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Middle-class suicide:
Feminism, Narcissism, and Anti-Natalism in the 1970s

Natasha Zaretsky

The proposed paper explores the relationship between two phenomena associated with American cultural life in the 1970s: the emergence of second-wave feminism as a political movement, and the charge that the American middle class had become afflicted with what historian Christopher Lasch in 1979 called "cultural narcissism." The paper contends that, as the term narcissism moved beyond the psychoanalytic community and emerged as a distinctly cultural category, the emergence of feminism and the pathology of narcissism became linked in the popular imagination. This was not primarily because narcissism was defined as a distinctly feminine malady, or because mothers received the lion's share of the blame for its prevalence as a clinical condition (although both of these claims have been persuasively argued). Rather, this was because the discourse of narcissism provided social critics with a potent language for characterizing and ultimately indicting feminism for its purported crimes: its blurring of the distinction between public and private; its rhetoric of what Lasch called "pseudo-liberation"; and its ostensible retreat from "real" politics. Above all, social critics cited both narcissism and feminism as evidence of a spreading anti-natalism among the American middle class during the later part of the 1970s. Both feminism and narcissism appeared to constitute forms of "class suicide" on the part of their white, middle-class adherents. Indeed, the paper looks at the ways in which critics from both the left and the right turned to narcissism--as both individual psychopathology and cultural condition--in order to construct feminism as a disaster for the middle class, and by extension, for the nation.

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