The New Victorians
by Rene Denfeld
Allen & Unwin
"CONSERVATIVES are not going to align themselves with me," says Rene Denfeld. Despite this warning from the author, conservatives will indeed find much common ground with Denfeld's The New Victorians.
The New Victorians is a response from within to that most introspective of movements, feminism. Partly in answer to calls by 'Old Guard' feminists for new young voices, 26-year-old Rene Denfeld attempts to explain feminism's lack of success in finding converts among younger women. Like Helen Garner's controversial The First Stone, The New Victorians send a message regarding the state of contemporary feminism that older feminists find disconcerting and disappointing.
Denfeld explores the apparent paradox that while having benefited from feminism, young women are reluctant to apply the term to themselves. She rejects Susan Faludi's popular 'backlash' theory as an explanation, laying the blame instead squarely at the feet of feminism itself. Described by one New York reviewer as 'brave', Denfeld's book predictably has drawn outrages protest from the established feminist clique.
The "New Victorians" of the title are those whom Denfeld believes represent the current status quo in American feminism. On the evidence presented by Denfeld, the analogy is not as contradictory as it initially appears. Nor is Denfeld anti-feminist. While she proudly adopts the term, she is disappointed by some elements of contemporary feminism in the United States.
IRRELEVANT: Denfeld complains that "Feminism has changed -- dramatically", to become on the whole a movement that is extremist and radical, and irrelevant to most young women. Claiming that feminism has moved away from the fundamental issues of equality to embrace extreme moralizing and exclusive academic theorizing, Denfeld writes that "feminism has become as confining as what it pretends to combat".
This is not entirely convincing. For while feminism, like most social movements, is an evolving being, it has always been radical and, at times, less than inclusive. While Denfeld spends considerable time showing exactly how radical and exclusive feminism is today, there is little to back the argument that this is a relatively recent change, one unique to the 1990s. The radical aspects of feminism that Denfeld uses to illustrate her point have largely been with the Movement since its inception, in one form or another.
One notable exception to this is the trend toward goddess worship, to which Denfeld devotes one chapter. This is a new phenomenon, but it has little if any currency in Australia and shows little chance of gaining credibility in local, established feminist circles.
Despite these reservations, much of Denfeld's book appears to speak for the young -- and not so young -- women of my acquaintance who have expressed doubts about organized feminism's appeal and applicability to them.
But is this enough on which to base a book? For while Denfeld makes excessive use of surveys and studies which show the rejection of feminism her evidence of why this is occurring is much less firm. In this regard, she relies too heavily on anecdotal evidence, with several references to the same named interviewees, and only few brief words of thanks in the book's opening pages to "all the young women, too numerous to name here, who were Willing to talk to me openly and honestly about their feelings regarding feminism" to let the reader know on what Denfeld based her conclusions.
Similarly, Denfeld's survey of contemporary feminism relies too heavily on feminism in universities. "Young women are far more likely to encounter organized feminism by taking an introductory women's studies course, attending rallies on campuses, picking up the latest issue of Ms magazine, reading newspaper accounts and browsing in the feminist literature section of bookstores", she writes.
Unfortunately Denfeld gives little emphasis to "reading newspaper accounts" -- or indeed to other aspects of popular culture's reaction to feminism. …