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Book Review: One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power

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Nina Power, if placed in a classification of feminists, would clearly fall within the socialist/Marxist camp, seeing the oppression of women arising chiefly from the economic base. But this is a sophisticated, nuanced form of this analysis, that is sensitive to the developments of the superstructure, as well as the base, of the past couple of decades.

Her One-Dimensional Womanis only about 50 actual pages of text, more pamphlet than book, but there’s a lot packed in, not all of it making an obviously coherent whole.

The title comes from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 One-Dimensional Man, who is “fully immersed in the promissary world of liberal democracy and consumerism, and yet ‘the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls”. For women today, Power says, “what looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles”.

She begins with a brief exploration of the Sarah Palin phenomenon, which is something of an outlier, if a topical one. The conclusion: “She turns maternity into a war-weapon, inexperience into a populist virtue and feminism into something that even the Christian Right could approve of.” Power makes the point that if we allow the term “feminist” to be captured by such women, progressive women concerned about basic rights from access to abortion onwards will have to disown it – it is worth defending.

In a similar vein is the chapter on the attempt to justify the Iraq war, and particularly the Afghan war, by the claim that its purpose (so historically nonsensical) is to free the local women. The answer to this is easier, really, just listen to the local women, who are very clearly saying “get out”.

Then Power gets into the meat of her argument, that the workforce has indeed been feminised: “work is generally more precarious and communication-based, as women’s jobs tended to be in the past… Alternatively, we could turn this around and talk about the labourization of women – the way in which females are cast as worker first and only secondarily as mother or wife, or any other identity position not linked wiith economic productivity.”

Much of this has affected both sexes. So Power says: “The demand to be a ‘adaptable’ worker, to be constantly ‘networking’, ‘selling yourself,’ in effect, to become a kind of walking CV is felt keenly.” But for women this plays on older stereotypes to particularly focus on their looks, their clothes, their body, which bleeds into woman as consumer, and the claim that any consumer purchase – from lipstick to chocolate, is feminist indulgence, because you’re worth it.

On this, Power gets particularly strong: “Stripped of any internationalist and political quality, feminism becomes about as radical as a diamante phone cover.” (Here she’s being, I think on balance unfairly, strongly critical of Jessica Valenti.)

But perhaps the most original part of this text is the exploration of pornography, on which Power argues for historical perspectives. As she briefly alludes to, it is well worth remembering that pronographic images were used as a form of political communication during and around both the English Civil War and the French Revolution, but “the ahistoricism of the anti-pornography movement takes as its presupposition the idea that men will always nurture a violent desire towards women and that porn is merely a reflection of this”.

Power argues, however, that before WWII, porn lacked the mechanistic, highly specialised characteristics of today, in older forms, particularly French films, “sex isn’t just a succession of grim orgasms and the parading of physical prowess, but something closer to slapstick and vaudeville”. The performers, she says, genuinely appear to be having fun, and the “plot” not infrequently runs around men’s difficulty in “performing”. Very different she says, from sex that is clearly work in contemporary porn.

So there’s a lot here, but ultimately what it fails to do is really provide a road-map, even a rough sketch of a way forward. Power has entirely justifiable criticism of what is being presented to us today as “feminism”. But she doesn’t really tell us what her own plan of action looks like.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.