Sarah Klein

January 2000

Constructing Feminism(s): The Project of Writing, Reading, & Re-Thinking a Complex History

     As I progress through graduate school in English and Women's Studies, my own thinking about the kind of scholarship I do - that is, feminist reading, writing, and theory - is becoming more complex. For one thing, I start to notice how very important critical historical perspective becomes in identifying myself as a "feminist" scholar/writer/thinker/activist. These days, when I ponder the meaning of "feminism," I'm more and more convinced that we must closely examine the "constructedness" of its meanings, fostering a more expansive vision and raising new questions. In the process of this sort of endeavor, "feminist history" becomes "feminist histories" plural, undermining the notion of one singular and all-encompassing feminist vision, one singular and definitive feminist historical narrative. Rather, we begin to see threads of experience and meaning that alternately diverge and converge historically and theoretically, weaving a sort of critical dialogue over time and across difference. For me this is the new direction of "feminist" reading, writing, and thinking - it is revolutionary in its potentials.

     Sharon Sievers sets an important tone for those of us seeking to make sense of the complicated identity of this thing we call feminism. Sievers, in her "Dialogue: Six (or More) Feminists in Search of A Historian," calls for a recognition of feminism "as a historical experience." She argues that we "need to expand our sense of what feminism is, and has been, in order to write effectively its history," suggesting that we "begin at the beginning, with the question of broadening and making more inclusive our historical definitions of feminism" (40). Our limitation has been, as she notes, "that we do not yet have a clear enough sense of feminism as a set of ideas marked by time and place, as well as continuities. And until we do, it will be difficult to place feminists in history and to read some collective sense of the 'feminism of the age' in their individual lives" (40). The central, problematic question posed by Sievers' essay is this: Which women do we write about in writing a history of feminism - Whom do we include, and why? As she suggests, this question still looms large in our endeavors to understand and articulate a feminism that both addresses and encompasses vast experiences of "difference" while simultaneously focusing on "sameness" by examining the ways in which all women, because they are women, experience realities marked by their gender. We might suggest, in answer to Sievers' question "Is feminism a movement without a history?" that feminism IS a movement WITH a history, but that it is a multi-layered, diverse, and complex one, a new kind of history if you will. Feminism might be best seen as a movement with a problematic narrative, one with sometimes fractured, disparate, and/or silenced strands (even coexisting strands of seemingly irreconcilable difference) all in dialogue together.

     Thus Miriam Schneir's collection of "the essential historical writings" representing "the major feminist writers" may best be seen as one important piece of a larger puzzle - a valuable portion of the kind of history of feminism Sievers calls for, yet very much "of its own historical moment," both limited and fruitful. Only in recent years have we been able to fully appreciate Schneir's "classic," Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, by understanding it as a historical document in and of itself, speaking of and through its own historical moment. Schneir's book, which came out in 1972, was considered THE history of feminism for the Women's Liberation Movement in America, shaping the way in which women thought about "feminism" for many years and in profound ways. Yet, as we enter the 21st century, through critical examination we begin to see the "constructedness" of Miriam Schneir's collection and the ways in which it was specifically shaped by the concerns of its own cultural/historical context, the ways in which it speaks to and for particular moments in feminist history that are culturally encapsulated. In the extent to which Schneir's understanding of feminism's development focuses on a "beginning" in nineteenth century American liberal movements, it is limited. We no longer take for granted statements such as Schneir's in her 1972 Introduction that in defining the history of feminism, "emphasis on American writings is justified by the fact that the United States was the world center of the old feminism" but rather question such a stance in the wake of recent burgeoning focus on histories that have not been told or have not been identified as "feminist" because they exist outside particular cultural or historical frameworks (xv).

     This questioning, exploratory stance does not inherently indict Schneir's work or its value in defining "feminism" - Rather, it frees us to think about other histories, the other "pieces of the puzzle," that may respond to and/or expand this construction. We continue in search of not just uncovering, but sorting through both the intersections and divergence of the "feminisms" existing beyond the borders of Schneir's work, those she recognized and referred to in her Introduction yet inevitably left in the margins, including those women she neglects because their texts and or histories were not readily available to her in 1972 (and in all fairness, they truly weren't - a history of "feminism" had simply not been undertaken and Schneir sought to blaze new trails, to which we owe a debt of recognition).

