National Hispanic Heritage Month and Hispanic Lesbian History

4 Oct

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when Americans honor the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. I live in New Mexico, a state with a rich Hispanic culture, and I study history at the University of New Mexico. My current project uncovers how lesbians and gay men constructed formative identities, cultures, and activism in New Mexico in the 1920s through the 1980s, which has been a challenging task because of the paucity of written sources on LGBTQ history in the state. It has been even more difficult to find Hispanic lesbian voices. Hispanic women began writing about their lesbianism in fictional terms and this literature first addressed their virtual absence in history. With the rise of the Third World women’s movement and the publication of texts, starting with the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, a new field emerged in the 1980s.

Expanding on these beginnings, two important anthologies demonstrated the continued growth of the field: Juanita Ramos’ Campaneras: Latina Lesbians (1987) and Carla Trujillo’s Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (1990). Trujillo was born in New Mexico and her anthology includes three other women born and raised in the state and one that moved there later in life. New Mexico affords scholars an opportunity to better understand the flourishing of Hispanic lesbian representations. One space in which I have uncovered Hispanic lesbians’ historic lives is in rural areas and small towns. As historian Yolanda Chavez Leyva argues, Hispanic lesbian histories challenges the urban-based paradigm in the field as many lived at home or close to family members and negotiated their sexual orientation within familial structures rather than in large cities. I am curious to hear from other scholars who work in this field to see what spaces they have examined. Church? Work? Bars? How might LGBTQ scholars better incorporate Hispanic gay men and lesbians’ experiences into our field?


My History, Queer Histories

1 Jun

Lesbian history made me a dyke. Or at least, that’s how it felt at the time.

I grew up in a small town on the central coast of California. There was nothing like a GSA at my high school during my time there in the mid ’90s. The first openly queer person I knew was classmate during my senior year. Ellen came out just over a month before I graduated, Will & Grace had yet to air, and Willow was still a few years from meeting Tara. All of this to say, the option of being gay was scarcely on my radar. I dismissed as general curiosity any queer feelings I had and left it at that.  In college I started to figure things out but had little idea what to do about it. Not until my last year did I have any queer friends and even then I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go to the campus LGBT center.

Not long after graduation I moved to Sacramento, my first time living in a city. One of the first things I did was look up local gay bars. As luck would have it the gay district (what we would come to call “the corner of gay and gayer”) was just blocks from my apartment. There was something exciting, reassuring, knowing they were there even when I found myself too timid to enter. Then I found it – the local LGBT bookstore. I remember vividly how conspicuous I felt walking in that first time. To my mind this was my first public demonstration of a new identity I was trying to understand. I felt bold and enthusiastic and terrified all at once. With only the cashier as witness, I embraced my lesbianism as I purchased a history of lesbians in the United States.  Ultimately, it was the support of a group of queer feminists that really helped me to know myself and come out but buying that book was a pivotal first step. That history book made me gay.

I speak often of how important the relationship between history and feminism has been to the path I’ve been on since college. But I don’t know that I’ve every told anyone the story of that first trip to an LGBT bookstore. It came to mind this week when the Obama administration announced a National Parks initiative to recognize sites of gay history, beginning with the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was by no means the first site of queer protest but it marked a shift toward radical resistance and we now celebrate June Pride Month because of those early summer riots. As with other advances in queer visibility, I was left wondering what such news would have meant to a 22 year-old Chelsea trying to figure out how to come out. Here we have the federal government saying that queer lives matter and that we deserve to have our history made visible. There is nothing to be ashamed of; we have have the right live our lives openly and honestly.

Scanning through social media sights I found many posts celebrating this step forward in preserving queer histories. But almost as quickly I came across critiques that painted this initiative as an empty gesture. The LGBT activist group Get Equal initially responded with “No More Studies–give us freedom!”  They explained that “we know our history” and publicized a demonstration at Stonewall during the announcement of the initiative. The Committee on LGBT History quickly responded, explaining that pitting history against campaigns for liberation is counterproductive and divisive. Get Equal made a change with a new tagline, “Don’t stop at our history,” thus making their position less adversarial to the study of queer pasts.

