Communitarian whine

WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE: Love, Marriage and Feminism by Christopher Lasch ed Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn Norton pounds 16.95
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Until our own century, the history of private life and the family tended to be minority concerns, outposts of a historical tradition which concentrated almost exclusively on politics, wars, and the actions of great men. This is because they are indivisible, as subjects, from another minority interest - women - whose role in history has been so neglected as to give rise to the feminist joke that the title of the discipline should really be his-story.

In the post-war period all that has changed, culminating in the publication just over a year ago of Olwen Hufton's magnificent investigation of women's lives in the early-modern period, The Prospect Before Her. Hufton's book is a triumphant rebuttal of Havelock Ellis's riposte, to a friend who proposed writing a history of women in several volumes, that the subject would defeat anyone who tried to do justice to its scope and complexity. The late American historian Christopher Lasch quotes this story approvingly in one of these essays, adding that "many years of inconclusive struggle" with the subject have taught him the wisdom of Ellis's words.

The history of women, Lasch claims, "remains elusive even though we have learned a great deal in recent years about the history of feminism, the history of women's work, the history of marriage and the family, even, the history of love". Of course Lasch was writing before publication of Hufton's book; he died of cancer in February 1994, as he was putting together the present collection with assistance from his daughter, the historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.

But his generalisation, and the curt dismissal in his text of "gender studies" - the inverted commas are his - say as much about his approach to the subject of women and history as the essays in Women and the Common Life. The strength of the volume lies in the sheer range of subjects covered: from the querelle des femmes, the fascinating controversy about women which animated so much of culture in the medieval and early-modern period, to the interventions of the state in what he calls "the post-modern family".

Beginning with the 13th-century Roman de la Rose, Lasch suggests that the querelle has been persistently misread as a manifestation of misogyny when it is in fact about the incompatibility of love and marriage. "The assertion of woman's sexual freedom and the mockery of marriage, one might suppose, should have commended itself to female readers of the Roman de la Rose", he insists in his opening essay, establishing a theme which runs through the volume and climaxes with a series of querulous attacks on feminist writers for what he sees as their persistent misinterpretations of past and present.

Othello, in this reading, belongs in the tradition of the querelle and reveals that, far from being misogynist, it is really about the frailty of men: "The misogynist makes himself his own victim," (Lasch does not mention Desdemona). The Hardwicke marriage act of 1753, which reduced married women in England to the status of slaves, is discussed in the context of a campaign by "bourgeois" reformers against aristocratic licence. In our own century, Betty Friedan's attack on the stultifying domesticity of women's lives in The Feminine Mystique was not a response to "the age- old oppression of women", but to "the suburbanisation of the American life".

In other words, Lasch appears to be motivated chiefly by a determination to eject women from every aspect of culture and history in which their concerns have only recently found a voice. His refrain - you may think this is a women's issue but you're wrong - is expressed in a carping tone, which cannot resist cheap shots at the expense of other people. Critics of the men's-movement guru Robert Bly, of whom Lasch tends on the whole to approve, have "obviously not bothered to read what he has written" (Oh but we have, we have).

Ironically, Lasch is particularly hard on feminists for failing to recognise women's unpaid work as agitators, reformers and philanthropists. His complaint, that historians and sociologists recognise work only when it comes with a salary, is precisely the one which feminist writers have been making for the last three decades. His project, though, is very different. At the heart of Lasch's book - the title gives it away - there is a leaning towards communitarianism, that ideology which seeks to free the family from the supposed control of outside experts in the name of high-sounding values which would almost certainly result in the re-imposition of traditional roles.

"What the family needs," he concludes, "is a policy on officials, designed to keep them in their place." It could equally be argued that what we all need, in the late 20th century, is a radical critique of what actually constitutes the family. Feminism still seems a more likely source of answers than this disappointingly ill-tempered critique.