     In thinking about the extent to which our late 20th century notions of the history of feminism have been defined by the Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, we might do well to expand our horizons even further, in new ways. When we start to look at literary works by women not only on aesthetic terms but also as material, historical-cultural documents in and of themselves, we complicate and enlarge our own "historicizing" in really exciting ways. Marge Piercy, for example, authored a utopian novel in 1976, one which powerfully posits Piercy's ideal society against a dystopic world and its contemporary historical counterpart in 1970s American culture. The novel is very much "of its moment," historically, politically, culturally. When we momentarily place a novel such as Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time at the center of our historicizing, our critical stance may tend toward a particular attention to the ways in which scholars, writers, orators, activists and other feminists have envisioned the ideal and just society within particular moments and conditions across time and place. When we look at the concerns, and means of redress, of diverse thinkers considering women's experience and gender oppression, we see the "ideal" and the "just" through slightly different lenses.

     It may be useful to imagine diverse historical movements, and their texts, that address the experiences of women across time, place, and other "difference" as participating in cultural/historical/theoretical dialogue with one another - envisioning such "dialoguing" as a move toward expansive/inclusive critical effort suggested by Sievers. When we engage a multitude of historical, theoretical, and literary texts that engage "feminism" together in dialogue, examining what "is" and what "might best be" for writing women, several key thematics seem to recur. Women's experience, oppression, and liberation are frequently addressed in the writings of women positing "feminism(s)" by engaging gendered civil /legal status, economics/class, sexuality/reproduction, and culture. In some moments these multiple concerns are intimately intertwined in women's theorizing, while at others one or more concern appears to lurk on the sidelines, visible but hushed.

     The 19th and early 20th century writers included in Schneir's Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, for example, heavily engage concerns of women's civil and legal oppression. The women included in this collection, the first wave of (primarily American) women positioned by Schneir as the original foremothers of "feminism," focus heavily in their theorizing on gaining the vote for women as a means to undoing gendered oppression, locating the state of female subjection primarily in the degree to which women are politically and legally disenfranchised. This focus is historically defined-At the moment when American women first began to articulate in an organized fashion the ironies of their civil and legal marginalization in a new nation proclaiming itself to the world as the "seat of Democracy," virtually all concerns related to women's oppression are theorized through the screen of preoccupation with civil and legal activity. Not only is the root of gendered oppression located within this thematic, naturally so too are women's means of bringing forth the just society. For many of the women in Schneir's collection, suffrage holds the key to the end of gendered oppression, and the reform of legislation concerning women's legal rights defines the victorious moment in addressing all other gendered oppressions (including the institution of marriage, etc.). "We should vote, and make laws for ourselves," Elizabeth Cady Stanton argues to before the New York State Legislature in 1860, six years after drawing attention to a myriad of gendered civil and legal disenfranchisements and effectively engaging the rhetoric of the American Revolution before the same audience. The most potent document of this movement, the Seneca Falls Declaration, configures women's "rights" and gendered oppression in legal and political terms by adopting the form and language of the Declaration of Independence.

     Sojourner Truth's "Keeping the Thing Going While Things Are Stirring" introduces, however, the theoretics of difference that a sole focus on civil and legal rights, when seen in isolation from other contexts of oppression, ignores. Thus it remains a crucial 19th century text in considering the formation of "feminist" ideology. In this speech Truth exposes a theoretical tunnel-vision, questioning the "great stir about getting colored men their rights, but not a word about the colored women," and also locating intersections of gender with race and class (here, largely racially determined) as points of oppression either ignored or downplayed by her contemporaries working for legal and civil liberties for white female Americans. Still, Truth is very much of her own historical moment, still framing justice within the framework of "rights" largely defined civil and legal structures of an existing order, and in Schneir's world Sojourner Truth seems to exist as a token spokeswoman of difference.

