Book Review of Harvey Mansfield, Manliness
20 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2007
In this book review, I provide an overview and partial critique of Harvey Mansfield's Manliness. Contrary to what Mansfield sometimes implies, but never really commits to, feminism has been good, not bad, for society. Feminist politics has worked and continues to work a mostly wonderful revolution in the way we live our lives and choose our aspirations. In Part I, I explain what is wrong with Mansfield's critiques of feminism, as well as with his poorly constructed argument for promoting gender-based norms in private life. However, I note that many feminisms are not without problems. Most feminist theories that reject gender essentialism have indeed been fundamentally problematized - feminist theory is troubled. Mansfield appears to posit this trouble as an inevitable slide toward nihilism, but I argue that he is off the mark.
In Part II, I move on to what is a fairer problematization of feminisms that reject gender essentialism: Rejecting gender essentialism leads to the extremely difficult question of how people with socially constructed identities are to change their social construction. I examine Simone de Beauvoir's, Catharine MacKinnon's, and Judith Butler's responses to this problem. I argue that de Beauvoir's solution - transcend gender - feels too naïve. I argue that MacKinnon's radical feminist solution - explode gender - feels unresponsive to many women's desires and wishes, despite its aim to accomplish this explosion through less top-down, more grassroots mechanisms. I argue that Butler's postmodern feminist solution - embracing "gender trouble," rather than seeking to escape gender constructions - is elegant, but has still failed to satisfy those who desire concrete implications for politics or law. As Steven Seidman has said, queer theory and postmodernism seem to have started out "against identity politics" but ended up promoting an empty, and potentially irrelevant, "politics against identity."
In Part III, I argue that there are real political implications that we can draw from the rejection of identity politics and essentialism, including gender essentialism. While anti-essentialism doesn't tell us how to live our lives, it can tell us what kinds of legal rights to protect and construct, in order to ensure that there is room to rally against the very real suffering and injustice that social norms and identities have so often caused.
Keywords: harvey mansfield, manliness, feminism, private, public, gender roles, american feminism, childcare, family, liberal feminism, radical feminism, postmodernism
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