I understand the position of Get Equal and other radical groups who critique the the pace of change and question the federal government’s priorities in addressing  some queer issues over others.  There is nothing I want more than full federal equality and rights protections for the LGBTQ community and I am grateful that there are activist organizations hold the Obama administration accountable. Is same-sex marriage or open military service or a recognition of gay histories enough? Certainly not. But attacking these advancements is counterproductive.

As a queer rights activist and lesbian historian I have grown incredibly comfortable with outing myself as I discuss all manner of queer issues. It is now so natural to me that I can scarcely remember that younger self afraid to enter a bar or bookstore. The longer we are out the easier it can become to forget those days of struggle and fear. And the more radical we become the easier it can be to lose sight of what can make a difference in queer lives.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first person to speak of the importance of radical activists pushing for sweeping transformation. Such work is crucial to creating change. But perspective is crucial too.

It seems as though I have this conversation every time there is a new development in the marriage equality struggle. Inevitably, I’ll see or hear dismissive comments from friends who believe movement priorities should be focused elsewhere. I don’t disagree. We ought to be exerting much more energy ensuring the everyday safety of the LGBTQ community–on the streets, in the workplace, in classrooms, at the doctor’s office, at the borders.   But it can be easy to overlook the fact that for a large portion of the country same-sex marriage is still a radical notion. That, as much as we might want disrupt a system in which legal rights are based on this heteronormative institution, the majority of LGBTQ folk want this right.  Or that, for people of all backgrounds, same-sex marriage offers very real benefits and protections. There are a whole host of issues at play in these types of debates, such as the roles class and race play in who benefits from which rights advancements and whether gays and lesbians will actually step up to support trans* rights. Critical reflection and honest dialogue are critical. But what possible benefit can we find in dismissing or attacking one another? And what can we possibly gain from dismissing the stories of our pasts?

As a queer historian I can tell you that we are only just beginning to know our history. Consider the myth-making that exists around Stonewall and this becomes quite clear. To date, very few people have access to our histories. It is rarely taught in primary and secondary education; several states even have laws banning discussion of LGBTQ histories and issues. At the the college level it is by no means a guaranteed part of history curriculum and universities continue to face backlash for the inclusion of LGBT instruction. Scholars who take up the work often do so with little institutional support, motivated by the belief that bringing our histories to light is a critical part of the queer liberation (for a statement on the work of queer scholars, see Don Romesburg’s response to Get Equal). At a time when LGBT bookstores are all but extinct (that neighborhood bookstore that was so pivotal to my journey closed long ago), the work of researching, documenting, preserving, and making visible queer pasts is more important than ever. One only has look at the stories of mid-century gay men and lesbians trying to find any tidbit of information about homosexuality to understand how transformative it can be to have ready access to  information that provides context for one’s own experiences. And the more ways we have to empower one another, the stronger we become. Surely we can embrace and celebrate these opportunities while also pushing for full equality.

Happy Pride Month, all. I’m off to celebrate with writing about lesbian history. If only I could tell 22 year-old me what was to come, because this dyke historian life is amazing.

Is “Feminism” the Problem? A Response to “Waves”

31 Mar

My response to Chelsea’s thoughtful post is long overdue. My hesitation relates, in part, to a general agreement with many of her points. (Writing in opposition to Chelsea is a bit of a fiction.) Heck, I had given up making a counter argument several times because I am not so attached to the idea of waves nor actually use them often enough to write a refutation. I enjoy arguments that overthrow old paradigms in our understanding of the past. One of the advantages–although sometimes a disadvantage–of studying history at this level is the layers of nuance we uncover. Everything gets more complicated. A favorite word of historians has to be “problematize.” (Grrr) So settling on a simplified way of categorizing an era of the past naturally makes my Spidey sense tingle.

And yet I am not ready to abandon the notion of waves. It occurred to me after way too much thought on the subject that it is not that I am a fan of waves but rather I am not moved by the arguments against them.