     In dialogue with these earlier "feminist foremothers" emerges the more radical, less "liberal" Marge Piercy in the 1970s, with Woman on the Edge of Time. Very much of the theoretical bent of the Women's Liberation Movement, Piercy's text indicts the focus on civil and legal status as a singular cause of oppression or as a primary means of effective female revolution. Piercy's novel plays off the historical reality of the success of suffrage and the limited results supplied by legal reform, critiquing the capitalist system, the legal system, the entire cultural construction of modern American society itself. The woman Piercy understands to represent the more severe denigration of femaleness, the most severe oppression, is a poor Chicana woman in New York City, tangled in the web of the corrupt mental health system (her protagonist Connie Ramos). Herein Piercy seeks to expose the ways in which gender, class, and race collide in oppression, and reveals that suffrage and reform of the American system have held but hollow promise for particular women in our society, leaving many to "fall between the cracks" of a still explicitly flawed cultural system. Piercy suggests that we must broaden our understandings of the roots of gendered oppression, and that society must be structurally re-imagined and re-built rather than reformed from within, questioning the efficacy of more conservative feminisms. The novel, in creating a utopia, positing it against its corrupted dystopic mirror, and weaving both within the setting of 1970s America, seeks to re-imagine existence on virtually every level, and in response to what she viewed as a rather limited "old" feminism as embodied in the likes of Stanton. Piercy responds to the women of Schneir's collection and, for example, takes the theory embodied in Sojourner Truth's rhetoric one step further.

     Many of the writers included in Schneir's "classic" collection envisioned legislation and the vote as blanket responses to instances of gender oppression, including economic. The Seneca Falls Declaration suggests that taxation without representation and constrained access to a range of professions and thorough education. The Declaration ends with a call to secure for women "an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce." Thus these early American feminists understood themselves as seekers of reform within the capitalist system in place, by opening channels to equal access in economic arenas. Markedly absent from many of the texts included by Schneir are voices questioning the decidedly middle class, white affiliation of the movement itself. Where difference was addressed, it appears race dominated the debate, with class divisions outside racialized definitions unspoken and unaddressed. Interestingly enough, the British Emmeline Pankhurst's "When Civil War is Waged By Women" (1913) espouses a focus largely aligned with nineteenth century American women suffragists, but calls for a more radical means to the prescribed ends - through a direct attack on economic structures. Pankhurst too envisioned "the rights of citizenship" and the vote for women as the source of female liberation, but she organized a "civil war waged by women" that made her theoretics and her practice unique (Schneir 297). In this "adoption of militant methods in order to win political rights," Pankhurst advocated and organized destruction of private property and criminal civil disobedience (Schneir 298). Pankhurst understood a certain power in the capitalist society to be harnessed when the individual property owner sees his capital threatened, and she exploited the economic system through this awareness. She seeks to use women's weakened status in capitalist society for her political and legal aims by upsetting economic order, and thus the culture at large. And this is the historical moment that Schneir refers to as "brief" and therefore marginal in the history of feminism? Of course, it must be recognized that Pankhurst doesn't go so far as to question the economic order's foundations or to envision other economic systems. An exploitation of economic constructs is conceived of merely as an ends to judicial and civil reform within the system.

     What doesn't emerge until relatively recently in the construction of the written history of feminism is the contribution of groups of women outside the American and British scene who have confronted the conflation of gender and class/economics contemporary to the women included in Schneir's volume. Recognizing certain failures of a focus on legislative/civil reform in the Revolution of 1830 France, the socialist Saint-Simoniennes, for example, questioned reliance on political movements and agendas alone, engaging not only class and economics but a broad range of concerns in which women's oppression is located -- making their theory in some respects more comprehensive and more radical than, for example, many of the women Schneir classifies as the "essential" feminist thinkers. The Saint-Simoniennes made economic change a key feature in their feminist vision. Their socialist bent called for an end to class antagonisms, to be in part accomplished by the abolition of private property and of inheritance and by the call to place the means of production in the hands of workers (Moses 137). They saw these aims as inherently linked to establishing a "peaceful relationship between the sexes, the classes and the nations" (Moses 137).

     In terms of their leadership and participation, the Saint-Simoniennes are an interesting case study for considering class and economics as they intersect with gender. Jeanne-Desiree Veret suggested, "Only by emancipating woman will we emancipate the worker. Their interests are connected, and the security of all classes depends upon their freedom" (290). Jeanne Deroin in 1832 proclaimed: "Let us no longer form two camps: one of women of the popular classes, and another of women of the privileged classes. Let our common interest bind us together" (283). As Moses notes, they "show us a class-conscious, working-class feminism that predates middle-class feminism and that gives sexuality an integral role in their politics," unseating previously understood notions of early feminism and broadening its definition (141).

