On Androgyny

‘On Women’ by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff

MACMILLAN, MAY 2023, 208 PP.

SUSAN ROSENBLATT WAS born in 1933 into a household that she would later describe as an utter cultural wasteland. Her family moved frequently, from New York to Arizona to California. Her father, a fur trader who worked in China, died of tuberculosis when she was five. Her stepfather, Nathan Sontag, a fatuous army captain whose last name Susan was nevertheless happy to take—“I didn’t enjoy being called a dirty kike”—told her to read less if she ever wanted to get married. At sixteen, she fled to college. At seventeen, after a courtship of several days, she became the child bride of her University of Chicago professor Philip Rieff. Their marriage was unhappy and largely sexless; in her diary she compared it to that of Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon. They had one child and a live-in nanny. They socialized with other faculty couples and worked together on a book about Freud.

Like most people in the 1950s, Sontag did not consider herself a feminist. It would have been a ludicrous position in her academic circles, and besides, she had never felt at a disadvantage in her own relations with men. Seven years into her marriage, she nevertheless undertook that most reviled of feminist acts—the abandonment of husband and child—and, insult to injury, took up with a woman lover in Paris. Back in the United States a year later, she moved to New York, initiated divorce, and “indignantly rejected [her] lawyer’s automatic bid for alimony.” For the custody trial, under pressure to renounce her lesbianism, she put on lipstick and heels, and won. Later that year, apparently as stipulated by their divorce settlement, Rieff published the Freud book without crediting Sontag as co-author.

Post-divorce, Sontag lived with her son, now old enough to accompany her to parties, and with a rotating cast of mostly women lovers. In her new posthumous collection of feminist writing—the cheeky cover reads SUSAN SONTAG ON WOMEN—she remarks that life as a so-called liberated woman was “embarrassingly easy.” She went to the movies almost daily. All her intellectual idols, with the early exception of Simone Weil, and the later one of Elizabeth Hardwick, were men. Towards the wives of her magazine or university colleagues—women who stayed at home, raised many children, depended on their husband’s income—she felt scorn and pity. She had something in her of the self-made tycoon who scoffs at those still flailing at their bootstraps. “Probably her deepest assumption,” her son David Rieff wrote, “was that she could remake herself, that we all can remake ourselves, and that backgrounds could be jettisoned or transcended virtually at will, or rather, if one had the will.”

The feminist movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s would convince Sontag that the position of women in society was a political rather than a personal failing, and, if only briefly, make her question how she told her own story. A liberated woman, she wrote, “has no right to represent her situation as simpler, or less suspect, or less full of compromise than it is.” But her impatience with femininity remained, as did her irritation with the feminist movement’s gooeyness and anti-intellectualism. Particularly wrongheaded for Sontag was its essentialist tendency. Some second-wave feminists, known as cultural feminists, were of the opinion that women were, naturally and inevitably, kinder than men and more peaceful, nurturing, and egalitarian. As such, they sought to create a separate world in which women could live according to their own standards and away from men’s avarice and lust. Sontag saw the short-term advantages of separatism: say, all-girl rock groups, or political lesbians. But these were consciousness-raising ploys in a time of emergency, not a vision of utopia. In the long run, she was a “pure integrationist.”

The goal of feminism, Sontag thought, should not be the upward revaluation of the “natural” female traits but instead the abolition of that very idea of natural difference—the purging of all sex-stereotypes, however apparently positive. “The femininity of women and the masculinity of men are morally defective and historically obsolete conceptions,” she wrote.

“Masculinity” is identified with competence, autonomy, self-control, ambition, risk-taking, independence, rationality; “femininity” is identified with incompetence, helplessness, irrationality, passivity, non-competitiveness, being nice. Women are trained for second-class adulthood, most of what is cherished as typically “feminine” behavior being simply behavior that is childish, servile, weak, immature.

It is striking how quickly these myths can switch: a 2020 Brookings Institution survey found that both liberal and conservative parents are more likely to describe their daughters as resilient and to say they worry about their sons becoming “successful adults.” And it is remarkable how little faith Sontag had in such female-associated traits as “being nice” when pitted against the seduction of manly self-determination. But however much Sontag admired and imitated men—Adrienne Rich called her “male-identified”; Elizabeth Hardwick said that she wasn’t “really a woman”—her allegiance was not to the masculine ideal, but to the androgyne one.

