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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

Women, Work, and Citizenship

30 Dec

I present to you for comment and criticism a reading list for a proposed undergraduate reading seminar on “Women, Work, and Citizenship.”

But before I get to that, I’d like to say by way of introduction and excuse, my absence on this blog over the past several months is due largely to the coursework I subjected myself to during the fall quarter. In addition to the intensive reading requirements, I almost convinced myself that my attention to those two courses prevented me from focusing on issues related to women and gender that readers here might find interesting. But then I remembered that one of the seminars was “Nations, Nationalism, and Gender” in the Cross-Cultural Women’s and gender History program. And, in fact, I was exposed on a weekly basis to challenging and exciting feminist scholarship. Ooops.

Two of the more interesting works worth mentioning here include Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts. Anderson’s work, which I suspect many of you are familiar with, provided our starting point. Its presence in any discussion on nationalism is probably second to none and it certainly offered some useful conceptual terminology and a definition of nationalism (i.e., imagined, communal, sovereign, limited). However, it seems to me that the almost complete absence of women and gender in his argument makes this supposedly seminal work of limited use. The real tipping point for me came near the end of the book when he stated that “the family has traditionally been conceived as the domain of disinterested love and solidarity.”[1] Not one of patriarchal authority and the basic unit of society based on the subjugation of women, but a happy place of puppy dogs and ice cream. Gag me. Although my professor (also my advisor) did not let on this reading was a set up for the works we were scheduled to read, all of the readings that followed provided a gender-oriented account of nationalism that diminished the relevance of Anderson.

Taylor’s work on the other hand was inspiring. Using an interesting combination of feminist and performance theories she examines the military dictatorships of twentieth-century Argentina and argues that the representations of nationalism and gender “are coterminous and mutually reinforcing.” [2] Although she looks at the political leadership of Argentina throughout the century, her primary interests are the military juntas that controlled the country between 1976-1983 during which more than 30,000 people “disappeared” and the years following the military’s brutal rule when Argentinians attempted to come to terms with the violence. In that healing process Taylor observed a disturbing degree of misogyny reminiscent of the junta’s rule. Thus her second compelling argument is that “acts of resistance”–which include acts of remembering and forgetting–“tend to reproduce the language and logic of oppression in their attempts to challenge them.” [3] While the acts of violence committed by the junta are depicted by playwrights and novelists as aberrant, the female bodies they are inscribed upon, the affirmation of an aggressive heterosexuality, and the disembodiment of women by using motherhood and prostitute motifs that hide the “historical and material conditions of real women” relies upon and reconstitutes a historical patriarchy eerily consistent regardless of who wields political power. [4] It’s a very powerful and engaging book.

You can click the link on this page to download the entire reading list.

But the real reason I am posting here today is to share my reading list. CCWgH is also my minor field and to satisfy the program’s requirement for certification I must develop an undergraduate history course syllabus and write a justification for the readings I’ve chosen. I’ll spare you the full 20-page essay I wrote but here is a brief explanation of the imagined course and the readings I’ve selected. Admittedly, an important if unstated rationale for the choices I’ve made is my ignorance of the variety available to me. That is where you come in. Please, if you have any suggestions about other sources–including primary sources that might make engaging additions–let me know. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.

Course Description: This course will examine, from a cross-cultural perspective, a few of the many ways in which women engage in productive labor. We will chart a roughly sequential process that pivots around the development of modern industrialization beginning with slavery and household-based production through the types of work brought about by industry’s tendency to urbanize and globalize the work force. In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the types of work women perform, we will attempt to understand how that experience defines a woman’s claim to citizenship or their relationship to the state and other citizens. Finally, this course will examine these questions from the perspective of several different cultures or regions of the world to further enrich our understanding of the historical contingencies and possibilities.

Week 1 – Theory

Scott, Joan. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 28-50. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Boydston, Jeanne. “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis.” Gender & History 20, no. 3 (2008): 558-583.

Thomas, Janet. “Women and Capitalism: Oppression or Emancipation? A Review Article.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30, no. 3 (1988): 534-49.

