A provocative collection of essays by one of the foremost thinkers of second-wave feminism
In a career spanning four decades, Alix Kates Shulman has written on issues ranging from marriage, sex, and divorce to religious identity, age, and family devotion. Throughout her diverse body of work runs a staunch advocacy of equal rights and social justice. Beginning with her provocative essay “A Marriage Agreement,” written in 1969, and continuing through to the heartrending “Caring for an Ill Spouse, and Other Caregivers,” written in 2011, this collection provides a window into the social movements that defined an era.
Witty, stirring, and poignant, A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays illustrates how each generation, in Shulman’s words, “can do no more than add its bit to the endless river of consciousness and change.”
As some of you may have noticed, I, Tina, identify as a feminist, and my feminism influences many choices I make in my life. I’ve read Betty Freidan and Anais Nin and Jessica Valenti and Dossie Easton, but, for me, there is no such thing as too much feminist writing. This book gives a little background on our particular brand of cultural patriarchy, and shows some human faces behind revolutionary (in their time) feminist ideals. I could read this stuff forever, because Kates-Shulman relates everything she writes back to her own experience, so you can examine whether or not her ideas fit into your own life. Kates-Shulman touches on the virginity obsession of the pre-sexual revolution, how men made the rules when it came to marriage (they wouldn’t marry a girl with a reputation, but they spent all their time trying to get under girls’ skirts), how women had one life goal, and only one: to get married. Marriage was endgame for every woman, no matter what, because that’s just what women did. They were groomed from childhood to be good wives, good mothers, models of femininity for men to judge, and discard, as they pleased.
Because a lot of these essays were written in the 1960s, some things are out of date, but it is fascinating to read essays about a time when men seemed to have no idea that women were disadvantaged. One of my favorite parts is Kates-Shulman’s propensity for adding quotes from popular literature from the time. Some of the quotes, mostly about sex and written by men, are so outdated and “traditional” as to be offensive and almost amusing. I, as a Third Wave feminist, sometimes find it hard to believe that things like that were written, and widely accepted, at all! (As you can see, I’m already biased in one direction.) Kates-Shulman covers such a wide range of feminist topics, I’m tempted to say she got everything! This was a really enjoyable, not to mention quick, read. I think any novice feminist could pick this up and understand its message and also, maybe, hopefully, learn something in the process. The only part I didn’t personally enjoy was the essay about radical feminism. I don’t really relate to radical feminism because they have some very interesting (and personally incompatible) beliefs about sex and are incredibly transphobic in our modern times. I sort of skimmed the radfem stuff, so I dropped a star for this.
In the end, regardless of my personal misgivings, I think this is a nice little collection of essays that realistically portrays the history of a big-name Second Wave feminist. We can learn a lot of Kates-Shulman’s past and use that knowledge to apply to the future of our movement!