From International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Prisoner of Sex
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £2
This reply to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics is disappointing. Mailer is obviously irritated at Millett’s impertinence in criticising his work, and this arrogance prevents him from either refuting her criticism, or from analysing accurately the Women’s Liberation Movement. Apart from the sections on Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, the book is – quite frankly – a bore.
The WL Movement is middle-class and it isn’t surprising that much debate should be ground sexuality, psychology and culture, particularly in the US Socialists are told they often have an economist approach to WL, ignoring the question of sexuality. Mailer is determined to make up our deficiencies. He reads like a medical manual, so much attention is paid to conception, childbirth, the womb, the genitals. He accuses WL of being obsessed by the orgasm, but, by his neglect of every other aspect of the women question, it is clearly Mr Mailer who is dreadfully worried about orgasms.
He takes as his key to Women’s Liberation, Valerie Solanis’s manifesto for SCUM (of which she is the only member), advocating the destruction of the male sex. He admits this to be extreme, ‘even extreme of the extreme. (It is) nonetheless a magnetic north for WL. ... All their lines of intellectual magnetism flow from Adam’s rib ... and converge on Valerie Solanis and her manifesto’. The logic of this is that Mailer believes all WL supporters want to destroy the male sex. He goes on to imply that ‘liberated’ women would sooner have abortions than babies, no longer want loving personal relationships, and despise for their misuse of the female sex. He concludes that he will concede all women’s demands ‘to travel to the moon, write the great American novel, allow her husband to send her off to work ... she could legislate, incarcerate and wear a uniform’. This is one of the oldest tricks in the world, and shows the sterility of Mailer’s thinking. For centuries men, when faced with women’s demands for respect and equality, have fallen back on the hackneyed accusation that women merely want to change places with men, to dominate instead of being dominated. But, wait, on p.58 Mailer gets us all excited with talk of ‘class warfare’ – but he lets us down again. One paragraph and the matter is dropped. He nowhere attempts to apply a class analysis to the tensions between men and women. On the contrary, he denies the political implications of WL. He quotes a socialist, Linda Phelps, ‘... women will not respond to an appeal to live the kind of lives they see men living’ and he admits ‘She is probably right ... women (and men as well) would never get anything fundamental without changing the economic system’. However, here we go again, ‘But, beyond Linda Phelps is Valerie Solanis’. So that’s the end of the socialist case.
A novelist is not necessarily a male chauvenist because he portrays women as destructive or degraded; he is recording life as many of us know it. But Mailer’s failure as a self-styled revolutionary, is that he is content to describe the frailties and perversities of women – he accepts these as part of being a woman. He does not question, as the Women’s Liberation Movement does, why women (and men) are driven to behave the way they do. He has no vision of a society in which both men and women are free from their present struggle to fulfil predetermined roles. He envisages a nightmare future of artificial insemination and ovary transplants, whereas Women’s Lib wants a society based on freedom, equality and love.
He has not judged the Movement, but only a few of its ‘leaders’. (A leader is, to him, anyone who has written a best-seller on the subject). And he therefore misses a vital implication of WL: that the changes in society necessary to achieve the liberation of women mean, not the enslavement of man, but his liberation too. ‘Norman Mailer on Women’s Lib’ says the jacket blurb – but it isn’t. Mailer hasn’t a clue about Women’s Lib. The aim of this book is to put Kate Millett back in her place (at the kitchen sink perhaps?).
Last updated on 25.10.2006