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Women Who Give Too Much
Date of Review: 
Rickie Solinger
Women's Review of Books

In Slaying the Mermaid, Stephanie Golden (also author of The Women Outside, a fascinating study of the meanings and experiences of homelessness in contemporary America) analyzes women's special relationship to sacrifice and suffering, pain and self-denial. She distinguishes between two ways of thinking about and practicing sacrifice. First, she explores-and makes an argument for abandoning--the kind of sacrifice that involves self-betrayal, self-effacement, even self-destruction, the kind often practiced by the powerless, especially women. This kind of sacrifice is typically marked by feelings of suffering, guilt, physical and emotional pain, and a sense of diminished self: victimhood.

Golden argues instead for another kind of sacrifice, whose qualities are much closer to the ancient, pre-Christian concept, which had nothing to do with suffering, but rather indicated "an expansive, empowering, collective action." She wants to reorient our notions and experiences of female sacrifice to refer to a way of being in the world "that balances autonomous individuality with the awareness that our own welfare can flow from the well-being of others." ...

Slaying the Mermaid is in effect an active, thinking women's guide to mental health and right living. As Golden aptly points out, almost all of us face the problem of how much to give--and in what spirit. Golden is particularly effective in exploring the many ways contemporary women are drawn into self-effacing sacrifice...

Golden is not shy about avowing that effective sacrifice entails some degree of healthy egotism. Beyond that, however, is her core insistence that a woman who gives productively of herself is likely to experience her caring and service to others as a powerful way of expanding her self through connection with community. I particularly like this way of envisioning connection and service because it clarifies the meaning of a slogan adopted by many progressive women in the "welfare reform" era--"A War Against Poor Women is a War Against All Women." Many people seem to have trouble understanding this slogan. But Golden's meditation on sacrifice should help explain how punishing poor women hurts us all, and how fighting for the rights of women targeted by "welfare reform" strengthens our connection to the social body and to the value of our own lives.