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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.


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)

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.

Thoughts on Intergenerational Feminism

8 Jul

Intergenerational feminism matters.  And when it works well, it is magic.  When we lay aside the all too often arbitrary distinction of waves, I believe we find more that connects than divides.  I am convinced of the remarkable importance of these relationships, even if they are as difficult as they are rewarding.  The sad reality is, we don’t really have models for these relationships which is, I think, where the difficulty comes from.  They aren’t meant to be unidirectional relations of mentor and mentee.  Learning, support, guidance – it ought to flow in both directions in a sisterhood that spans age and embraces all forms of diversity.  If we could learn to listen more and judge less, forgive each other our misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge, and acknowledge the historical specificity and cultural construction of women’s experience and feminist identity, then we could forge bonds that empower us all and move the movement in ways not yet imagined.

I am not sure where my interest in intergenerational feminism came from.  More than likely it is tied to my love of history, which is what drew me into the world of women’s activism in the first place.  Feminism wasn’t an overt part of my childhood but strong women were.   Their example and my own bookish introspection meant that by my teen years I was questioning double standards, pointing  out inequalities, and finding power in feminism.   By the end of my 20s I had served as the president of the largest statewide feminist organization in the country and at 33, I have 15 years in the movement.  My adult years have all been in service to preserving our legacy and advancing the lives of women and girls.   My path through feminism created spaces in which I worked alongside women of all ages.  Through these years I experienced unfortunate moments of hostility simply as a result of my age.  More often I have faced silent dismissal, relegation to the children’s table.  Fortunately, such moments have typically been surpassed by support, solidarity, and encouragement (in quality, if not in quantity).

I can only speak from my experiences, my side of the generational divide.  But I have been working on this issue for years, cultivating my own relationships and encouraging others to do the same.   I still find myself so frustrated as I observe the misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and mistakes that occur when we let age divide us.

As a rising feminist engaging in cross-generational activism I have learned that stereotypes of second wave feminism and veteran feminists do more damage than good and obscure a more useful, representative history.  We are much better served by getting to know our older sisters and developing a sense of past feminisms through these relationships.  Understanding their perspectives will also add richness and nuance to how we view our own issues.  While building these relationships can at times be difficult, we learn cooperation and respect if we work through the conflict.  Bringing these relationships into our lives doesn’t mean we have to ask for permission – we are already feminists with every right to assume leadership and carry on the legacy of the movement.  We also have the right and the duty to reject and revise the tools and ideology that do harm or no longer serve us.  When our older sisters challenge or question us we gain the opportunity to articulate our positions and make connections.  This said, claiming our place and embarking on this journey is more productive and rewarding when done with respect and acknowledgement of those who precede us.  Through chance lunch seating, shuttle rides to the airport, a shared glass of wine, strategy meetings on red couches, and late night phone calls, I have come to understand that laughter, pain, love, insecurity, pride, and a desire to feel useful transcend age and unite us all.  These small moments matter for in them are often great opportunities for change.  We ought to recognize any opportunity to build relationships with our sisters because friendship, love, and respect is the foundation of our movement.  Allies can often be found in unexpected places and sometimes our older sisters get us in ways we never could have imagined.  And honestly, it sure is nice to hear someone say occasionally, you are right where you need to be and you know just how to do this-trust yourself.

I wish all veteran feminists better understood that my claiming a place in the movement is not meant to push you out, take your torch, or make you obsolete.  We do recognize that you paved the way and made possible the equalities we have today.  It may seem that such rights are taken for granted by most young women; that they are such matter of fact aspects of our daily lives speaks to your successes.  Rising feminists get it.  We are here to protect all you have gained as well as fight on the barricades of our own times.  My issues are often different than yours.  We all need to be at the table in order to truly compose an inclusive movement; you cannot speak for me anymore than I can you.   While we may not have as many years in the movement as you, we still have valuable experiences and important contributions to make.  Think about what you accomplished in the earliest years of your activism – what magic!  Today’s feminist activism often takes different shapes than it has in your lives.  This does not mean that we are any less committed or any less present.  We are everywhere. Our feminism flourishes on campuses and in labor unions, on the internet and in third wave publications, on film and in music.   Sometimes we uses the tools you created, but other times we find it necessary to reevaluate past feminist ideologies or practices. This doesn’t mean we are discounting the importance of your work and all you achieved.  We want to learn from you but we want to do so on an equal footing.  Talking at us or dictating the terms of our belonging or our relationships only serves to alienate us.  When we share the talking and listening equally you might just find that you can learn a thing or two from us.  I want to thank you, work alongside you, and assure you that your legacy will be honored and protected.