Week 2 – Slavery

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Introduction; Ch. 4, “Hannah and Hir Children”: Reproduction and Creolization Among Enslaved Women; Ch. 5, “Women’s Sweat”: Gender and Agricultural Labor in the Atlantic World

Colleen Vasconcellos, “From Chattel to ‘Breeding Wenches’: Girlhood in a Jamaican Slave Community.” In Girlhood: A Global History, edited by Jennifer Helgren and Colleen Vasconcellos, 325-343. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Wright, Marcia. “Mama Meli.” In Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life Stories from East/Central Africa, 91-124. New York: Lilian Barber Press, 1993.

Week 3 – Pre-industrial Production

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Week 4 – Industrialization

Honig, Emily. Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919-1949. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986. Introduction; Chs. 5 – Conclusion

Week 5 – Industrialization

Coffin, Judith G. “Gender and the Guild Order: The Garment Trades in Eighteenth-Century Paris.” The Journal of Economic History 54, no. 4 (1994): 768-93.

Scott, Joan. “Work Identities for Men and Women: The Politics of Work and Family in the Parisian Garment Trades in 1848.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 93-112. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

_______. “L’ouvriére! Mot impie, sordide…”: Women Workers in the Discourse of French Political Economy, 1840-1860.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 139-163. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Week 6 – Entrepreneurs

Hartigan-O’Connor, Ellen. “‘She Said She Did Not Know Money’: Urban Women and Atlantic Markets in the Revolutionary Era.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 2 (2006): 322-52.

_______. “Abigail’s Accounts: Economy and Affection in the Early Republic.” Journal of Women’s History 17, no. 3 (2005): 35-58.

Week 7 – Organized Labor

Ruiz,Vicki. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1939-1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Week 8 – The Informal Economy/Prostitution

White, Luise. The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Ch. 1, Introduction: Prostitution in Comparative Perspective; or, Casual Sex and Casual Labor; Ch. 2, Livestock, Labor, and Reproduction: Prostitution in Nairobi and the East African Protectorate, ca. 1900-1918; Ch. 7, Prostitution in Nairobi during World War II, 1939-45

Week 9 – Migratory Labor

Lan, Pei-Chia. “Among Women: Migrant Domestics and Their Taiwanese Employers Across Generations.” In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, 169-189. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2002.

Zarembka, Joy M. “America’s Dirty Work: Migrant Maids and Modern-Day Slavery.” In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, 142-153. New York: Holt, 2002.

Whalen, Carmen Teresa. “Labor Migrants or Submissive Wives: Competing Narratives of Puerto Rican Women in the Post-World War II Era.” In Puerto Rican Women’s History: New Perspectives, edited by Linda Delgado and Felix Matos Rodriguez, 206-226. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Week 10 – “Globalization”

Misra, Joya, Jonathan Woodring, Sabine N. Merz, “The Globalization of Care Work: Neoliberal Economic Restructuring and Migration Policy,” in Globalizations 3, no. 3 (2006): 317-332.

Sassen, Saskia. “Global Cities and Survival Circuits.” In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, 254-274. New York: Holt, 2002.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “The Dialectics of Wage Work: Japanese-American Women and Domestic Service, 1905-1940.” Feminist Studies 6, no. 3 (1980): 432-71.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 144.

[2] Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 95.

[3] Taylor, Disappearing Acts, 237.

[4] Taylor, Disappearing Acts, 205.

Conference Take Two

23 Dec

I’d like to add my own thoughts on the WHA conference Chelsea, Jordan, and I attended in October and in particular the Roundtable “Women and the WHA at Fifty Years.”

But, before I get to that, you must know how fantastic were the presentations Jordan and Chelsea delivered. Sure, I’m biased, but only towards exciting and challenging scholarship. Jordan traced the travels and activism of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman and although you’ll not find one word about his sexual orientation in the avalanche of studies about his art, for much of his career he was openly gay and lived with his partner in San Francisco before they moved back to New Mexico and eventually split. And as I’m sure many of you know already, Chelsea raised important questions centered on the Daughters of Bilitis, a very early gay rights organization on the west coast and uncovers “gendered understandings of identity and rights that suggest feminist-like discourse and action well before the take-off of the second wave feminism.”†

It may seem like I am piling on the criticism Chelsea has already put forth, but my experience of this panel was equally disconcerting. In addition to many of the absurdities already mentioned, the “discussion” began with several of the panelists making it a point to mention that one of the truly important ways in which WHA conferences touched their lives was the fact that they met their husbands at the conference. Now, I’m all for romance and love. However, to illustrate the importance of the conference for women’s history, let’s just say it ranks pretty low from my perspective.

