In Ardent Defense of Intellect: Susan Sontag’s On Women

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In 1959, the writer and thinker Susan Sontag made, as a friend remarked to her biographer, “a blood sacrifice.” She was twenty-six years old and engaged in bitter divorce proceedings with her husband of eight years, the professor Philip Rieff, whose proposal she had accepted at seventeen. With her queerness exploited as leverage, she was forced to choose between her conceptive endeavors as a young mother and an ambitious intellectual: give up custody of her son, David, or relinquish all the rights to Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a seminal work credited to Rieff that Sontag at least coauthored. Sontag, of course, chose her son. The paltry “special thanks” to “Susan Rieff,” though Sontag kept her last name when she married, was dropped in post-1959 editions of the book. 

A necessary sacrifice perhaps singularly constructed to torment Sontag, who lived in devotion to intellect, this choice was but one example of what she would describe as “the way this society limits how women feel free to imagine themselves.” Such is the concern of the carefully titled On Women, a collection culled from essays published and interviews given from 1972–1975 in differing periodicals, chronologically ordered and edited by her son David Rieff. Opposing responses to this consideration come from a patriarchal society, gatekeepers of second-wave feminism, and Sontag herself, whose mastery of argument is both her lens for understanding gender and pitted against her identity as a woman.

Those today who know Sontag only for her white hairstreak and black turtlenecks mustn’t be fooled by her contemporary appearance—she was born nearly a century ago, into a gendered world which On Woman reveals to have shared the foundations of our own with a more explicit tenor. In the first essay of the collection, “The Double Standard of Aging,” Sontag parses out how women were—and are—patronized, idolized, romanced, and discarded based on proximity to their perceived expiration date, whereas men age without the same discrimination. Sontag’s directive that women “let themselves age” and do so “without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from society” still stands for those uninterested in weathering disproportionate shame for the passage of time. Known to take up intimately close themes without belying her own identifying tie, Sontag skirts that while writing this essay, she was face to face with turning forty, the still-horrifying milestone of a woman’s life.

With some redundancy, the subject of beauty and its societal repercussions are continued in “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” and “Beauty: How Will It Change Next?” In these two commissions by Vogue, Sontag succinctly and palliatively explores the fact that “Physical attractiveness is regarded both as the natural condition of women and as a goal they have to work at, and diligently pursue, to distinguish themselves from other women.” For readers who wish merely to feel seen and understood in regard to mainstream gender relations, these two essays, along with “The Double Standard of Aging,” no doubt offer some catharsis. But while these arguments invaluably unearth often implicit gender oppressions, they leave the foundational state of affairs untorched. In Sontag’s words: “I would never describe myself as a liberated woman. Of course, things are never simple as that. But I have always been a feminist.”

In committing to a chronological order, the themes in On Women are jarringly broken up, and unlike the aforementioned essays, the second, fifth, sixth, and seventh theorize a more profound liberation. This other half also considers non-essayistic material, including “The Third World of Women,” an interview with The Partisan Review Sontag gave in 1973 wherein she proposed a radical solution that still holds more urgently imperative than ever: dismantle gender. She writes, “A nonrepressive society, a society in which woman are subjectively and objectively the genuine equals of men, will necessarily be an androgynous society.” This is a direct attack to the still-standing cultural aim to protect the perceived differences between men and women, which she argues are insufficient to change how we relate across gender lines.

The conception of gender itself, the assignment of feminine to one and masculine to another, Sontag considers “morally defective and historically obsolete,” born of those misconstrued differences upon which women are judged as inferior. Both positive and negative, she argues that these stereotypes must be eradicated from the workplace, from sexual relationships, from the idea of family life, from all forms of media, even from grammar. A total depolarization then, and farther-reaching than the “ironizing about the sexes” examined in her earlier career-making essay “‘Notes on Camp.’” Even exclusive sexuality, both homosexuality and heterosexuality, must decline.

The interview’s rebuttal comes in “Feminism and Fascism: An Exchange Between Adrienne Rich and Susan Sontag,” mediated by the New York Review of Books. In her correspondence, the poet criticizes Sontag for lacking “a serious reflection of feminist values.” Rich points to Sontag’s 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” about filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl (and apparently included in the collection only for this letter’s context) for diminishing her original reading of “The Third World of Women,” which now “begins to seem, after all, more of an intellectual exercise than the expression of a felt reality—her own—interpreted by a keen mind.”

Again, Sontag is pressed to pick between her womanhood and her intellect. With no blood relations in the game, she doubles down in defense. “If Rich,” she writes in her firm response, “is going to start baiting that heavy bear, the intellect, then I feel obliged to announce that anyone with a taste for ‘intellectual exercise’ will always find in me an ardent defender. . . . Although I defy anyone to read what I wrote and miss its personal, even autobiographical character, I much prefer that the text be judged as an argument and not as an ‘expression’ of anything at all, my sincere feelings included.”

While Rich’s response makes fine sense when fashioned within her ideology of political subjectivity (not “the body,” she’s written, “my body”) and radical feminism in the latter stages of its capital-M movement, it’s now willfully ignorant to overlook the interview’s “even autobiographical” details. In “The Third World of Women,” Sontag recounts a history of her relationship with feminism, which begins in childhood from the 1930s into the 1940s with a “family life so minimal that it could be described as subnuclear.” Her mother, a widow, worked outside the home, and Sontag’s own daydreams centered around professional accolades: winning a Nobel, becoming a writer. “It never even occurred to me,” she writes, “that I might be prevented from doing things in ‘the world’ because I was born female.”

This paradoxically fortunate naivety, born of grief and economic grit, is a thread that weaves throughout Sontag’s recount of her young life, up to her divorce from Rieff, when she refused her lawyer’s bid for alimony even though she was “broke, homeless, and jobless at that moment and I had a six-year-old child to support.” At the time, such a disclosure might be coined confessional. Now, it might be called that inadvertently patronizing word: brave. In any case, Sontag’s personal admissions in the interview are her own reality—quite painfully felt—in play along with more intellectual exercises: the political ideal for a feminist liberation, the relationship between women’s and class struggles, the patriarchal construction of language. 

As for being “prevented from doing things,” Sontag surely didn’t preempt this illicit list would include shifting subjects after publishing work explicitly on feminism—what she calls “my presumed failure to keep up feminist pressure at the center of my writing.” Yes, her detractors might argue, the lion’s share of history is patriarchal. But for Sontag, to write primarily from a feminist lens, or from the framework of any singular moral issue, narrows one’s freedom to construct an argument robustly tailored to its topic—and this narrowing is contra Sontag’s ideology as an intellectual. 

In the final section of the collection, “The Salmagundi Interview,” Sontag muses on a crushingly reasonable dream: “I’d like to see a few platoons of intellectuals who are also feminists doing their bit in the war against misogyny in their own way, letting the feminist implications be residual or implicit in their work, without risking being charged by their sisters with desertion.” This imagined world, in which women might live and think free of didacticism while still contributing to the cause, was not Sontag’s experience in the seventies. Instead, she observed “a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”

For today’s world, still overrun with anti-intellectual limitations on women’s freedoms, imaginations, and becomings, Sontag’s hope must hold.




Damara Atrigol Pratt is a poet based in New York City, living in Paris. More from this author →