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CORRESPONDENCE: Another Way to Honor Feminism

Cristina Nehring responds to Martha C. Nussbaum’s review of her book, 'A Vindication of Love.'

I am heartened that Martha Nussbaum judges my Vindication of Love "provocative and useful," its author a "very sensible person," and its effect upon readers probably "emboldening." 

I am less happy that she excludes men from these readers--as though love and failure, love and art, love and wisdom were issues that could interest only women. Vindication was written with both sexes in mind, and both sexes, I hope, will continue to feel addressed by it.

Perhaps more disturbing, however, for the review as a whole is Professor Nussbaum's visceral reaction against my prose style. Taste in writing varies wildly and widely, and it's not so surprising that Nussbaum, a longtime member of the professional caste of university philosophers, perceives theprose in Vindication as "breathless." Academic philosophical prose has famously been deemed lifeless. More surprising is how completely Nussbaum's irritation with the style of the book blinds her to its content.

Nussbaum has persuaded herself that Vindication is an autobiography--worse, that it resembles a "teenager's diary." The author, she claims, harbors an "ethically unpleasant … fascination with her own experience, her own pain, her own ecstasy." There's only one problem here: the author never mentions her own experience in the body of the text. The "diary" never uses the word "I." Except for a few sentences on the final page of the book's afterword, Vindication never once alludes to the life of its writer or reveals anything about it.

This is a silence for which I was criticized during the writing of this book. It is a vacuum that journalists have sought to fill, that reviewers--in often citing the same two sentences from the epilogue that Nussbaum also quotes--have sought, in some measure, to remedy. But only Professor Nussbaum sees a mountain where others see a gap.

If she quoted more of Vindication, readers could form their own judgment of its tone. But besides the statement from the afterword, she offers only one quotation from the book she spends 4,000 words reviewing. And that belongs not to me but to Simone de Beauvoir--though Nussbaum passes it off as my philosophy in my words. In fact, neither Beauvoir nor I intend the line Nussbaum cites as a directive to modern woman: "to put oneself entirely into another's hands and thus be at his mercy." Beauvoir intended it simply as a description of Victor Hugo's mistress. But you would never know this from the way Nussbaum slides it into her paraphrase of my "prescriptives" for the modern lover.

Of the many similar inaccuracies in Nussbaum's piece, I will address only one: the issue of feminism. Nussbaum claims alternatively that I am "anti-feminist" and "a feminist in spite of myself." Let me say here and now: I am not a feminist in spite of myself. I am a feminist. That is why every one of the historical women whose love lives I analyze and appreciate in this book is a feminist, from Simone de Beauvoir and Edna St. Vincent Millay all the way back to the medieval Heloise, to Margaret Fuller and to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose path-breaking 18th century treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, inspired my own title. 

It is also why I honor the various feminist movements over the centuries and why, in our own day, I hope to help move modern feminism a step further. Surely it is not because we critique America that we are anti-American or because we critique feminism--and hope to move it into a new and perhaps more full-blooded and imaginative phase--that we are anti-feminist. That would be a sad day indeed.

Cristina Nehring is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century. Her essays appear in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Conde Nast Traveler, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the NYTBR. She lives in Paris with her infant daughter.