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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.