Fleeting thoughts in need of much greater detail, this sketch is my way of working through my thoughts on what divides and what might unite.  Ultimately, we don’t have to understand everything about each another, but we do need to find ways to support and empower each of our sisters.  Ask me what I know, what I want to learn, what skills I have to offer, and what I need from you.  Then I’ll do the same.  Let us surprise one another and delight in all that we are capable of accomplishing together.

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.)

Between the Bitch and the Pushover, or, How to Teach Like a Woman

6 Sep

Home after a long first day of the academic year and settled in my butterscotch armchair with a confirmed case of back to school brain.

My head is swimming with questions and fears for the coming semester:
1.  What happened to summer?
2. How is my schedule going to fit attending lecture,  staff meetings, teaching section,  office hours, workshops, guest speakers, union meetings, grad student committees, prelims reading, conference papers, advisor meetings, etc.?
3.  I’m supposed to prepare for prelims and do all the other things?
4.  Are my cats going to remember me when I come home after 14 hour days?
5. Is this the year someone realizes I don’t belong here?!
6. This is the semester I get really organized – right?
7. Seriously, what happened to summer?

More than any of these oh so critical issues (especially 1 and 7), though, I’ve spent much of my time recently considering issues of gender, feminist ethics, and the classroom.  It may be that, now that I’m comfortable and settled as a graduate student instructor (GSI) here, I can spend more time on pedagogical concerns.  Or perhaps it is my new role as a mentor to this years’ first time History GSIs.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last week about establishing authority in the classroom and all manner of related concerns.  Unsurprisingly (though unfortunately), this fear of chaotic undergrad rule of the discussion section is expressed almost entirely by women – surely a striking commentary on their experiences in the academy.   The most common advice we mentors have received from our mentors and advisors over the years (the very advice that I found myself passing along to the newbies)  feeds into traditional, heteronormative notions of the academy.  I am left with a nagging unease about the information I related to the new class of GSIs, even as I acknowledge it is in all likelihood the path of least resistance to a smooth semester.   Dress professionally (read: traditionally, and without exposed cleavage), always stand, emphasize your experience, play the part, and of course, be forceful and strict, but smile.  That last part is key.  We may as well have said, “find that tenuous middle ground between bitch and pushover.”   We may have been giving this advice to all of our mentees but considering the make-up of new GSIs concerned about issues of authority (and given the reality of our classrooms), we might as well have been speaking only to the women.   Feminist cringe moment number 1. Further, the very discussion of “establishing authority” is problematic.  Graduate students occupy a unique position in the university system and we do have to be realistic about the ways undergrads can manipulate the system to their advantage.  And, we are instructors, charged with educating and grading students.  But something in my feminist core shudders at discussions of authority in the classroom (feminist cringe moment number 2).

I fear I lack the eloquence to adequately articulate my discomfort with this rhetoric, or to explain clearly how I personally navigate that thin middle ground in my own classroom to the best of my ability.  What I want to express here is the extreme frustration I’ve been feeling these last days in having to pay so much attention to considerations of gendered privilege (as well as all of the other areas of privilege that demand attention) in the classroom and anti-feminist pedagogical practices even as so many of us are committed feminist activists and scholars.   I don’t have many answers here (sorry, mentees), but I want to begin considering more fully how we maintain (and indeed cultivate) a feminist ethic in the halls and classrooms of traditional disciplines and institutions.  Maybe some of you can get at these issues more fully than I seem able to here (I’ll choose to blame summer brain for my lack of clarity) – please share your thoughts.

Welcome, from Three Feminist History Nerds!

19 Aug

A merry little trio are we, even though we now find ourselves scattered across three different states, at three different universities, in three different regions of the country.

Once upon a time, in a small MA program in California, our advisor and favorite women’s history professor Becky Kluchin suggested we form a writing group.  The sheer panic brought on by impending Ph.D. applications and thesis writing was all the motivation we needed to agree it was a sound idea, even if we didn’t know each other very well.  Fortunately, Becky is an excellent match-maker and we fell into easy, supportive friendships.  Completing our MA degrees would have been exponentially harder without one another.  More importantly, during that year together we developed relationships that are sustaining us throughout our academic careers (and our personal lives, too).

