Coming off of Frederick Douglass, I've plunged into Christine Stansell's history, The Feminist Promise. (The hyperlink is to the Eric Foner interview which sent me in this direction.) I'm only into the first chapter, but here's Stansell's on the strengths and weaknesses of a women's rights movement that seeks to transcend barriers of race, class, ethnicity and geography:


"She, who is so different from myself, is really like me in fundamental ways, because we are both": This is the feminist habit of universalizing extravagantly--making wild, improbable leaps across chasms of class and race, poverty and affluence, leisured lives and lives of toil to draw basic similarities that stem from the shared condition of sex...

Inevitably, the imagined Woman fell short of the actualities of the actual woman it was supposed to describe, and inevitably, the identification between the feminist who spoke and the woman she spoke for turned out to be wishful, once those other women spoke up...

But although the Woman at the heart of feminism has been a fiction like any political fiction ("workers of the world," "we the people"), it has been a useful fiction, and sometimes a splendid one. Extravagant universalizing created an imaginative space into which otherwise powerless women could project themselves onto an unresponsive political culture....

As Stansell's points out, "extravagant universalizing" basically haunts any attempt at broad political theory. It's the weakness of virtually any form of nationalism--certainly  the one which still holds sway over me. 

But what I like about her analysis is that it doesn't stop at noting the very obvious point, that political fictions don't live up to realities.Instead she pushes on to assert that people create political fictions for actual reasons, and often those fictions have actual positive results. 

That, to me, is the difference between cynicism and critical thinking. At least in this realm. It's really is to point out the frailties in ideology. But why do we have ideology?  Why do we have political fictions? And, on balance, how does it work out? These are the hard questions. I think about multi-culturalism, which has all sorts of problems. And yet, on balance, I think it's a good idea.

More as I get further in.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.