U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alone She Passes

Whatever the theories may be of woman’s dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens.  Alone she goes to the gates of death to give life to every man that is born into the world; no one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown.
–Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self

My fifth-grade teacher was both a pillar of the community and a force of nature.  She was in her late fifties when my cohort passed through her class, with decades of teaching under her belt.  She was a descendant of one of the “pioneering families” of our county, and though fifth grade was the year in the California schools when we focused on the history of the United States, our social studies unit ended up being quite occidentocentric and California-heavy.  No dioramas, thankfully, nor any trips to visit one of Junipero Serra’s missions – that was fourth grade.  But a long unit focusing on the Oregon Trail — including playing the game beforethe age of computers, when the teacher would read scenarios out of the booklet, and ask us our course of action, and then roll the dice and see what happened to us.  (I lost my wagon and all my goods in an ill-advised river-crossing, and then died of dysentery, as one does.)  She read to us from adventure books that had been her own as a child, stories about pioneering California children.  She read to us the extremely problematic Ishi, Last of His Tribe.  (I’d be very interested to know the story behind getting the Ishi story as straight history/anthropology out of the K-12 curriculum.)

We had a regular music unit, including choral singing.  She worked with us, directing the acting andplaying the piano, to stage a musical for the school and our parents.  We also rehearsed and performed a Shakespeare play in full costume (sewn by our mothers – the assumption in the 1970s being that all mothers had a sewing machine at home and could sew, or knew someone who did), went with her in small groups to the symphony, did a major research paper from the encyclopedia and gave an oral report in costume/character.

Hers was a class with a great deal of “enrichment.”  But it was not a relaxed or easy class. She was exacting, and sometimes she snapped at us, and sometimes she flat-out scared us.

One scare came when we were on a rainy-day schedule (meaning we couldn’t go outside for morning recess or lunch recess or afternoon recess), so we went to lunch and then back to our homeroom for free reading or free drawing or free play.  In the bustle and hum of the busy classroom, as our teacher sat at her desk doing grading and once in a while looked around the room to affirm that all was well, a couple of girls in the class had decided to rummage in a storage closet in one corner of the room.  They started pulling out items of clothing and some accessories – a hat, maybe, and a purse – and holding them up and laughing.  Finally the teacher saw them, and she fairly roared, “Get out of that closet.  Put those things down.  Those belonged to my daughter,” and as she said that last part, her voice cracked.

The whole class was stunned into silence and fear at the sight of this supremely commanding woman losing command of both her temper and her emotions.  It was very awkward and confusing.

I told my parents about it that night, and my mother informed me that my teacher’s daughter had died as a teenager.  There were a few years of difference in age between my mom and my teacher’s daughter, but they had been in school together.

That made everything even more scary.  “What did she die of?” I wanted to know.

“Her appendix burst, and the doctors couldn’t stop infection from spreading, and she died.”

“Oh,” I said.

And then for the rest of my childhood, and through my teenage years, and even into adulthood I was terrified that my appendix might burst and doctors would be helpless to stop an infection and I too would die.  I’m not really sure when I stopped worrying about suffering that particular fate, but at some point it receded among my pressing concerns – I think I associated it (perhaps correctly) with something more likely to happen to children and adolescents than to adults.

I hadn’t thought about my teacher’s deceased daughter in years and years.  And then last spring, when I was teaching an advanced seminar on U.S. History since 1970, and recalling my own perspective on the ’70s, I thought of my education, and my teachers, and my intimidating 5thgrade teacher, and her daughter.  And I understood.

“Mom,” I said, the next time my folks came over to the house, “Mrs. _____’s daughter didn’t die of appendicitis; she died of a botched abortion, didn’t she.”

“Yeah,” my mom said.  “It was so sad.  She was so popular and pretty, one of the smart girls, planning on going to college. We all knew what happened, but you just didn’t talk about those things.  ‘A burst appendix’ was something you could say instead.”

This popular and pretty college-bound girl whose mother was a pillar of the community had tried to end an unwanted pregnancy without proper medical care and had developed sepsis and died.

