In The Female World, the sociologist Jessie Bernard has written a courageous book. She has attempted to delineate and describe worlds special to women, created by them. It is a tribute to the importance and elusiveness of her subject that every sympathetic reader will want to rewrite this book, or urge Jessie Bernard to rewrite it, in another way. This is, of course, a compliment, not only to the provacativeness of her work, but also to her bravery in undertaking a task which must be sweeping, and necessarily exploratory and inconclusive.
Since it is impossible to read The Female World without entering into dialouge with it on every page, the reader should be assured that although the book is long, the reading is easy, and the journey of discovery worthwhile. At this moment in the history of feminism, Jessie Bernard attempts some important summaries. If she has a less than perfect ear for language (in the first half of the book, I feared that if the phrase "life style" were used once more, my health would be endangered), she does not, at any rate, protect her daring ideas in jargon or turgid syntax, but takes her risks in plain English.
What she has set out to do is this: to discover the female world in itself, not as it has been interpreted by men for their own purposes, or in relation to male lives, but as it has existed and continues to exist as an indefinable entity. This is no easy task. Men kept the records, and recorded women's lives only when the impinged on male institutions, property and lust. Feminist schoalrship has recently begun to change all that. Feminist scholarship has recently begun to change all that. Nevertheless, Bernard's material for the present book has, as she says, " to be mined out of somewhat intractable male-oriented research."
What renders female worlds even more elusive is the fact that, in recent centuries, women have ben subjected and marginilized in a new way: by being relieved of productive work, work, that is, which is part of the cash nexus. Furthermore, by not working, the middle or upper class woman advertised her husband's success at productivity. In addition, all those ideals, familial, cultural, and religious, which men were too productive to bother with, were left to female cultivation, and largely ignored by history. Women, in short, made their worlds from the fragments of male productivity. When, two centuries ago, the world of capitalism, the cash nexus, overtook the world of family and small groups (Bernard refers to these spheres respectively by the untranslatable terms of Gesellshaft and Gemeinshaft,) if defeated and devalued the female world that had empowered women, or had at least rewarded them, for their nurturing values.
Bernard begins, therefore, by naming some of the spheres in which in past times, women have operated without men: vagabonds, entrepreneurs, nuns, in the Middle Ages; later, women in convents, salons, beguinages; later still women workers in mills and factories. She has explored the worlds of girlhood, and those structures, mainly class-ridden, through which women have related to other owmen: networks, domestic service, kinship groups, friendships. She attempts also to encompass the sphere of female culture, its language and artistic productions, its devotion less to eros than to agape: the love which manifests itself in generative rather than genital impulses.
What is the value of identifying and describing these female spheres and structures? Bernard is emphatic in denying her concern merely to document the oppression and victimization of women, a practice whose benefits she considers exhausted. She takes the misogyny of the male world as a given, but wishes to discover the strengths of the female world, to suggest how these might be seen as beneficial today, should male institutions be inclined or enforced to include them. She recognized the danger in this: that if women are content with admiring their separate world, they will be placated in their subordination, and glad to remain outside of the dangerous realm of power. The conclusion of her book argues the necessity, indeed, the inevitability of the insertion of female values into a male world that has become, in Darwinian terms, maladaptive.
Certain male anthropologists, historians and sociobiologists, she reports, have come to realize that war-like, competitive, male virtues, however valuable they may be have been in creating civilization, are presently, like the dinosaur's size, liklier to produce extinction than development. Bernard believes, with her admitted optimism, that women now entering male institutions will inevitably change or modify them, and thus move humanity away from its present destructive course. Women will alter male institutions, not because they are women, or "nicer" than men, but because their presence, combined with that of males already suspicious of war-like ideals, will cause a significant change in direction.
Bernard's book, full of optimism, was written before the American people elected a leadership hostile to most of the changes she applauds. Perhaps she had erred in underestimating the degree to which large numbers of women internalized the male view of their subordination. In any event, the maladaptive male, like the saber-toothed tiger in its time, can still bite and is not yet ready to surrender quietly. But, then, most feminists never expected a quick or easy victory.