it, root and branch. Think of Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (always “on the road,” never tied down), Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention the explosion of rock and roll and its primal scream against the ordinary expectations of life.

What Lasch is describing, in its infancy, is the birth of the “culture” I now live in, a culture of negation rather than affirmation, where commitment of any kind is suspect, and the only standard of behavior and morality is individual happiness, however momentary. The price we pay for such a culture is precisely a “common life,” a sense of community and rootedness, whose great prerequisites have always been the decidedly unsexy and unexciting obeisance of rules and regulations, and the willingness to recognize the existence of standards greater than ourselves. The Lasch revival presently underway, across the Western world, has been driven by the precocity of his insights, and our belated recognition that he had – and has – something vitally important to teach us.