This is less likely to happen in California today than it was in the 1960s, thanks to the widespread availability of various forms of pregnancy prevention, the legality of abortion, and the presence of women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood in various communities up and down the state.  Of course no medical procedure is ever 100% safe, and there are occasional complications from abortions performed by trained practitioners in appropriate settings.  So it probably still happens more often than you would expect statistically in rural communities, or in religiously conservative families where young women living at home might be afraid of what their parents or their church or God himself might think of them.  States with more successful anti-women’s-health advocacy groups – call them what they are, the anti-women’s-life lobby — that have been able to impose restrictions on the availability of women’s healthcare have higher mortality rates not just for abortion but for maternal deaths due to lack of prenatal care and complications of childbirth.

If I am not mistaken, Texas leads the nation in the maternal death rate – a small price for those anti-healthcare advocates to pay for the ability to re-assert and strengthen government control over women’s bodies.  If more childbearing women have to die of eclampsia, peripartum cardiomyopathy, hemorrhaging, puerperal fever, and other preventable or treatable ailments because they haven’t received adequate prenatal care, it’s all worth it to anti-women’s-health advocates if they can keep as many women as possible from having access to birth control pills to prevent pregnancy or, much more rarely, medical procedures to terminate pregnancy.

Meanwhile, this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings saw the current nominee to the Supreme Court describe birth control pills and/or “morning after” pills as “abortion-inducing drugs,” a favorite term of religious groups and right-wing activists opposed to women’s health.  Yet Viagra remains a “medically necessary” drug.  At this point I’m surprised they don’t just sell it over-the-counter in Pez dispensers.

Speaking of consumer capitalism, I am re-reading Christopher Lasch’s 1965 work of cultural criticism, The New Radicalism in America [1889-1963]: The Intellectual as a Social Type.  Lasch begins his declension narrative with back-to-back chapters on feminism and feminists, remarking on their “fury” against the institution of matrimony and “their sweeping assault on the male sex,” their “envy of men.” Here’s a characteristic observation along that vein: “Even when the envy of men did not reach the point of hostility—and it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt—the envy nevertheless remained.”  Gee, I wonder why.  To be honest, I envy anyone who can write something like that in 1965 and still be taken seriously in 2018.  (If you’re wondering how I’m using Lasch, it’s as a primary source to represent a certain type of status anxiety and anxieties about masculinity among academic men – hence the worries about Lesbianism and castration.)

So, with the benefit of hindsight, Lasch argues, we can see that all this anger was really misdirected, that the anger of these middle-class women with intellectual ambitions was misplaced.  Instead of railing against the patriarchy, they should have recognized that the real problem was mass culture and the sterility of bourgeois life (56-63). It’s not about gender, it’s not about unequal opportunity, he argues.  It’s not sex; it’s class.

Had he had the term to hand in 1965, Lasch might have written that those feminists with their “Lesbian and castrating” agenda, missed an opportunity to find solidarity with men because they were lost in “identity politics.”  Meanwhile, because Randolph Bourne expressed envy once for the vitality and freedom of a woman of his acquaintance, we can say that in general men envied women just as women envied men.  Again he all but sums it up this way:  it’s not sex; it’s class.  That sense of alienation seeping into American intellectual life had everything to do with the prison-house of consumer culture, Lasch argues in the book, and not, say, the opening up of intellectual life and ambitions to women to begin with.

And that brings me back to my teacher’s daughter.

I know now how my teacher’s daughter died, but I don’t know why.  Was she too ashamed to talk to her parents and admit that she had been sexually active? Her parents could very easily have found somephysician in the area or in San Francisco who could have helped her terminate her pregnancy.  Was she afraid that if she told her parents, they would not help her and she would become a mother before she graduated high school, all those great plans for college and career set aside because of one misjudgment – or perhaps even one instance of being assaulted – on a date?

I don’t know.  And I don’t know for sure why my teacher had some of her daughter’s personal items stashed in a storage closet in our fifth-grade classroom.  I can guess, and the only guess that makes sense to me is overwhelming grief, wanting to have something of her daughter’s near – not visible, but near – because she missed her and all that she might have done and become.

Foregrounding the health of women and the concerns of women is not a distraction from “the real problem” of class.  Instead, it gets to the heart of issues of class – who has the resources to live a full and flourishing life, and who does not.

In America, sex is a class issue, race is a class issue, and they far outweigh in political importance the ennui or castration anxiety of white men who are worried that their critical genius and visionary politics might go under-appreciated by the hoi polloi.