I think it is probably relevant that I come at this question almost exclusively from the perspective of teaching survey courses. It seems to me that this is an important point that explains many of my differences with Chelsea’s argument. Throughout her essay, she refers to her relationship with the term primarily as an activist. Now, of course, I realize that with women’s history the two have been intimately intertwined and certainly my feminist inclinations are informed by my studies. Nevertheless, I evaluate the question of waves differently when I think about them in terms of teaching and activism. So herein lies one of my justifications for utilizing waves. I am perfectly comfortable with distinguishing between my audiences. In my own conversations with fellow history nerds, we do not rely on a periodization term to explain phenomenon or answer the “why” questions.

In terms of teaching, however, it is not possible to convey a sense of the un-ending gender activism that can be found in U.S. history throughout my lectures. Certainly, gender informs much of the history I tell. For example, a lecture on “Jacksonian Democracy” (one of my all-time favs) emphasizes the gender, as well as the racial and nativist, dimensions of democracy’s proliferation in the early nineteenth century. Likewise, a lecture on the abolition movement cannot ignore women and gender. But I cannot imagine not giving a lecture on the woman’s movement that began with Seneca Falls. Maybe one of the structural limitations of emphasizing the multifaceted aspect of gender activism beginning with 1848 is that most of the classes I have been involved with end with the Civil War so the story of the splits caused by the Fifteenth Amendment and the multiple perspectives clearly visible in late nineteenth-century feminism are “out of bounds.”

But let me cut straight to the point. My main objection to the argument against waves is that I simply do not agree that we cannot recast our understanding of waves. And this gets to the title of my post. This may be a well-worn topic or argument that others have worked out to their satisfaction and the idea of tossing the word “feminist” overboard with “waves” is somewhat absurd. (The term “feminist” or “feminism” occurs no fewer that 66 times in the program for the three-day Women’s Liberation conference our very own Chelsea Del Rio just presented at.) But, really, I cannot help but think that all of the criticism directed towards the concept of waves could just as easily be said about the term feminism. In fact, of all the books I’ve read on gender activism in the second half of the twentieth century, they are nearly unanimous in the criticism the authors level against the narrow ideas of feminists and feminism–exactly the criticism Chelsea and many others have articulated. So why do we not propose getting rid of that term? Although I for one am more than happy to stretch its meaning and use it to describe women and activism in the nineteenth century, its pedigree, usage, and understanding is as white, heteronormative, and middle-class as they come.*

Is it problematic to call myself a feminist when depending on who you are talking to it can mean the right to abortion and contraception or it could mean the right to bear children? If someone like Sarah Palin can claim to be a feminist, doesn’t that indicate a bigger problem with the term than a historical periodization? The thinking this post has generated in my own mind is almost enough to make me crazy. Do we want a conception of feminism that is vacuous enough to incorporate a multitude of sometimes-contradictory perspectives and objectives? A one-size-fits-all feminism? To me, that would seem to be an underlying hope of the arguments posed against waves. And, ironically, that is exactly the criticism of the scholars who’s work is cited to refute waves.

Recasting our understanding of waves–and teaching exactly that–“hey, we have a much broader understanding of what gender activism in the 1960s and 1970s looked like”–is what I love about teaching history. It gives me an amazing opportunity to demonstrate to students that history is interpretation. It gives me the chance to talk about who gets to interpret history and why it gets interpreted in a particular way. I fail to see how acknowledging that the second wave was actually much bigger than originally taught negates the notion that at a particular period of time, there was a mass movement aimed at undercutting the hegemony of patriarchy. Recasting the second wave is exactly what these new works are doing.

I suppose I am making a similar argument as Hewitt but the radio waves makes no sense to me. It’s a little too forced or clever. And I do not see much of a difference between saying there were lots of little waves and there was no wave. Yes, the notion of a wave swallows a whole lot of nuance, but it is more than just shorthand. It also makes a claim about a particular historical period.

