Feminism, the Public and the Private Essay

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Feminism, the Public and the Private

Conceptualizations of the public and the private have always been central to the politics of second-wave feminism. The slogan, "the personal is political," implied that private life was often the site, if not the cause, of women's oppression. In 1974, some of the authors of Woman, Culture and Society (Lamphere and Rosaldo 1974), one of the founding texts of academic feminism, asserted that the universal cause of women's oppression lay in their confinement to the domestic sphere. Since that time, anthropologists have modified and complicated their assertions about the private. 1 Many other scholars have turned to confronting the meaning of the public. Joan Landes's anthology represents an important stage in this development.

Landes divides the book into four parts. Part I, "The Public/Private Distinction in Feminist Theory," begins with the oldest essay in the book, Sherry Ortner's "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?," published originally in Woman, Culture and Society (Lamphere and Rosaldo 1974). Mary Dietz's "Citizenship with a Feminist Face: The Problem of Maternal Thinking," a critique of Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Bonnie Honig's "Towards an Agonistic Feminism," a defense and "radicalization" of Hannah Arendt, also appear in this section.

Seyla Benhabib's "Models of Public Space" lays out two important themes: 1) the fact that the split between the public and the private always has been and, she avers, should always remain open to negotiation and 2) the need to take into account and to criticize the work of German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. "All struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by re-defining what had previously been considered 'private,' non-public, ...

... middle of paper ... has done a great service in bringing these previously published essays together. All are stimulating; many are truly excellent. Yet I wonder: Where is the private in this analysis? What are its distinctive functions, comforts, and benefits? Are some of the authors too sanguine about our ability to protect our private lives? What might be the dangers of legitimating an embodied and particular political presence (and multiple, raucous publics)? As I [End Page 181] conclude this review, President Clinton has been impeached for a private act made public, and the most public act of all, the bombing of another country, has raised little debate. These events should force us to confront anew our conceptualizations of the public and the private--as well as our presence and role in public life. The discussion, to which this volume makes a significant contribution, continues.

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