In America, and all over the world, making sure that women have the resources and ability to see to their own health is very much a matter of life and death.  That means Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, is crucially important.  And so is Griswold v. Connecticut, decided in 1965, the year that Christopher Lasch’s book came out and somewhere around the time my fifth-grade teacher’s daughter died of “appendicitis.”

11 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Well done, Lora, on the “identity politics” connection. So many intellectual problems originate in a thinker’s formulation of “X” problem as an either/or issue. Intersectionality matters in a number of historical arenas.

    You skirt around this above, but I expect many readers will wonder whether Lasch can be *faulted* for his retrograde views, given that some of his peers advanced to more progressive positions. But that desire to find fault underestimates the very power of the patriarchy, cultural and intellectual, that both reinforced his views *and* caused his peers to engage in a battle of the sexes—a battle waged for sake of health and wellness among those oppressed for not performing a masculinity dictated by biological determinism. – TL

  2. Thanks, Tim.

    On faulting or not faulting Lasch…

    In some ways that’s a futile framing, because there’s a sort of whiggish idea of moral/ethical progress behind it — i.e., that Lasch was “of his time” in ’65 but “behind the times” in, say, ’85 because his intellectual compatriots had by then become “more progressive” in their views of women’s rights. This view is in some ways the obverse of Lasch’s declension narrative — the times today have decayed from what they were. (And let’s be real — The New Radicalism is not “about” the exemplary lives Lasch selects; it’s about his own time, his own moment.)

    If I would fault anyone, I would fault those in Lasch’s audience, then and now, who have accepted his critiques at face value. His assertion that the restlessness or dissatisfaction that characterizes modern life “is a result of the withering away of the larger social context of existence” is not so much demonstrated as asserted. Just because someone — Lasch, or one of his sources — feels that the times are out of joint or pines for the good old days doesn’t mean that the good old days were really any better. The entire premise of this book is to denounce the acids of modernity, and particularly to denounce the (purported) passing of a social order built upon a (supposedly) benevolent patriarchy.

    The chapter on Mabel Dodge Luhan is positively dyspeptic, and its chief assertions are pretty much entirely unsupported (see, e.g., a two-page paean to “paternalism” on pp. 110-111). His whole book is a lament on “the decline of patriarchal authority and the havoc it left behind.” Indeed, that may very well sum up his whole oeuvre. And if this were merely an observation about a shift in American family life or the social order of the West occurring in the late-19th – mid-20th century, it might be useful (though Lasch takes the declensionism of his sources at face value, which seems a bit naive to me). But his book is an assertion that the old way was better. Paternalism was better. That’s where he takes his stand.

    “Oh, but he offers such a trenchant critique of consumer capitalism and the contemporary scene,” his stans will say. But does he, really? “Capitalism is bad because it has eroded the unchallenged authority of the patriarchy” is only a trenchant critique of capitalism for those who yearn for their own taste of unchallenged patriarchal authority. For the rest of us, it sounds an awful lot like petulance.

    Lasch published this book in 1965 — after The Pill, after The Feminine Mystique, during a time when the debate over married couples’ access to birth control was wending its way to the Supreme Court. This is not an anti-Capitalist or anti-modernist book; it’s an anti-feminist book. I suppose they are the same thing, but perhaps they don’t have to be.

  3. Nice piece.

    Since I debated Christopher Shannon on the blog a few years ago about Lasch, I have a few thoughts to share if that is ok.

    I think that you are right to lambast Lasch for his misogyny. I always think of Ellen Willis’s takedown of his posthumous book, Women and the Common Life: http://articles.latimes.com/1997-01-12/books/bk-17738_1_common-life. But that book—and much of the development of Lasch’s work after New Radicalism—also marks a story of Lasch’s efforts to come to terms with feminism. In fact, I think his best and most productive interlocutors were socialist feminists. This is the case in Haven in a Heartless World and especially in The Minimal Self (which I think is the book Culture of Narcissism wanted to be, but wasn’t).

    So far as I can tell, the key issue Lasch complained about was personal liberation: on what grounds should it should be pursued? Lasch was wary of how a certain mode of liberal feminism could be so easily absorbed into consumer capitalism’s very undermining of the very radical emancipation at the core of feminist politics (Lean In, anyone?). In his writing, pretty much throughout his work, he fiercely defended the expansion of state support for women and for the socialization of family work.