The discussion about engaging grad students was equally absurd. One audience member, in her attempt to illustrate the distance she would go to show support for our increased participation told the audience she actually sat in on a panel featuring graduate students. “It didn’t suck” was the gist of her assessment and why “it wouldn’t be a total waste of time” for more senior historians to show their support.

And what was to come of this collective brainstorm? Nothing really. Sure, not all ideas or questions need to turn into actionable items. But much like the rest of the discussion, there appeared to be no real intent to do anything with any of the ideas that were raised. Not even a subcommittee to look into the matter further was proposed, no “blueprint for the next fifty years.” And what many of the problems raised such as grad student involvement had to do with women and the WHA was also a bit of a mystery.

The questions this spectacle left in my mind relate to bigger questions I’ve been struggling with recently about whether women and gender and sexuality studies are best left as separate fields of inquiry or whether historians are conscious enough of their importance to incorporate them appropriately. Let’s just say I’m more firmly in the camp of segregation following this roundtable. But more on this in the near future.

Overall, I was left with the impression that while historically the conference has not been openly hostile to women and provides opportunities to present women and gender research, much work remains to be done before it can be said that we have achieved “gender”* equality. And it seems to me that several of the barriers to achieving that equality could have been found in that same hotel ballroom. As Chelsea also concludes, it was a wasted opportunity.

† Chelsea Del Rio, “A Freer Human Being: Finding Feminism in Lesbian’s Pursuit of Identity, Partnership, and Community” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association, Oakland, CA, October 15, 2011).

* Thank you, Joan Scott, for completely confusing me on whether I should be talking about biological or cultural differences or whether the critical use of “gender” and “sex” has become so conflated that they are interchangeable.  (Scott, Joan. “Some More Reflections on Gender and Politics.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 199-218. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.)

What does a feminist historian look like?

16 Aug

Let’s get this party started, shall we.

I have a question: can a man be an historian of women?

On the face of it, and even under further scrutiny, the answer undoubtedly would be “heck yeah.” There are of course examples of very successful male historians of female history. And yet, I have moments of serious doubt. Interestingly, however, that doubt is based on very little empirical evidence or lived experience. I have maintained an interest in women’s history for most of my “career” and cannot recall but a single time when someone suggested my course of study was not a good idea. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career I have taken many courses on the history of women in various fields and not once has an instructor or fellow student suggested that my presence was inappropriate. I have written graduate school statements of purpose, met with professors about my areas of interest and course of study, and visited libraries and archives with the express purpose of studying women in American history. Only once did someone raise a question about the propriety of my studying women in American history.

I recently joined the Western Association of Women Historians because (1) I am–well, all except the part about being a woman–and (2) I hope to attend if not present a paper at their annual conference (“Short Skirted Harpies: Sex and Gender in San Francisco’s 1892 Anti-Dive Campaign”) next May. I have avoided joining this illustrious organization for several years now because the thought of being a male among a group of primarily female historians makes me slightly uncomfortable. In my personal life, I have always been a bit of an outsider so I have learned to avoid situations where that feeling is easily exacerbated. But I joined in part to find out if that feeling of discomfort and the one time I was cautioned about my plans has merit.

I should like to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for the professor who cautioned me. He is a veteran of the profession to say the least and he made no mistake that he is primarily interested in my success and would not want to see me get stuck in a field that I will have a hard time finding it.

I suppose I could go on at great length about my own experiences and psychology (both of which are inextricable to the work of an historian) on the subject. In fact, as I write this post and attempt to organize the conflicting and deep-seated thoughts I have about the topic I am left with only the hope that this modest effort models and spurs the type of conversations this blog intends to provoke.

Can a man be an historian of women? I think so. I hope so. Because I do not have a back up plan or desire.