It is probably not the best idea to embark on a new project right now.  The breadth of commitments we have is already overwhelming.  In addition to the rigors of our history Ph.D. programs – courses, grading, teaching, language study, research, writing, prelims/exams/quals, conferences, panels, workshops – we also face a slew of other life responsibilities:  children, partners, cats, dogs, union organizating, feminist activism, and social lives that we try desparately to maintain.  Still, during one of our monthly phone chats, we agreed to add a blog to the mix.  We wanted a way to continue (and expand) the enriching conversations we began four years ago.

The title and blog Feminist History Nerds works in a few different ways.  First (and most obviously), this is a space to share feminist history.  Second, as Tom and Chelsea’s inaugural posts show, it is a place to consider what it means to be a feminist scholar and to do feminist work.  And finally, as graduate students, it is a place to work out the various curiosities, questions, and interests that arise as we go about our research and suss out our profession.  We are certain that with prelims afoot there will be no shortage of possible content (time, however, is another story).

Feminist History Nerds invites you to join us as active participants.  This project will work best for all of us if you contribute to the conversations we start and the questions we pose.  Comment, challenge, debate, share, and even join us as guest bloggers!  And of course ideas and opinions needn’t be related strictly to the work of an historian. We are at least as interested in how these ideas work outside the context of our research and university. It is a happy little feminist world we are creating here and we look forward to your company along the way.

Is it problematic to identify with the history you study?

18 Aug

Last semester, in a graduate writing course, I worked on a paper about radical feminist group The Furies.  During peer review a colleague said he got the sense that I “really like” my subjects and accused me of glorifying them.  I make no secret of the fact that I too am a lesbian feminist.  While Tom ponders being a man doing women’s work, so to speak, I ponder the question, what does it mean to identify (too?) closely with my subjects?  To share their sexual identity and many of their political beliefs?

In this same course there were several other scholars studying people with whom they identified in some way: race, ethnicity, education, religion, region.  Not one of them had their credibility questioned in the way mine was on several occasions.  Ultimately, the critique ended with, “these were just 12 women living in a house together – how important can they really be?”  Aside from the fact that my analysis of their historical significance is in line with the other historians who have studied them in-depth, I explained the evidence of their influence every week.  Most of our classmates studied equally small groups or relatively unknown individuals and yet somehow their work registered as legitimate.  Lesbian history just wasn’t important enough to register.

The humorous part of an insult that implied my work is driven not by historical material but my own politics is that, it too, was politically motivated.  Clearly, this individual devalues lesbians to the point of historical insignificance while also singling out a lesbian feminist voice as somehow problematic and “other.”   The thing is, we are all political.  All historians are motivated in various ways by their identities and values.  And in some way, we all connect with the people in the narratives we construct.  A heterosexual man writing a history of the The Furies would not relate to the members as I did, but that does not mean he would not have opinions about the behavior, the politics they pursued, or the changes they were trying to create.  And I guarantee that as a man, such a scholar would consider and relate to the men from whom these women sought to separate.  The issue is not whether you identity with your subjects as I do, or question your place as a scholar of the subjects you choose,  as Tom does at times.  Rather, it is about the consciousness you bring to every step of the process.

Those who know me well understand that I am pretty self-reflective about how my personal identity relates to, supports, and yes, hinders the work that I do.  There were moments in my thesis writing a few years ago when my advisor stopped me and said, Chelsea, these sentences sound angry.  She was right.  It was a learning moment, and the start of a process in which I constantly engage in a dialogue with myself about the questions I am asking, that arguments I am making, the sources I am using, and so on.  Isnt’ that something we should ask and expect of all scholars?  And as much as this is a solitary process, it is a collective one too.  We share late night discussions in department hallways when a spark ignites a new perspective, we swap drafts of papers and chapters, we suggest books to read and scholars to engage, and we shoot off sleep-deprived and coffee-hazed emails in what seem to be moments of brilliance.  Ultimately, we learn to find our own voices by understanding those of others.  This includes the voices of the women I study.

Yes, I identify with the people I study.  With a critical eye I am the better for it, not simply because of our commonalities, but because it pushes me to engage in an honest, regular conversation with myself about who I am and the scholarship I produce.