Not to go too far off topic, but I’ve been thinking a lot these days about analogies with the Cold War (since we are seeing in recent events that it may be the Cold War didn’t actually end in 1989). A lot of great work has been in recent decades to demonstrate that it was not just about high-level political diplomacy or military strategy. Our understanding of the Cold War has been recast to include a whole host of non-military related consequences such as race, sexuality, and domestic policy.

My other main objection to ditching waves is the stripping away of historical context it requires. Yes, work on the ERA went on during a period we (perhaps unfairly) call the “doldrums.” But I cannot accept that the work done on passing it from 1925-1965 is of the same historical significance as that which occurred between 1965-1980. (Certainly it does not include the same drama with the potential to captivate undergraduates.) There is a similar debate going on in African American history. I just read a great article by Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies.” In it, the authors lay low the attempts by recent scholars to collapse all activity for African American civil rights into a single movement. I found striking similarities between their points and my own feelings about feminist waves. Keita Cha-Jua and Lang argue that the failure to distinguish between different moments and actors in the Black Liberation Movement, “exaggerate[s] continuity” and, again, what I see as an irony of wave criticism, has “the tendency to flatten chronological, conceptual, and geographic differences” (266, 269).

Avoiding ruptures between generations of feminists does not seem like a good guide to doing history. There are/were ruptures between generations (especially) and there were/will be differences between activists in terms of objectives and strategies. I am not convinced that waves are the problem.

No doubt I have somewhat misrepresented the views of wave critics to the extent that I believe they are arguing for a view of women’s history that seeks to include every voice under one happy feminist umbrella. But that is the inference or logical conclusion to wiping out waves that I imagine.

All of that aside, the fact is that when I teach U.S. history, I rarely refer to “waves.” I just don’t find the concept that interesting. When I teach the first half of American history (1500-1865) and I reach the mid-nineteenth century, I do not have a lecture on “The First Wave.” But, the wave concept would nevertheless be a justification for when and what I discussed in the context of political and social protests by women. The same is true for the second half of US history. Although, actually, this quarter, I am teaching US history from 1865 to “present” and I am giving a lecture on “1960s Protest” that is supposed to encompass “every” social revolution of the period. How about that for a wave?!

Finally, let me just say that I could be convinced to support a ban on using the wave concept provided that all plays on the word wave were also banned from titles dealing with the question.

Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita and Clarence Lang. “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies.” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (Spring, 2007): 265-288.

Hewitt, Nancy. “Feminist Frequencies: Regenerating the Wave Metaphor,” Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (Fall 2012).

*One of my favorite exercises teaching nineteenth-century women’s history is to ask my students to make an argument about why Catharine Beecher or Louisa McCord was a feminist.

Fire it up!

20 Mar

Does this thing still work?

Clearly I am not pulling my own weight around here. Despite having completed coursework and passing my comprehensive exams nearly a year ago, I’ve still not made the time to contribute to this worthy endeavor. Well, it’s time to crank this puppy back up.

So, while I work on my long, long over-due response to Chelsea’s thoughtful post about waves, I present to you for your amusement a news item I ran across recently while doing dissertation research. It’s a coat check for husbands–brilliant! It originally appeared in the November 12, 1910 edition of Dry Goods Economist, 45.

Husband Coat Check

your feminist guffaw

17 Jul

The Pussycat League!  I can’t possibly imagine why I haven’t heard about this feminist organization, formed in 1969:

pussycat league

While they shared causes with these organizations (and let’s pause for a moment and relish the thought of how the women of these groups would have responded to this collective grouping), these pussycats sought equality by turning on men through “the power of enticement.”  I’m guessing there weren’t many lesbians in the pussycat ranks, in spite of the group’s name sounding like a hotbed of sapphic activity.

Their plans for bringing about legalized abortion in New York? A hospitality suite during legislative hearings on abortion where “Pussycats will be on hand to shine shoes for harried legislators, sew on buttons and render other feminine assistance.”  Part of me wants to say, well fuck – if darning socks is the solution to safeguarding abortion rights, hand me sewing kit.  The rest of me feels a little pukey that I’d even consider that.