     It's a revelation for me, as a feminist scholar, to learn that Friedrich Engels, whom Schneir includes in her collection of "essential" feminist texts, was surpassed years before his own writings by the Saint-Simoniennes, who, as Moses argues, "analyzed the relation between private property inheritance, the patriarchal nuclear family, and women's oppression but without Engels' mechanical stages or his dubious anthropology" also going further than Engels' later theory in that they "not only advocate an end to the nuclear family and to dominance by the father but also brings into this interrelated complex of factors women's sexual repression, analyzing its role in women's oppression in general" (142).

     Although, as Moses documents, the language in which to express it was sometimes lacking, the Saint-Simoniennes' "views on sexual morals were breathtakingly radical, as was their recognition that women's sexual repression figured in women's oppression" (141). Saint-Simonienne women such as the writer identified as Christine-Sophie, in her discussion of prostitution, expands the definitions of sexualized oppression of women and rhetorically positions her argument to address women across class boundaries, identifying all women as unified by gendered oppression that pervades economic constructs (Emma Goldman makes similar arguments later, in 1910, examining sexual suppression and woman as "sex commodity," but with a particularly anarchistic, radical bent). Jeanne-Desiree Veret calls for a valuation of "the body as much as the spirit" and writes of sex outside the bounds of marriage and other constructions of morality, giving a voice to women's sexual desire and questioning sexual convention as a source of gender oppression. The Saint-Simoniennes perhaps did not go far enough in examining the implications of reproduction and motherhood in its fullest connections to gendered oppression, as writers such as Jeanne-Desiree Veret point to the universality of womanhood and her interests based on the "universal" "banner" of "the same bond of motherhood" (291). In this respect the writings of the Saint-Simoniennes echo the sentimentalization of motherhood also found in nineteenth century liberal women's movements for suffrage and reform.

     Unaware of the Saint-Simoniennes in her construction of feminism, Schneir represents a radical focus on sexual oppression as beginning in the late 1800s with Victoria Woodhull, who equated marriage with the "sexual slavery" of women, calling for Free Love unconstrained by convention (154). In 1910 Emma Goldman connects women's sexual oppression to the institution of marriage (like Woodhull), viewing it as an "economic arrangement," and criticizing socialization which keeps women in ignorance of their bodies and their sexuality. Goldman explicitly indicted cultural institutions of government and Church in complicity with this oppression (Schneir 318). Notably, both of these women work under assumptions of heterosexuality, not accounting for women's sexual pleasure outside this framework. Marge Piercy in the 1970's locates women's oppression in sexual repression as well as in female "mothering." She envisions a utopian society in which reproduction and gestation are removed from the female body altogether, in which human beings retain sex organs but become socially and culturally androgynous, in which sexual expression becomes more fluid and less constrained outside heterosexual constraints, and in which parenting is separated from the strictly female realm. For Piercy, then, sexuality and reproduction remains problematic and might best be answered by erasure (or at least serious blurring) of difference and the dissolution of social, legal and economic constraints affecting the sexual/reproductive lives of women. Other twentieth century feminists, such as Dorothy Sterling, have examined the ways in which women's sexual oppression has been manifested across difference such as race and historical experience, documenting the distortions and exploitations of women's sexuality and maternity under, for example, nineteenth century enslavement of women of African descent. For some women, historically, our understanding of the experience of sexuality and motherhood must become less homogenous, more complex.

