True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism

by Wendy Kaminer

Reviewed by Wendy McElroy

 

In the Introduction to her latest book True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism, the iconoclastic and liberal feminist Wendy Kaminer defends herself against the charge of being a conservative. Well, sort of. She admits to sounding so 'tough and unsentimental' on some social issues that even her mother recently asked, 'You're not a conservative, are you?' And there was that phone call from an editor at the National Review who countered all of Kaminer's protestations of liberalism with the phrase, but 'you're sensible'. Only a well timed endorsement of the welfare state persuaded the man to abandon the 's' word.

Kaminer's identity crisis mirrors the political chaos within the current feminist movement. Indeed, what passes for feminism today may actually be several movements that are loosely and uncomfortably connected by their claim to the label 'feminist'. From the Women's Freedom Network that attacks government intrusion into the market place to the self-proclaimed post-Marxism of some radical feminists, all that many 'feminists' seem to have in common is a dislike for each other. Except, of course, that every faction seems to want to claim Kaminer as their own.

Even a cursory read of True Love Waits will reveal the reason. Kaminer is quite simply one of the keenest and wittiest social commentators on the scene. Whether she is explaining Phil Donahue's appeal ("He is, after all, the only man in America who can talk about menstruation with a straight face") or critiquing Bimbo Feminism (young feminists who write books about their sex lives and their mothers in the belief they're discussing politics), Kaminer brings an acerbic pragmatism to otherwise humorless issues. The three dozen plus articles that constitute this book have been gleaned from over fifteen years of her writings for periodicals such as The Village Voice. Although feminism is the cultural obsession she targets most frequently, Kaminer's aim ranges over pop psychology, crime, sex and the First Amendment.

Although the target shifts, her position remains consistent. Kaminer is a liberal -- the old fashioned, traditional form of liberalism that included absolute freedom of speech and a demand for equality of the sexes, rather than legal privileges for women. It is remarkable how refreshing traditional '60s liberalism sounds in the 1990s. Especially within the feminist movement, which was formerly a bastion of Old Liberalism. During the last two decades, most liberal feminists confronted the perceived threat of pornography by abandoning freedom of speech. They abandoned the cry for equal opportunity and rallied instead for legal protection. Against this ideologically shifting backdrop, Kaminer maintains traditional liberalism.

Then why are her friends worried about her reputation? Why are they defending her in university bathrooms against the accusation of conservatism? Without question, the confusion has something to do with Kaminer's heavy stress upon individual responsibility. In her bestselling I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional she lampooned the currently prevalent 'victim culture' -- a pop psychology world in which everyone is a victim of something or someone, and, therefore, no one is responsible for their own actions. Drawing explicit parallels between pop psychology and the feminist movement, Kaminer caused a furor by dissecting 'victim feminism' in another work entitled A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality. She writes, "The marriage of feminism with personal development fashions (notably the recovery movement) has spawned a strain of therapeutic feminism that exaggerates women's weaknesses and confuses psychic healing with political action."

It is Kaminer's eloquently argued belief that many if not most political problems can be solved by respecting individual rights and assuming personal responsibility. This 'sensible' approach, when coupled with her frequent criticism of trends within feminism (such as 'absurdly expansive definitions of sexual harassment') have endeared Kaminer to the right. Well, sort of. I'm sure they wish she would stop that pesky First Amendment defense of pornography, and maybe she should keep quiet about not having pledged allegiance to the flag since the seventh grade. And, of course, there's her insistence on the separation of church and state, and her belief that "allowing a local government to put a plastic baby Jesus in the town square may seem a small step in establishing religion, but it represents a marriage of faith and politics that, in the words of Justice Hugo Black, 'tends to destroy government and to degrade religion'".

Being an individualist feminist -- a minority position that derives from 19th century classical liberalism -- I know how frustrated Kaminer must be about attempts to pigeonhole her. In these days of 'tabloid ideology', people try to reduce the most complicated of social situations into headline form. Patriarchy is to Blame, Prayer will Heal the World, Soak the Rich, Smash the State... But even making coffee in the morning is a more complex process than can be captured by the tabloid approach. The sheer subtlety of Kaminer's analysis is destined to cause confusion for years into the future as to which camp can rightfully claim her.

Myself, I think she's more of an individualist feminist than anything else. I know, I know. She supports the welfare state, waffles on the Second Amendment and is skeptical about the unfettered free market. On the other hand, Kaminer is, well, so sensible. Yes, I am quite sure of it. She must be an individualist feminist.

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