(From the article, “Pussycats Purr for Rights of Women” in LA Times, Nov. 23, 1969)

archival cry

5 Jul

It is striking how much a single passage in a single document can convey.  In an intimate letter penned “about 5 a.m.” on a spring day in 1975, Diane reaches out to “Del & Phyl” shortly after the death of her partner Ginny.  Diane and Ginny met in California in 1960 and, preceding the first wave of rural lesbian separatism, purchased an Arkansas farm in 1963.    Sitting at Ginny’s desk Diane writes,

Ginny’s mother is with me until this Friday.  She is wonderful & has helped so very much — she has always understood what the relationship between us was but it was never mentioned.  But now that Ginny is gone we’ve had long conversations about it and [she] is in the process reading your book [Lesbian/Woman].  She is 77.  It has been very comforting to be able to talk to her.  Ginny was buried as a veteran — the flag draped cofin [sic] — the flag removed & folded & presented with ceremony to the next of kin.  Faith (G’s mo.) asked to have the flag presented to me but regulations would not allow it — so when they made the little speech & handed the flag to her — she turned & handed it to me — in front of god & everybody.

Neighbors & friends gay & otherwise have been very supportive.

Let me know the details of when you are free for I need you, every minute I can get.*

This reflection on a relationship ended far too soon is revealing in many ways.  We see the nuanced response of a mother whose only point of reference was a time before public lesbianism.   Diane shows us her side of a close friendship with lesbian rights pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.  They offered comfort not only as friends but as activist authors; their book Lesbian/Woman is pictured here as a resource not just for lesbians but for those seeking greater understanding of them.  The funeral services indicate Ginny survived the anti-gay military purges of the Cold War era.

What is most striking though is the added burden Diane experienced as a result of 1975 homophobia.  Relationships with her partner’s family, plans for funeral services, and reactions of friends and community — in each space there is tension and concern over whether she will find support or derision in her grieving.  Her final sentence indicates a comfort to be found only in the company of her old friends, a lesbian couple who could certainly understand some of the fears she navigated in those days.

Here they are, Diane and Ginny, in 1965 (featured in an article from the newspaper Tulsa World).


*This letter is found in the Phyllis Lyon/Del Martin Papers, Box 26, Folder 10.

a research diary

1 Jul

Thoughts on a journey that continues to knit together the activist and the academic.

May 29
I usually hate talking to people on the plane.  I put on my headphones, read, sleep.  The second leg of my travel to California is a quick flight between Phoenix and San Luis Obispo on one of those uncomfortably small planes. Confusion over row assignments prompted some introductory chatter with my seatmate Betsy, ninety-two years very young.  A fascinating life story unfolded.  Betsy was orphaned in the Appalachians during the Great Depression and completed one year of high school before marrying at sixteen and raising six children.  She bubbled over in describing how she completed high school the same year as her fourth child, learned many a life lesson from her special needs daughter, and traveled across the globe to visit her eldest.  When she asked after my research I was hesitant, but I shared anyway.  She was fascinated to hear of public lesbians in the 1950s and shared her experiences with the young minister at her church in the early 60s who was rumored to be “a homosexual.”  He was an important counselor for her family so when her teen boys began to talk, she sat them down and asked, “do you judge your friends by how they screw?”  With that, the boys learned to treat all people with respect and the minister remained a trusted friend.

Betsy helped me to start an ambitious trip with the reminder that all women have a fascinating story to share, if we give them to space to do so and take the time listen with open mind.

June 3
After several days with my family, I travel north to San Francisco.  Before beginning my archival work at the San Francisco Public Library I enjoy the beautiful clear day and sights of San Francisco City Hall (which would, in just a few weeks, be covered in Pride festivities).


