Was Susan Sontag a good feminist? The writer’s commitment to the cause was questioned in her lifetime and, via subsequent biographies, has come under scrutiny posthumously too.
An essayist, sometime novelist and celebrated intellectual, Sontag was described by Jonathan Miller as “probably the most intelligent woman in America”, while Esquire called her “the Natalie Wood of the avant-garde”, ensuring its readers understood she wasn’t just smart, but smokin’, too.
Sontag’s beauty and celebrity were, in the minds of her detractors, proof that her feminism was flawed, since it made her unable to relate to the woman on the street.
Edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, with an introduction by the author and literary critic Merve Emre, On Women highlights Sontag’s thoughts on womanhood and feminist discourse by gathering her journalism and interviews on the subject in one place.
All seven pieces here were published in the 70s, when second-wave feminism was at its height in the US. The feminist poet Adrienne Rich said Sontag’s writings on women were “more of an intellectual exercise than the expression of a felt reality”, yet, as this collection illustrates, Sontag’s frustration at female oppression was real and her privilege was no impediment to her ability to empathise with, and rage at, the broader experience of women.
These chapters may be 50 years old, but, with a few tweaks, they could as easily be written now. This is not to say that the concepts with which Sontag grapples were ahead of their time; far from it, since other feminist writers, from Betty Friedan to Kate Millett to Germaine Greer, had been mulling over them already. More that, despite the social and ideological strides made by women, many prejudices and barriers endure.
In the opening essay, “The Double Standards of Aging”, Sontag rails against men being permitted to age, with their stately silver hair and characterful wrinkles, while women are seen as washed up by the age of 40.
Exhorting women to be honest about their advancing years, she notes: “Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination – a moral disease, a social pathology – intrinsic to which is the fact it afflicts women much more than men.”
Elsewhere, in “The Third World of Women”, she points to the “imperialist” situation in which women find themselves, with men playing the role of colonists, and lays waste to the notion that the liberation of women will lead to the same for men, as if that should be the motivation for making it happen. “If women change, men will be forced to change… [even though] men will not cede their privileges simply because doing so is more humane or just.”
Sontag’s language is urgent (“women should lobby, demonstrate, march”), irritable and boldly provocative. Those previously unsure where she stood on the politics of womanhood, or found her opaque on the topic, can be in no doubt after this.
Along with spotlighting Sontag’s feminist preoccupations (beauty, age, power and how to claim it), this collection underlines how feminism, with its clashing viewpoints and ideologies, was no more harmonious then than it is now. It reminds us that, however fiercely held one’s convictions, there will always be someone telling you you’re doing it wrong.
On Women is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99