    In this way, the critique he makes, as you start to propose, was more directed at the turn from class politics to a certain kind of cultural expression of dissent. That’s the new in new radicalism, right? Lasch was among those who argued that cultural expression in this “New Radicalism” mode substituted for substantive change. Really it’s just a kind of Americanized Frankfurt School argument about repressive desublimation and all that, with the various Freud-meets-Marx trappings (hence all the psychobabble castration blather).

    I also think that Lasch did not ultimately call for a return to 19th century patriarchy or paternalism, but rather asked what kinds of democratic social arrangements might replace what had grown out of it: a disconnected bourgeois culture of individualistic expression as the dominant American culture over the course of the 20th century. Particularly in his later works, he did not call for a return to patriarchy (and he resisted calls from the rising modern conservative movement to join its ranks); instead, he asked what we might work toward beyond it other than just more consumer capitalism. In fact, in The Minimal Self, the followup to the Culture of Narcissism (and a much better book in many respects I think), Lasch was very much in agreeable dialogue with socialist feminists and eco-feminists as potential groundings of new kinds of collectivity. He didn’t agree with them, but it was a productive dialogue on both sides (to wit, the Willis review).

    You are right to point out that Lasch was no archival historian, but rather a social critic, and that might be both the value of his work and still another problem: he seeks to make sweeping narratives that help us navigate themes in American history writ large (even if to disagree with his interpretations); but the sweep may ultimately have so many empirical flaws that it itself needs to be swept into the dustbin. And yet I’d still say that even from the trash heap of historical interpretation, the ornery qualities of his work still have some value even as they stink up the joint today.

  4. Michael,
    I haven’t read The Minimal Self, but I’ve read a bunch of his other work, and part of my problem when I look back at that investment of time and intellectual energy is just the question,

    wouldn’t I have been better off reading the socialist feminists in the first place?

    Let me just speak for myself, but I suspect my experience is not dissimilar from L.D.’s or from a lot of intellectual historians.

    White male scholars like Lasch or Hofstadter are often assigned to graduate students (or undergraduates) early on, while feminist scholarship is often kind of held in reserve, as if it can only be read *after* a student has gotten a sense of the patriarchal narrative. The move you make in your comment–to point to an Ellen Willis review is, if you’ll pardon me picking on you a bit, fairly representative. Feminist critics are positioned as commentators on the major white male thinkers, responding to them or in dialogue with them rather than as worth reading in their own right and (most importantly) reading first. It’s almost as if we are expected to read the “problematic” texts before we can read the texts which break down the problem!

    Why not, I’m increasingly asking myself, cut the middleman out, and just read the damn women first?

    • For the record I arrived at Lasch *after* reading Ellen Willis. And, to wit, I arrived at Ellen Willis after reading Audre Lorde! But maybe that’s because I didn’t get in to Yale for graduate school. I really don’t think it matters which way one arrives at the debates and issues so long as one arrives there.

      • It’s crucially important how we frame thinkers and texts for students. Is Lasch the pioneering thinker to whom feminists are responding, with whom feminists put themselves in dialogue — or is he the reactionary critic of feminism who concluded, as he watched the rising swell of the Second Wave way back in the early 60s, that the golden age is past, and we have feminism to blame for it? Is Lasch the scholar about whom we say, “Well, yeah, the anti-feminism and low-level petulance running throughout his work is really unfortunate, but if you overlook that, he’s got a lot of really valuable things to say”? Why should we treat that as incidental or accidental to his thought, and not essential?

        Seems to me we ought to find — or become — thinkers who can say something of value without the anti-feminism or without feeling that we must ask people to make allowances or excuses for it.