I explore the papers of women who identified as lesbians and feminists.  Their communication networks and level of contact are impressive.  It’s hard to see them suffering for want of email with the flurry of letters that spanned the country and the frequent references to phone calls, personal visits, and political gatherings.   It scarcely mattered where they lived – they all seemed to know (or know of) one another.  And the romantic interludes and sexual entanglements!  Anyone who says lesbian feminists were anti-sex prudes has never read a word penned by these women.  Oh, the L-Word chart I could create to map the lesbian actors of the seventies.  Nancy Stockwell and Charlotte Bunch rush letters to one another between Berkeley and New York, with Nancy describing a planned move of Olivia Records from Los Angeles, conflict at the Women’s Building, and the latest break-up to cause ripples in the political scene.  The letters are typed but quick postscripts and affectionate sign-offs make them personal, touching, real.


June 4
My first interview!  V and I meet at a small cafe.  Not an ideal space for recording an oral history, but it was our only option.   She wears a pageboy and fits me into her morning schedule before her midday tennis.  I sought her out because of her role in a national gay rights group that took off in the seventies, but her stories of the New York scene were an unexpected treat.  Her first feminist event was, of all things, the Second Congress to Unite Women; a striking coincidence given that she was struggling to understand her attraction to women.  As witness to the now infamous Lavender Menace action, she was one of the many women she stood to join the Radicalesbians when they called for support of lesbians’ place within the movement (though, she explained, her knees were shaking the whole time).

June 5
I’m staying with friends and take MUNI to visit the GLBT Historical Society.  This means I get to stop for a coffee on Market and enjoy the rainbow flags that line the street, just blocks from the hotel I stay at during Pride (some distance from the Castro, but a perfect spot to roll out of bed and watch the parade).


In the archive I have the reading room to myself and I pass the day learning about bay area lesbian communities of San Francisco.  Not surprisingly, the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are rich with detail.  It is entirely by chance that I begin with Majority Caucus folders.  Throughout 1975, a group of NOW leaders (including a good number of the self-identified minority women) rejected what they viewed to be a dangerous power grab.  They organized the Majority Caucus to advocate for what they believed to be the true meaning of NOW – ethical feminist practices and the power of the membership.


I was part of my own Majority Caucus – NewNOW – in California some 36 years later, struggling with almost identical issues.  Rather than be burdened with pessimism I found the research cathartic.  I was part of a proud tradition of women who stood for true grassroots feminism and I wasn’t alone in my decision to step away from a national organization when my conscience told me it was time.


June 6
Interview two.  B invited me into her Oakland home where we tucked ourselves away in the corner of the kitchen covered in stray rays of morning sunshine.  The only interruption in our hour and a half conversation was her cat Spike pawing at the door (insert your very own lesbian cat joke here).  Perhaps more than anyone I have met, B lives her politics in each moment of her life.  From the Peace Corps to lesbian separatism,  from lesbian entrepreneurship to community advocacy, she has built a true life of service.

After the interview I race back across the Bay Bridge to return to the GLBT Historical Society.  I open up the first folder of the day and there it is: a letter in Rita Mae Brown’s hand.  Immediately I think of my best friend with whom I can’t wait to share.  Her communications with Del and Phyllis confirm another of my suspicions – false distinctions between types of lesbians mean little in the face of shared politics and the need for mutual support.


June 8
Halfway through my trip and I find myself driving north on 101 surrounded by grapevines, golden hills, and oak trees.


In a small northern California town I meet G.  She guides me through winding dirt roads to get to the guesthouse that will serve as my weekend home.  Introduced by a mutual friend, she invited me to stay at her lesbian collective that has now existed for over 40 years.  G gave me the tour then left me on my own for the rest of the day.  The heat was awful, so I spent most of my time sitting on the floor with my computer (in the woods but still with wifi!) in front of a small fan I found in the corner of closet.  G says they have visitors most every week and as I fall asleep I imagine the love and laughter, sadness and nostalgia this little home has witnessed.

