Writing in 1972, Joan Didion found feminism distasteful. Surely some feminist readers of her essay, “The Women’s Movement”, found her distasteful as well. Unlike many, Didion is able to log her complaints about the movement with nuance, assessing its weaknesses with strong examples and dry humor. She doesn’t bother to shroud her own identity anywhere in The White Album; as a result, this assessment of “Women’s Lib” is unmistakably her own, conveyed in how she writes as well what is written.
Didion seems generally skeptical of progressive movements headed by white people. In an earlier essay she views the student activists at San Francisco State University warily, doubtful of their intentions. “Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious…Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerillas (39).” “Minority” activists, as Didion calls them, are invested in their causes by necessity (…it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals” ). White activists are able to pick and choose their outrage, able to try on causes and identities with little investment, like picking something from a catalogue. Didion sees it as inherently capitalist, wrapped up and sold as fashionable Marxism.
Second wave feminism strikes the author as overly simplistic. “To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism” (113). Meanwhile, these “social idealists” have a long list of hyperbolic complaints but no solid goal, “the popular view of the movement as some kind of collective inchoate yearning for ‘fulfillment’ or ‘self-expression’, a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas” (110). When ideas do manifest they’re still undefined, capitalistic and aspirational. The activists gloss over ambiguities, going so far as to call for sexist Western fiction to be destroyed. Anything offensive is immediately without merit, a view that doesn’t sit well with Didion.
These tenants are reductive and infantilize women. Feminism’s main complaints with the status quo, reduced to dishwashing and catcalls in Didion’s estimation, are not only trivial but classist. On the issue of catcalling, she notes “(This grievance was not atypic in that discussion of it seemed to always take on unexplored Ms. Scarlett overtones, suggestions of fragile cultivated flowers being ‘spoken to’ and therefore violated by uppity proles’)” (113). It’s almost as if you can see Didion shrugging off these complaints, suggesting that some people have real problems. “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children” (116). She takes down the movement’s strawmen just as hyperbolically as they are presented to her, a tactic that is undoubtedly intentional, to criticize their glorification of victim mentality. Why not take enough time to think and realize that you can turn off the television or stay at hotels with more than doughnuts on the room service menu, or avoid pointed shoes? Truly oppressed people don’t have such options.
Didion values sincerity and finds very little within second wave feminism. She resents their use of meaningless words and how they ignore words with great meaning. Shulamith Firestone asserts that second wave feminism is “the most important movement in history” (109). Phrases like “rap session” and the “click! of recognition” are thrown around. What the hell is a “consciousness raising”? Time wondered if they were hurtling into a time of “fewer diapers and more Dante”, yet when the movement’s constituents found themselves in the media “they were being heard, and yet not really. Attention was finally being paid and yet that attention was mired within the trivial” (113).
Above all, Didion isn’t feeling sixties feminism because it is dismissive and unrealistic, escapist. “The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real, generative possibilities of adult sexual life somehow touches beyond words” (118). They seek “fulfillment” yet eschew men and sex, family and children. And yet reproduction is the most biologically fulfilling possibility, home and family life the most fulfilling in society’s estimation. Feminism’s unfulfillable goals ignore reality. “These are converts who want not a revolution but ‘romance’, who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life” (118). We return to capitalism again, wanting things not because they are attainable, but because the system leads us to believe that “romance” and “fulfillment” are real, and that we are entitled to them at all times.
I suspect that inconsistency and insincerity are not the only reasons Didion reacted against “the women’s movement”. Their beliefs go against her own, beliefs deeply held that she champions through writing. She sees a kindred spirit in Georgia O’Keefe, who “…seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it” (129). The way this version of feminism saw it, “Cooking a meal could only be ‘dogwork’ and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s forced labor”. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their ‘freedom’” (113). She doesn’t name her own domestic values within this essay, but other hints can be found in The White Album and throughout her greater body of work. She recoils at the lifeless, impractical-and worst of all, uninhabited- governor’s mansion, remembering its former incarnation as a home to be lived in and enjoyed, with a kitchen to cook in. Her references to her family within The White Album, as well as the books she wrote in reaction to the death of her husband and her daughter show she did not reject family life, though hers was not always so traditional (“We are here on this island in the Pacific in lieu of getting a divorce…). She loved them, yet she was never trapped with or dependent on them.
Whether we agree with her or not, Didion’s beliefs are not unexamined. Perhaps the sexes have always been divided and had difficulty understanding each other. Or perhaps “women as a class” was an invented construct, successful in its divisive intentions. “That many women are victims of condescencion and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package” (118). Didion considers herself to be one of those “other women” and urges us to pay close attention to what we choose to buy.