      • I don’t think we should overlook the anti-feminism at all (although we should understand it as a critique of a particular kind of feminism to be clear, not all feminisms). I also don’t think we should overlook the smug tone of the postwar male intellectual style found in much of Lasch’s writing either. You don’t have to be Mary McCarthy to see the flaws with that! But I am not convinced that we should frame the matter as one of who is responding to whom here. To me, it’s more productive to study intellectual life during this time period as an effort by many, many thinkers to disentangle radical possibilities from radical false leads, to scrutinize the deep challenge of what an actually existing liberation would look like, feel like, be like—and how the past might figure in that future. But then again, I don’t read Lasch as a conservative, nor do I read him as nostalgic. I read in Lasch an effort to historicize the conditions of American capitalism itself and to notice the tricky changing possibilities for democratic liberation within its shifting currents. It’s of a piece with Frankfurt School, Foucault, and the skepticism about liberalism’s potentially unsustainable form of emancipation, which giveth with one hand (the lure of personal self-realization) and taketh away with the other (invisible?) hand (the one that gives way to an endless expansive self with no limits, but also no grounding, no roots, no community, no collective, no commons at all). Anyways, I think the bigger point both you and Andy are making is: why are we spending so much time with this dude, when there are other voices (women’s ones in particular) to pay closer attention to right now? And with that I heartily agree!

  5. No worries on typos, Michael — it is just a blog.

    I don’t at all dispute that Lasch is useful — perhaps sometimes as a sparring partner, but more and more as a representative of his own time, not as a dissident fighting against the tide, but as one carried along by it like everybody else. So I guess I’m finding Lasch useful in the same way that he found Randolph Bourne and Mabel Dodge Luhan — two quite dissimilar people — useful.

    It seems to me that The True and Only Heaven doubles down on some of the explicit anti-feminism at the core of Lasch’s work. And, honestly, I think that’s really key. Once you discount the anti-feminism in his basic orientation as cultural critic, how much is left?

    One aspect of The New Radicalism that’s particularly useful to me is Lasch’s apparent dissatisfaction with and disdain for the culture of academe. Granted, this is before he settles in at Rochester (though I’m not sure his disdain lessened much at Rochester — Lord, how I wish Jesse Lemisch were still here to swoop in and rail about Genovese and Gutman and Lasch!). But here it is, in 1965, the little dig at academe:

    “One does not need to travel very far in the contemporary world — no farther, certainly, than the nearest academic community — to encounter the same intense involvement in group personal relations that was characteristic of Mrs. Luhan and her friends forty-five years ago; the same need jointly and publicly to analyze them in all their details; the same absence of compelling interests outside the circle of friendship which might relieve the pressure under which it is forced to operate….It is a result of the withering away of the larger social context of existence, which causes people in their loneliness to seek an intimacy even in casual friendships which hitherto was expected only of a few special relationships, if indeed it was expected at all.”

    Of all the subjects in this book, Mabel Dodge Luhan is the one that Lasch manifestly dislikes the most — and for him to find her as emblematic of whatever he considered pathological in academe is a damning indictment of academe as a place filled with people with no “compelling interests” beyond their immediate social circle — a place of shallow gossip, an increasingly feminized space. So this doesn’t scream “astute social critic” to me so much as “white male professor circa 1965.”

    • I take your point about considering Lasch as far more a “man of his times” than a lone wolf dissident critic, the Jack London of the 70s or something like that. I do think the more crucial issue, Lasch aside, is feminism. Which feminism was his anti-feminism? There is far more than one kind of feminism emergent during his historical era. And Lasch’s flawed work helps us see better into the debates about and within feminist thinking in the 1970s. The other thing that’s intriguing about him, to my mind, is his almost obsessive interest in the concept of liberation itself. Bit again, which liberation was at the heart of his anti-liberation screeds? He was not, in my reading, against liberation; rather, he was skeptical of an easy path to it. That is easily conflated with being against liberation. But I’m not convinced he was. And in this sense, yes, I again take your point: his work is very much of its time if one considers the 60s/70s as a period of intense inquiry into the nature of liberation.

      I want to be clear that I’m not defending Lasch, nor do I count myself as a Laschian (for that read The Baffler). I suppose part of my work on Lasch in The Point Magazine and here at USIH blog was, in some small way, in fact to try to rescue Lasch from the Laschians. To me, what’s salvageable about his work is, maybe, the intense questioning of feminism as a connected critic (albeit, yes, one with typically reactionary dimensions to his critique). In that what’s salvageable is his own effort to salvage feminism from a kind of corporate consumer bourgeois liberalism with which it was necessarily intertwined, but from which it beckoned to other more radical potential emancipations. A new New Radicalism beyond the old new one?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.