June 9
Promptly at 10am G arrives for our interview.  We talk for hours.  More than anyone else, she wants to speak of the big picture and finds excitement in the conceptual elements of my project. I suspect it is due in large part to her career in the academy.  Almost 40 when she arrived on the scene in 1970 San Francisco, she disrupts all the stereotypes of the generational conflict between “old gays” and lesbian feminists.  She argues that the true ideological difference comes from whether you enter the movement as already gay.  G peppers me with questions too, and when she tells me “you have all the right answers” I suspect this isn’t a compliment.  But she is still kind and caring with offers of support and hugs goodbye.  I travel southeast through the land of confederate flags (seriously, y’all, there’s some scary places in Northern CA) listening to Indigo Girls and anticipating all that awaits in Sacramento.

June 10
Lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 11
My final day of archival work happens to be at Sac State where I did my Master’s program. I cannot believe I missed the opportunity to spend more time with these papers while I lived in Sacramento.  In them I learn about the rich history of Sacramento NOW that I built upon in my years with the chapter as well as the role Sac State played in fostering the early years of California feminism and the growth of women’s music.  One of my favorite finds? This cheeky cartoon:


June 12
More lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 13
My final interview of the trip, with E.  Once more to the bay area, kindly invited into another home. This time we sit on a front porch enjoying the bay breeze and watching the day fade away.  I know much more about her life than she seems willing to discuss and I witness a refashioning of life story into a narrative easier to tell.  Perhaps the truth is too painful to relive time and again. Still, she offers a wealth of information: names to track down, organizations to research, publications to read. As I make my way back to the central coast along the dark stretches of highway dotted sparsely with small rural towns I reflect on the strength it must take to continue to give of herself to new generations of lesbian feminists, not knowing what we might expect of her or how far we may push into her past. I am grateful for the loving generosity of the women who will make my project possible and am mindful of the responsibility to do their stories justice.

california snapshot

13 Jun

Exhaustion has set in and I cannot wait to get home to the kitties.  What a wonderful trip in so many ways.  All that is left is one final interview tonight, a few hundred miles to my hometown, and a day with the family tomorrow before I fly back to Michigan on Saturday.

After a day or two of sleep, I’ll be sorting through all of the research and transcribing interviews.  I’ll also share with you my own California travel diary with some of my favorite tidbits of lesbian feminist history.  Until then, here is a view of the lesbian feminist collective where I spent the weekend.




on leaving waves to the beach

13 May

Fellow feministhistorynerd Tom and I argued over the utility of the wave framework regularly during prelims. Over wine/beer/coffee my friends and I regularly debate whether to continue talking in terms of “waves.” I engage in ongoing discussions with activists about whether there are any useful indicators of political stance in identifying as a second or third (or fourth) wave feminist. Recently, in the the more formal setting of a Women’s History Month panel, I was asked to describe my relationship to the metaphor. Again and again, I find myself struggling with a concept that once seemed to me a matter of fact.

There has been a good deal of scholarship recently pushing us to reconsider how we do the history of feminisms. It is exciting to see this conversation happening, to engage with the literature, and to consider what theses shifts mean in the world of contemporary activism. A lot has been said that I agree with; I won’t reiterate it here. What I don’t find compelling is the argument that the solution to the limitations of the wave trope comes in recasting our understanding of waves. Reframing waves (such as thinking of them as radio waves) is clever, but it isn’t the solution to a historical framework that creates ruptures, conflicts, and oppositions where they need not exist. We are at the point in which we can do justice to historical specificity without using arbitrary boundaries. In my world, where my roles of scholar and activist are inseparable, there is no longer any place for conceptual waves.

To be sure, I acknowledge the important roles that the concepts of “first wave feminism” and second wave feminism” have served in recovering and legitimating a world of women’s activism. Historians have developed the field of women’s history and created spaces for it in the sweeping narratives of American history by using this concept. Thinking in terms of waves empowered certain feminists in the 1960s and 1970s who found strength in the idea of building on the legacy of past generations. And then there’s the fact that it is simply useful shorthand. It is a lot easier to reference “the second wave” rather than use the wordy descriptions like “women’s rights activism in the 1960s and the 1970s” or “women’s liberation of the post-war era.”

