Paglia, Camille. “Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism”, Pantheon, 2017.
Building an Alliance
Camille Paglia is an advocate of gender equality and she is fearless. In this new essay collection that looks at feminism, she challenges us to build an alliance between strong women and strong men. From one of our most fearless advocates of gender equality—a brilliant, urgent essay collection that both celebrates modern feminism and challenges us to build an alliance of strong women and strong men. This collection are the essays that she considers to be her best. If you have read or seen Paglia, you know that she is outspoken, intelligent and independent.
Camille Paglia is an enigmatic brilliant intellectual and an excellent writer who will not be died to dogmas and conventions. Now that is nearing her 70th year, she has a life she can be proud to look back at.
She can look back on a lifetime of involvement in the intellectual movements of her time. She came of age as the sexual revolution was reaching a high and lived through the 1960s and watched others and herself leave behind stereotypes of the 50s.
Paglia was influenced by the first wave of feminists— the women who fought for all women to enjoy the fundamental rights to property ownership, employment, and voting and elective office. Paglia gives Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) credit as the leading edge of second wave feminism that came to the brought to the United States with Betty Freidan in “The Feminine Mystique’. First-generation feminists had not been anti-male, and in fact were grateful to men for granting the progress that they achieved while the second generation perceived men as enemies obstacles to what women wanted to achieve. These feminists claimed that gender was a social construct that had been forced on women by men seeking to preserve a patriarchy. The transition was slow.
The first chapter of the book is challenging for most readers. Some of the selections were taken from Paglia’s “Sexual Personae” with many references to classical Greek literature. It is also a survey of philosophical trends and I found it quite brilliant as an undergrad and it still is. Paglia’s look at the evolution of feminism is classic (and classic Paglia). Paglia’s principal thesis is that modern feminism is an incredibly simpleminded take on a vastly complex topic. She claims that he ancients understood it better than we do. These passages from this first chapter of the book are important. Paglia maintains that sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture and that feminists oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention. She says that society must be readjusted and sexual inequality must be done away with. This is very Rousseau and he sees a new popularity in the 60s with the beginnings of the development of feminism.
Paglia says in the introduction to this collection of essays that “history moves in cycles” and looking at her early work, we see this clearly. The issues in the headlines as the same as the 1960s with rape on college campuses, sexual harassment, political correctness and her views on them are just as incendiary as ever. She spoke on date rape at MIT back then and she spoke about the tension between political correctness and free speech. A lot of people have not liked her representation of independent thought.
With the victory of Donald Trump, a man who is an unrepentant sexist and harasser over the first female major-party nominee proved that feminism has not yet completed its historic task. In Paglia’s view, elite academic feminism is doomed to failure because it has never truly come to grips with the biological imperatives of gender. The feminism that puts focus on sexual politics, doesn’t see that sex exists in and through the body. It is her understanding of the body that is the intellectual basis for her dissent from feminism. She came from academic obscurity to front-page intellectual celebrity with the publication of “Sexual Personae” her study of the history of sexuality in Western art. She posited an eternal conflict between the male, Apollonian principle and the female, Dionysian principle. Its view of human psychology was tragic, in the tradition of Nietzsche and Freud. She claims that by ignoring the productive tension at the heart of male-female relations, feminism becomes shallow, censorious, and ineffectual. She was particularly incensed by the anti-pornography crusade of Andrea Dworkin and has stated that “Pornography is a pagan arena of beauty, vitality, and brutality, of the archaic vigor of nature. It should break every rule, offend all morality.” This is how she sees her own intellectual life, which often breaks rules, frequently offends.“Sexual Personae” was rejected by seven publishers and five agents but it was what was instrumental in changing how university presses sell books.
It became necessary to write in an autobiographical manner for a while, because I was such an unknown. University presses in those days did not employ the publicity techniques of major trade houses; my photo wasn’t even on the book. (Indeed, the commercial success of Sexual Personae was instrumental in changing the marketing strategies of university presses in the 1990s.) My positions were so heterodox, for example, that I was absurdly attacked as a right-winger by The Village Voice (to which I had subscribed for nearly 20 years)—even though I had just voted for the African-American activist Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Democratic primary. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, I did use autobiography but only as a secondary supplement to the main themes of my work. I am primarily a scholar—old-fashioned as that concept is in this period of robotic poststructuralist “theory.” My main influences are British and German classical scholarship from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. The title of this new book suggests that the liberation of women involves, or depends on, the liberation of men.
Paglia says that Jewish-American women aggressively speak out and confront, without fear of loss of “respectability,” as it was defined and enforced by the WASP establishment code that once governed U.S. business, politics, and education. The Jewish marriage contract is unusual in guaranteeing women’s rights, suggesting the power that Jewish women have always wielded in the home and family. Paglia says that she was impressed by the abrasive vocal style of Jewish women when she was growing up and she even tried to imitate it. She further maintains that Jewish-Americans, in their zeal for legal studies, regularly challenged the status quo in ways that other Americans rarely did. Paglia’s revolutionary fervor for political and institutional reform come from Jewish tradition that she took on. Can we still learn from Paglia? You bet we can and we need to.