As if the term “feminist” wasn’t tricky enough in our daily lives (not tricky bad, just tricky complicated), trying to figure how, when, where, and for whom to use it when writing about the past is exponentially more so. There are, of course, those easy cases in which women (and men, too) claimed the identity proudly. But what about all of the cases in which individuals lived their lives in feminist ways, or when groups act collectively to improve the lives of women, but did not publicly claim the title? Perhaps they didn’t identify with the term, perhaps they weren’t familiar with it, or perhaps the term wasn’t available to them. Regardless the reason, how do we discuss and explain their history?
On October 15th I am presenting a paper at the Western Historical Association about the Daughter’s of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian group founded in 1955. The eight founders initially envisioned a social group that would create a space for lesbian friendship during an oppressive social climate. Within a year, a few of the original members and several new ones set out to improve the lives of lesbians by creating a publication (The Ladder), holding informational sessions (such as what to do when arrested at a gay bar), and evaluating the medical literature that defined them as deviants. Many members would come to publicly identify as feminists and join feminist organizations as women’s liberation exploded onto the scene at the end of the 1960s. They claimed no such identity, however, for most of the organizations first ten years.
My closest colleagues know I have been preoccupied for some time with DOB (as well as other public lesbians in the decades preceding Stonewall) and what appear to be actions, ideas, and sentiments that are “feministesque”. Or at least, the seem to be feminist to me. They maintained the significance of woman only space. They asserted the need for fair employment and wages. They debated the ways in which their experience of homosexuality was gendered. They responded to limitations, inequalities, and dangers as gay women. Do I call them feminists? Do I call their work feminist in nature? Do I describe them as “protofeminist?” Is an activist for women’s rights by any other name still a feminist?
How do you define and use identity categories and terms in your work? How do you define feminist pasts? How do you use the term in your scholarship?