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.


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.)

Thoughts on a Conference

10 Dec

We three authors have been far too quiet for far too long.  Blame the joys of the third year – teaching and grading, language requirements, and of course, prelims/exams/quals reading.

A small part of that silence is due to the October weekend we spent together in Oakland, CA at the Western History Association Conference.  For the first time since we graduated from Sac State with our MAs over two years ago, we got to enjoy one another’s company and be supportive history nerd friends in person.  Jordan and I successfully presented papers together on a panel titled Negotiation of Identities in Alternative Communities: Hippies, Queers, and Lesbians in the U.S. West, 1950s-1970s.  Amidst all of the regular conference goings on we reconnected with old mentors, made new friends, talked each other through the most recent trials of Ph.D. school, toasted and cheered, and even speculated on the hair styles of certain well known historians.

Other than our post-presentation glow (thanks to suggestions of publication and comparisons to historian rock stars), what most preoccupied our late night chatting was the round table that examined women and the WHA at the 50 year mark.  The women of this round table engaged the audience in a conversation of women scholars and women’s scholarship throughout the organizations history.

The second generation of women historians critiqued WHAs record of including women, offending the first generation of the organizations’ female scholars who found home and acceptance there.  Eventually, both groups set about speculating how to encourage young scholars and graduate students to participate in WHA.  Not one person turned to those of us “youngsters” in the room to simply ask.  What could have been a fruitful and empowering dialogue devolved into far too much telling, accusing, and anger.  I have no way to speak to any experiences but my own at that moment, but I found in that room a lost opportunity.

This round table experience was reminiscent of so many feminist board meetings and gatherings.  I was struck once again of how divisive generational lines become among women (or even more broadly of diverse groups with shared concerns).  Why does the feminist ethic of common interest and cooperation so often falter with differences of age?  Perhaps part of this comes from the built-in professional dynamics of advisor/advisee relations that are commonly (though not always) distinguished by age.  Still, if we are to strengthen women’s role in the field of history and in professional associations, as well as furthering research about women, we must find ways to traverse generational gaps.

What we had hoped would be an empowering afternoon left us frustrated and disappointed.  I don’t have many answers other than encouraging genuine exchange and honest efforts to listen to each other; conversations that aren’t bound by traditional mentor/mentee power dynamics.

Fortunately, we history nerds were together to work out our thoughts on this and other ups and downs of the conference – a pretty great place for the conversation to begin.

Your feminist history nerds at the WHA conference

25 Oct

A feminist by any other name?

18 Sep

As if the term “feminist” wasn’t tricky enough in our daily lives (not tricky bad, just tricky complicated), trying to figure how, when, where, and for whom to use it when writing about the past is exponentially more so.   There are, of course, those easy cases in which women (and men, too) claimed the identity proudly. But what about all of the cases in which individuals lived their lives in feminist ways, or when groups act collectively to improve the lives of women, but did not publicly claim the title?  Perhaps they didn’t identify with the term, perhaps they weren’t familiar with it, or perhaps the term wasn’t available to them.  Regardless the reason, how do we discuss and explain their history?

On October 15th I am presenting a paper at the Western Historical Association about the Daughter’s of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian group founded in 1955.  The eight founders initially envisioned a social group that would create a space for lesbian friendship during an oppressive social climate.  Within a year, a few of the original members and several new ones set out to improve the lives of lesbians by creating a publication (The Ladder), holding informational sessions (such as what to do when arrested at a gay bar), and evaluating the medical literature that defined them as deviants.  Many members would come to publicly identify as feminists and join feminist organizations as women’s liberation exploded onto the scene at the end of the 1960s.  They claimed no such identity, however, for most of the organizations first ten years.

My closest colleagues know I have been preoccupied for some time with DOB (as well as other public lesbians in the decades preceding Stonewall) and what appear to be actions, ideas, and sentiments that are “feministesque”.  Or at least, the seem to be feminist to me.   They maintained the significance of woman only space.  They asserted the need for fair employment and wages.  They debated the ways in which their experience of homosexuality was gendered.  They responded to limitations, inequalities, and dangers as gay women.   Do I call them feminists?  Do I call their work feminist in nature?  Do I describe them as “protofeminist?”   Is an activist for women’s rights by any other name still a feminist?

How do you define and use identity categories and terms in your work?  How do you define feminist pasts?  How do you use the term in your scholarship?

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.

19 Aug

In the event you were wondering about the Header image, here it is in full:

It comes from the June 26 – July 10, 1970 issue of Rat.  Started as Rat Subterranean News in 1968, this New York underground newspaper covered radical left politics of the era.  Radical women grew tired of the publication’s misogyny and in early 1970 they stormed the office and took control of the paper.  Rather than simply issue one women’s lib issue, these women ended up taking complete control of the publication and renamed it Women’s LibeRATion.

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.