On Women

During her lifetime, Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the great public intellectual and author (Debriefing), had a nuanced relationship with feminism. She championed women's complete equality, but she didn't fully align herself with the women's movement of her time. On Women--which gathers characteristically gimlet-eyed essays and other examples of Sontag's writing, plus one interview, all from 1972 through 1975--leaves no doubt about her feminist bona fides.

"I have always been a feminist," Sontag writes in "The Third World of Women," in which she admonishes, "As often as not women should light men's cigarettes for them, carry their suitcases, and fix their flat tires" in the interest of demonstrating women's equality with men. But Sontag didn't look at feminism--or anything, for that matter--uncritically, and several pieces make clear that she found it hard to square herself with what she perceived as the movement's anti-intellectualism. "Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded," she writes in "Feminism and Fascism," a cordially rancorous exchange of letters between Sontag and the poet and unapologetic feminist Adrienne Rich that appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1975.

A half century on, the pieces in On Women have aged remarkably well, and anything somewhat dated (from "The Double Standard of Aging": "Women do not develop their bodies, as men do") has aged in an encouraging direction. This slim and (largely) accessible book serves as both a primer on the women's movement's second wave and an excellent Susan Sontag starter kit. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

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