In this collection of essays, Alix Kates Shulman gathers four decades of her writing — much of it previously published — that began with the first rumblings of second-wave feminism. Like many women of that era, Kates Shulman’s feminist awakening came through her life experiences, particularly those involving marriage and motherhood. Her essays in the book begin accordingly, and readers can see how her activism has evolved over the past forty years to where it is mostly focused now: feminist activism as it relates to aging and illness.
The book begins a section called “Marriage and Men,” which opens with one of the writings that Kates Shulman is most well known for, her controversial essay “A Marriage Agreement” (1970). Though she and her husband had verbally agreed to be equal partners and split household and childcare duties accordingly, the reality was that Kates Shulman — a writer who worked from home — constantly found herself doing most of the work at the expense of her writing; they were on the verge of divorce. Their “marriage agreement” was a more concrete effort to split things equitably, and the contract they came up with detailed the ways they’d split everything from getting the kids ready for school to doing dishes. It’s almost amusing to look at it through twenty-first century eyes, and yet the essay was revolutionary at the time (depressingly, I can see it still being controversial by today’s standards). Kates Shulman declares the agreement a success, though her follow-up essay has her reflecting on a different reality.
The next section the book focuses on is sex, where she talks openly of the double standards she grew up with and the inner turmoil they caused. She says this of the consciousness-raising sessions she attended:
The idea was this: The so-called experts on women had traditionally been men who, as part of the male-supremacist power structure, benefited from perpetuating certain ideas, and therefore what they said was suspect. If we were truly to understand the situation of women in our society, we had to base our analysis on information we could trust, information that was not suspect, and for this we had to gather it ourselves…Sex was a central and explosive subject to which we continually returned; but as we talked of our most intimate feelings we began to see how interconnected were all our experiences and our seemingly disparate lives.
One of my favorite sections was the one on writing because the four essays that she includes here are so different from each other — she discusses everything from her personal journey into feminist writing to taking the Beat generation to task for its sexism and exclusion of women. In “The Taint,” she vents her frustrations on how the words “feminist fiction” quickly lead to smirks or disparaging remarks, even from fellow feminists who dismiss “feminist fiction” as something obnoxious and polemical. Yet while most of her feminist writer friends would hate having the label slapped on their work, Kates Shulman wears the label with pride and delves into her defense of feminist fiction with humor and passion.
Her final section, “Late Life,” tackles difficult subjects one doesn’t typically think of as feminist: aging and caring for spouses debilitated by dementia and other major late-life illnesses. She reflects on her life at age seventy and speaks frankly of the obstacles she experienced with her sick spouse, as well as the community where she found so much support and knowledge. She ends with a fantastic essay, “The Kenning” (1995), in which she quotes French feminist philosopher Michelle Le Doueff, whom I will also partially quote here:
Seventeenth-century English seafarers had a word to refer to the furthest visible point, corresponding to about twenty sea miles: the “kenning” … The kenning we need to give ourselves in politics is that of a generation: What should I be, do, demand, imagine today so that those who are now being born will from their earliest years discover an adult world in which some questions are settled, so they can see different ones?
It’s such a great quote. Using this as her opening, Kates Shulman writes about where the feminist movement has been and why she thinks it will succeed, saying:
Knowing that young feminists today already see a somewhat different world than I see (as my most vivid memories fade to history for them), I celebrate the very plasticity, or movement, that makes this possible.
Reading this book as someone whose feminism came of age somewhere between third and fourth wave(?), it’s easy to take Kates Shulman to task for some of the things that the second wave was fraught with, particularly her focus on middle-class white women (something more apparent in her earlier works, and less so in her later ones). I think the above quote highlights this acknowledgement, but the blinders are still there; the quote was from an essay written in 1995 — well into third-wave feminism — and yet shortly after that quote, she adds:
There are no ex-feminists. Ex-communists, ex-Republicans, ex-Catholics, ex-Moonies, ex-hippies, ex-convicts, ex-lovers. But as far as I know, no ex-feminists.
To which I say: Uhhh, yeah there are! I can list a lot of people who reject or are now uncomfortable with the feminist label because of feminism’s bumpy past (and present) regarding marginalized groups. It’s moments like that where the second-wave framework shows the most. Still, as historical documents and as social commentary, I really enjoyed the book. Seeing the evolution of her interests and beliefs over the course of four decades was intriguing; it’s imperative to look at the past when considering the future.
You can read an excerpt from “A Marriage Agreement” here.
A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing was released on April 3, 2012 by Open Road Media.