Sontag makes this position clear in “The Third World of Women,” a manifesto in questionnaire form that was published in the early ’70s in Libre, a Spanish-language Marxist magazine, and in the original English in Partisan Review. It now appears as the centerpiece essay of On Women. The collection also include three essays on beauty and aging, in which we learn that aging is a double standard and beauty a trap; Sontag’s famous takedown of Leni Riefenstahl, included so as to contextualize the absolutely bitching exchange that it provoked with Adrienne Rich on the limits of female solidarity; and an interview with a college magazine in which a tedious Sontag repeatedly criticizes Philip Rieff’s work without mentioning that they were once married.

 We who were not forced to be docile . . . can recognize in our turn that female aggression and rudeness can easily become Karenism.

The sparseness of the collection is not really the fault of its editor, her son David Rieff, who is also Sontag’s literary executor. Having decided to rescue Sontag’s reputation as a feminist thinker, he had few essays from which to choose. Compared to her output on, say, Antonin Artaud, Sontag wrote little about women, and many of her best-known essays on would-be feminist themes, like camp and pornography, are really essays on aesthetic theory. “The Third World of Women” stands out in the new collection for how clearly it defines a feminist utopia (too clearly, in fact, for Sontag, who would later claim to have dumbed down her ideas for the small general-audience brain).

“A non-repressive society,” Sontag writes, “a society in which women are subjectively and objectively the genuine equals of men, will necessarily be an androgynous society.” By this Sontag did not primarily mean an androgyny of physical appearance, and therefore an equalizing of the sexes’ aesthetic burdens; this was a first step, and almost trivial. More important was the depolarization of gender roles in work and in sexual relations. How successful has this been?

In school, the poles have actually switched: women are now more likely than men to graduate from all levels of education. That they are still less likely to hold positions of extreme power is, depending on whom you ask, due to a natural lack of monomaniacal ambition or to the sexist sabotage of women who don’t know their place. Certainly, everyone can agree that it is not unrelated to childbirth. Like many feminist thinkers before her, Sontag identifies the “biological division of labor” as the original cause of the oppression of women. Then, with her breezy bootstrap optimism, she declares that once women have two or fewer children—and no longer spend most of their adult lives birthing infants who will die—the matter will solve itself.

Obviously, it didn’t. The “long-run child penalty,” a term used by economists to measure the average percentage by which women’s earnings fall behind men’s five to ten years after the arrival of their first child is, in the United States, about 40 percent. Further depolarization in work and wages would require that abortion be legal and accessible, that men enter into the traditionally female domestic spheres of labor with the same gusto and skill that women have shown in their entrance into the male ones; that care-based jobs such as nursing, public school teaching, housework, and home health aid work be paid commensurate with their social worth; and that we follow the lead of other wealthy countries and institute paid paternity and maternity leave and universal free or low-cost childcare. We might also consider more widespread systems of surrogacy, or at least payment for gestational labor, given that pregnancy is both socially necessary, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control, two-and-a-half times more likely to result in death than a year of police work.

Portrait of Italian actress Adriana Asti (left) and Sontag, 1970. Sontag directed Asti in her 1969 film Duet for Cannibals. Photo by Susan Wood.

While the depolarization of work might be a qualified and fragile success, the depolarization of our sex lives, at least as Sontag imagined it, has been an utter failure. We do not yet think of aging women as having the same sexual eligibility as aging men. And it is rare for feminists today to claim, as did Sontag, that we are not born with a gender-specific sexuality. Sontag was of the opinion that “exclusive homosexuality” was just as much a learned behavior as “exclusive heterosexuality.” In her utopia, there would be no need to learn either. The increasing social acceptance of homosexual acts has resulted not, as Sontag hoped, because they have come to be viewed as interchangeable with heterosexual acts, but instead through a renewed commitment to born identity and to sexual diversity—a digging of heels into the very notions of “nature” and “difference” that Sontag despised.

Would sex in an androgynous society be better or worse? Sontag herself seemed of two minds. She was capable of criticizing sex in our current world for merely reproducing the “right of each person, briefly, to exploit and dehumanize someone else” and she held out hope that we could “modify the most deeply rooted habits of friendship and love.” At other times, she was aware of the role of power and especially of gendered power in eroticism. In several essays, she compares the “unisex and asexual” imagery of communism with the sexiness of fascism, in which the leader both rapes and titillates his followers. She admired porn for addressing “the violence of the imagination” which “cannot be confined within the optimistic and rationalist perceptions of mainstream feminism.” She had an abiding intellectual interest in BDSM.