     Women outside American and western European cultures, and women of color living within those cultures (who frequently experience a sort of "double consciousness" to use the phraseology of DuBois), are further broadening our understanding of the history and theory of feminism. Their narratives of feminism and of its history expand our vision, often focusing on the intersections of gender with culture. Some women, such as Filomina Chioma Steady, have theorized on the basis of a sort of "continuum" of oppression which recognizes both commonality and difference across gendered. Steady, for example, understands black women as experiencing "multiple oppressions" complicated by racial oppression in addition to gendered oppression. These feminist thinkers create particular threads of feminist theorizing (Steady calls for an "African feminism") that focus specifically on such conflations as key to the liberation of women of color. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn documents the ways in which African-American women were discriminated against and marginalized in the nineteenth century American women's movement, undermining the homogenous and uncomplicated history posited by Schneir in which black women exist largely on the periphery of a white middle-class construct. Steady documents and builds her theorizing around the telling and revaluation of women's experience in Africa before slavery, positing alternative systems in which women may understand themselves and their history, while also examining the role economics has played in the oppression of black women, both before and after colonialism and slavery. In contrast to Schneir's construction, Steady makes an argument that "the African woman was the first feminist," turning earlier conceptions on end. Steady understands oppression as "not a simple issue of sex or class differences but a situation which, because of the racial factor, is castelike in character on both a national and global scale" and calls for a feminism that addresses issues of class, gender, and race together , a "humanistic feminism" (18-19).

     Writers such as Wilma Mankiller also seek to tell the stories of their foremothers and to posit a feminism rooted in experience that by far predates the nineteenth century women's movement, rooting a feminism in indigenous practices of traditional, non-European peoples. Mankiller self-identifies first and foremost as "a Cherokee woman," making the intersections of gender and culture/race crucial to a feminist history, reminding us that "no individual's life stands apart and alone from the rest" (i.e. from context, both of difference and of community). Paula Gunn Allen has explored intersections of gender, culture, politics, and sexuality/reproduction in her studies of "ritual gynocracy" and women's political power among traditional Native American peoples, again telling more fully the stories and histories of women's experience, the myth and symbol that has shaped and expressed womanhood in that culture and the model of women who once held political power. Women such as Allen suggest that "feminists too often believe that no one has ever experienced the kind of society that empowered women and made that empowerment the basis of its rules of civilization," and that "the price the feminist community must pay" for its omissions and oversights is "unnecessary confusion, division, and much lost time" (113). Women such as Kate Shanley dialogue cross-culturally with and question "mainstream" feminism, in the process challenging our definitions of feminism in crucial ways.

     In addition, women of Asian descent such as Alice Lee look to cultural legacies outside American/western European societies, more fully uncovering the experiences of women in settings relatively unexplored until the past few decades. In looking to her Chinese foremothers, Alice Lee locates and textualizes a space in which she can identify and understand her own sexuality and her choices as a woman, narrating the model she finds in women who historically valued community outside heterosexual pairing, marriage, and motherhood. Similarly, Andrea Sankar, by transcribing the oral history of a woman from a Cantonese marriage-resisting spinster community, asks us to broaden our historical and theoretical horizons to imagine alternative models and to complicate our notions of women as they have been in the world across cultures. Sankar's scholarship further usurps the model of a simplistic, one-track feminism by making known cultural paradigms that suggest other responses by women to concerns of economics, sexuality and community, for example.

     Other questions have arisen as well. Carla Peterson and Wilma Mankiller both suggest that our "exclusive dependence on the written word" itself constrains and can distort our construction of feminism, noting, for example, the ways in which our understanding of women such as Sojourner Truth and Native American women have been skewed by the contexts out of which we've listened to and "told" feminism. Nell Painter and Pauala Gunn Allen speak to the necessity of broadening the complexity of our understandings of feminism to examine the power of myth and cultural symbol as well as the power of historically intact evidence. What happens in the process of this critical conversation is that which Claire Moses has refered to (in her work on the Saint-Simoniennes) as a disruption of notions, an unseating any "linear progression" model of feminism. Out of such disruptions arise new opportunities to evaluate, understand, and write feminism's constructedness, to think critically about women's experience, and to theorize from both difference and connection. bell hooks has eloquently argued for a uniting political vision and agenda that can bridge (yet engage and respect) difference, uniting women and men who advocate feminism under a fundamental rubric. Yet as Sharon Sievers has suggested, we continue to face difficulties it seems in putting this call into effective realization. There is reason for hope however. If historicizing itself contains the seeds of our own contemporary political, cultural, and social realities, if it interacts with our vision and remains theoretically potent in our own lives, then we've made a good start by recognizing, valuing and re-weaving the diverse histories of "feminism(s)." As Sievers writes, there are no easy ways of sorting out the complexities in our historicizing or our theorizing, but feminist thought can progress when we come to the point of "agreeing on the questions."

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