BOOK REVIEW / Some mental muscle in Gloria's workout: 'Moving Beyond Words' - Gloria Steinem: Bloomsbury, 9.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HI] I'd like to introduce you to Gloria, our feminist academic-aerobics instructor for today. (Yes, that's her, sitting astride the book jacket in her skintight leotard.) I hope you're feeling energised because she's planned a strenuous six-essay workout for you.

The American founder of Ms magazine and an upfront feminist, Gloria plunges straight into the effects of social and cultural influences on several generations of women. She tackles psychoanalysis, muscle-building, advertising, economics and ageing, combining all her usual moves with some recent refinements. So take a deep breath and off we go]

First, let's limber up with some gentle mental stretches. Breathe in and hold on to the idea of 'comparable worth' for jobs generally segregated by gender. Steady. Now let yourself feel the potential dangers of a closed system like psychoanalysis. Good. You'll probably find you're becoming more aware of superfluous adjectives attached to roles defined by sex and race.

That wasn't too difficult, was it? These are all familiar stances, after all. Now we're confident enough to go for the burn with the big one, the Freud sequence.

Gloria reviews Freud's influence through the device of rewriting his life, in the main text, as an imaginary woman called Phyllis. She reverses all pronouns and interpretations, so that penis envy becomes womb envy and the invented term testyria replaces hysteria. Hefty footnotes at the bottom of each page detail Freud's actual life and carry on a running assessment of him as a man and a psychoanalyst.

This ambitious manoeuvre requires all your mental muscle power. It involves bending your mind around the gender substitution, while skipping between the 'fun' of the main text and the 'truth' of the footnotes. It takes practice to maintain your balance, but this routine is one of Gloria's favourites, so try to persevere.

Don't panic if you feel saturated with superfluous information. Just murmur our mantra, 'Gloria In Excessive Data', and blot out distractions. You don't have to remember that Virginia Woolf said as much about social and cultural inequality in her few elegant sentences on Judith Shakespeare, the sister she imagined for William, without these contortions.

And mind you don't trip over those footnotes, which often creep halfway up the page. Gloria seems so selfconscious about attaching these weights to the exercise that she's wrapped them in conciliatory phrases that apologise for them while continuing to revel in their complexity.

You may find it rather tedious to go back over routines that have become familiar, like deriding Freud as a power-crazed, sex- starved coke-head who was into self-denial about child sex abuse. It is quite understandable to feel disheartened at this stage of the workout. Try reminding yourself that Gloria is the original Ms, whose daring assignment as a 'girl reporter' was to play Bunny Girl for an expose, that she has the authority of years of campaigning behind her and that she is nearing 60.

She is also, apparently, an 'economics-impaired person' and 'most externalized woman'. She tells us this because, as she says, the elastic form of the essay 'invites a writer to begin in a personal place and come to a larger point'. That elastic can get stretched to snapping point as Gloria's own fascinating life understandably overshadows her treatment of other women's experiences.

Finally, stretch out, close your eyes and consider what has been a truly moving experience, bearing in mind that it is possible to move vigorously and stylishly without covering much new ground.

Comments