Either way, we might consider that good sex does not a good life make. In a non-repressive, androgynous society, Sontag writes,

[S]exuality will in another sense be less important than it is now—because sexual relations will no longer be hysterically craved as a substitute for genuine freedom and for so many other pleasures (intimacy, intensity, feeling of belonging, blasphemy) which this society frustrates.

I know women who feel powerful, who feel in control, who feel acutely needed and admired, only when they are in bed with a man. In a more androgynous world, their sex might be worse. But I think their lives would be better.

WORK AND LOVE,” as Freud once said, “that’s all there is.” Sontag would point to a third arena for androgyny: character. A truly androgynous society would, for the first time ever, consider virtue—character traits and their morality—in a genderless way. It would realize that most strongly gendered traits, including almost all matters of physical appearance, are morally irrelevant. For most of Western history this has been out of the question. Each positive trait (patience, chivalry, stoicism) has slotted into, and indeed been created to fit, a male or female ideal. Over time, these ideals have changed or even flipped, but morality has remained double-stranded. If a trait undeniably appears in both women and men, it might be split into two—loyalty versus constancy, judgment versus prudence, leadership versus bossiness—to clarify that the behavior really takes a different form in the two sexes, or that it counts as a virtue only in one.

I am hopeful that today’s young feminists will come closer to a genderless morality than any before. This is not because we are particularly wise or benevolent, but because, through our mothers’ and grandmothers’ efforts, we have been spared some of the most psychologically deforming effects of sexism. My friends and I, having by and large been raised in homes where we were not constantly told to be ladylike, can admit without compromise the many good traits of the archetypal lady—kindness toward the weak, willingness to apologize, concern for the feelings of others—and wish not to purge these traits from ourselves but instead to encourage them in men. We who were not forced to be docile—a reprieve we owe to the second wavers—can recognize in our turn that female aggression and rudeness can easily become Karenism. (Sontag, according to Sigrid Nunez, was a great humiliator of waiters.) It is easier for someone who has never been denied a credit card because of her gender to understand, contra lean-in feminism, that female war criminals or exploitative CEOs are no better than male ones, just as it is easier for someone who has never been forced into motherhood to see that women who abandon their children are no more heroic than men who do so. “For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing,” Doris Lessing said about leaving her two small children with their father so she could become a writer. Bad behavior in women can be courageous, but courage, as Sontag famously wrote a few days after 9/11, is a morally neutral virtue.

Sex stereotypes are bad because, as Sontag might say, they inhibit our remaking of ourselves. They deny us our individuality: they attribute to a single person the virtues and sins of a collective history that person is presumed to share. Of course, another way to say “virtues and sins of a collective history” is “culture.” There is no use denying that the loss of a strong gender identity would be felt by some people like the loss of chains and by others like the loss of a language. Or that a completely gender-neutral approach would see nothing specifically tragic in sex-selective abortion, just as a completely race-blind approach would see nothing sad in Susan Rosenblatt wanting to change her name. There is always a tradeoff between individual freedom and collective belonging, and between the past and the future. An ethics requires a history, and history is full of gender.

In ridding ourselves of the crutches of “good womanhood” and “good manhood” which have for so long propped up “good personhood,” we might also stumble against the question of innate sex differences. What if boys and girls, even when given complete freedom from gender expectations, still prove importantly different in their preferences and behaviors? If this is true, would a push towards equality be coercive? Without that push for equality and the accompanying fading of stereotypes, how could we possibly know our true preferences? If a trait is found more commonly in one gender, would it be discriminatory to outlaw or discourage it? When would that discrimination be justified?

These are difficult questions. A few things seem clear. We should not forbid in one gender something which is allowed in the other. We should not repeat even positive gender stereotypes around children. We should, as much as is possible without absolute historical or political amnesia, view ourselves and one another as individual animals, variously stupid, variously malicious, variously anxious; all, in our muddled and contradicting ways, reeling from our formation within the cages of gender. We should not treat the people who are most obviously in rebellion against these cages as valid receptacles for hatred or fear born of our own shame. However lacking or biased our judgment, we should seek to achieve within ourselves the best of both the “female” and “male” traits. Only then, after long enough, can we forget which was which.

S.C. Cornell is a writer living in Mexico City.


  • Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 by Susan Sontag and As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 by Susan Sontag

Sontag’s diaries, published posthumously, are fascinating documents of self-invention.

  • Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez

This account of living with Sontag informed my understanding of her feminism.

  • Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature by Elizabeth Hardwick

Sontag mentioned this in her exchange with Adrienne Rich as an example of feminist writing that doesn’t abandon intellectualism. The book considers the gendered ethics of relationships, which Hardwick bemoans but does not doubt.

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