What defines these waves? Periods of heightened activity and accomplishment in advancing gender equality. No doubt I’m grateful for the vote, the right to determine if and when to reproduce (as tenuous as these rights are at present), and the concepts such as sexual harassment that help me to understand when I’m being treated inappropriately, to name but a few of the victories that highlight waves. But the periodization of these waves prioritizes certain advances over others and ignores the uneven access women have to such gains when we consider class, race, and sexuality. Thus, “wave feminism” as a framework is biased towards the liberal, white, middle-class heterosexual woman.

This image of what defines the majority of 20th century feminisms persists even if the face of a growing body of literature that demonstrates a much greater diversity of activism motivated by a desire for women’s liberation. These new works dispute first and second wave periodization by showing us that feminism persisted in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They also disrupt the persistent narrow image of what sixties and seventies feminism was, showing feminist motivations among women of color working in race politics and in women-driven movements such as welfare reform and housing advocacy. We are beginning to see vast new spaces of gender activism in which diverse groups of women challenged a patriarchal society in ways that addressed the intersectional oppression.

Yet the wave trope that created a narrative of feminisms which excludes women of color, lesbian, and working class activism continues to dominate. What was created to recover one portion of women’s rights activism has come to stand for the entire story. I do not deny the significance of the gains that came from the women who populate this traditional narrative; their accomplishments were remarkable. But they did not work alone and maintaining the false trope of the second wave hides from view the diverse groups of women who fought to create a new system of gender norms and rights for women, whether alongside traditionally recognized feminists or in their own spaces. Focusing critique on the framework specifically is not meant to deny the spaces where racism, classism, or heterosexism marginalized minority women. We have to consider differential access to power and the tools necessary to create change. But a more constructive approach is to consider the specific spaces, organizations, and events where problems erupted as part of a broader, more complex picture of the multiple feminisms that have historically operated in unison. The persistent stereotypes of wave feminism limit our understanding of historical realities of gender activism.

This isn’t just a scholarly issue. The intimate connections between academia and feminism mean that misunderstanding the past influences the ways generations of feminists relate to one another (a misunderstanding that flows in both directions). Scholar Nancy Hewitt astutely describes the ways in which each wave defines itself as righting the wrongs of the previous, particularly with regards to diversity and inclusion.* This need not be defined in generational terms – all engaged, contemporary feminists are capable of seeing ways we can further gender equality given the advancements made over the decades that precede us. We can strive to break down barriers that continue to exist and address the weakness of predecessors without trashing or dismissing those who came before us. And just because rising feminists look to the past to determine how modern feminisms can improve does not mean we lack appreciation and respect for all that came before us. As a historian and an intergenerational activist, I commonly feel myself floating in between opposing camps of feminism. What I find is that there is so much more that unites than divides, if only we would listen to one another and rid ourselves of a metaphor that says our birth date defines our politics. There are veteran feminists in my life who know better than I what it means to put one’s life on the line for racial equality or know their way around queer politics better than many of my own generational peers. For me, defining myself as a third wave feminist (or a second or a fourth) means defining myself in opposition to the very people with whom I want to learn, work alongside, and celebrate successes (and, of course, do shots of tequila with during moments of backlash and defeat).

Feminism is a cacophony. We are better served by seeing the simultaneous multiplicities of women’s activism, past and present. This is why we need to talk and write inclusively about feminisms, not waves of feminism. Rejecting waves has enriched my life as an activist and empowered me to think creatively as a scholar. So no waves in my dissertation, except for maybe the occasional California lesbian feminist beach scene.


*Nancy Hewitt, “Feminist Frequencies: Regenerating the Wave Metaphor,” Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (Fall 2012)

Returning shortly!

21 Dec

Tom and Chelsea have both now officially survived prelim exams!  This means we now have time to spend on history nerd type things not determined by exam reading lists.  As we write and plan our dissertations we have resumed our most favorite of activities, arguing with one another about feminism.  Coming first will be our ongoing debate over the utility of the wave framework, followed most certainly by plenty of working women and lesbian feminists.  Please do join in the conversation and contact us anytime you would like to guest blog!

All best from your nerds,
Chelsea and Tom