Russell Hanson

April 25–30, 2003

History 367 – Dirks


On Feminism and Feminist History



This paper will deal almost entirely with the conference held at PSU on Friday April 25, 2003 and was composed from my notes taken during the keynote and the panel discussion.  The paper will contrast markedly from my two previous essays which were more theoretically oriented.

The paper will cover broadly, yet concisely, the following topics:  The role of history for feminists—that is the creation of individuals’ proper history and the history created through the publication media (in newspapers, etc.).  The anti-academic sentiment expressed by many activists because of the role academics play in taking the writing of history out of the hands of the people and the exclusion many activists experience because of their non-academic backgrounds.  The emphasis many feminists place on what I will call personal issues.  Some of the consequences of this emphasis are: a tendency to avoid conflict; emphasis on creative activities not analytical ones; how age and maturity affects personal views, e.g., the progression of the idealism of youth to the pragmatism of maturity.  The effects that geography and culture have on feminist culture and activism.  And, the relationship between feminism and activism, with or without say opposition or resistance.  That makes five topics.

Several women at the conference were very clear expressing the idea that women’s history was central to the advancement of feminism.  The logic behind this in part was that if they didn’t write their own history, that it would be misrepresented by historians and that if it were misrepresented then the struggles of the individuals and the groups wouldn’t have gone towards preventing history repeating itself for future generations of women.  By writing their own histories they would be exercising their agency as participants in their own histories.  One woman emphasized that history-writing must not rest solely in the hands of academics.  The writings of women should be submitted to the archives or published, thereby being archived in the Library of Congress.  I see the market for such feminist memoirs as prohibitively limiting.  There was a general anti-academic sentiment, particularly considering the policy mentioned that an activist could not work in a shelter without a degree, even if her experience far surpassed many degreed people. 

One implication of this for some subset of women present was the premise that “The knowledge I know is all that I need.”  This has disturbing implications for an audience that was self-educated.  Some were high-school drop-outs.  Many considered themselves “bookish.”  But this bookishness was directed towards self-understanding, self-realization, and a sort of self-help.  Feminism seems an outlet for the intellectualism of many women with informal educations.  The ones with more formal educations, or who have worked in a man’s world more extensively have a different approach (among the limited sample of panelists). 

Is feminism a result of a minority mentality?  Does it work in opposition like many counter-culture movements; does it have counter-cultural aspects?  What of the fact that females are not a numerical minority?  One speaker posited that the power structure wherein the majority rules the minority could only work if “the majority oppressed the minority to create a state of amnesia.”  This line of thought was closely allied with the idea that women, or other minorities, need to create their own history so that “they can know where their predecessors have come from, in order to get a sense of what it [the future] will be.”

The emphasis on non-traditional educations has some justifications and implications.  In a way they are valid: one can learn a great deal about life and the lives of other women—which has clear educational value in an empirical sense.  Following our original definition of feminism, that is “the idea that the male power structure is changeable,” some people think this definition can be effected only through learning about women who have done it, changed the power structure, thereby showing that it is possible.  There is an intrinsic relationship between anti-academic feelings, personal issues, and activism in general.  For one, life experience is clearly an advantage for activist work counseling people, particularly when this counseling is based on experience gained through life.  Is counseling as activism valid?  Certainly many counselors also are activists and carry one aspect of their lives over into others.  See the professionalization of activism discussion in the last paragraph.

Being accepting and inclusive is both desired and impossible.  For example you can’t have an S&M enthusiast at the same table with another woman who is not such an enthusiast.  This over-inclusiveness extends to avoiding confrontation even in extraordinarily uncomfortable scenarios: psychotics who are “accepted” and not booed.  The particular anecdote that comes to mind is an individual psychotic at the conference who stood up, introduced herself as a graduate of the Women’s Studies program at PSU, complained that she hadn’t been given an opportunity to speak, introduced herself to one of the panelists saying, “I’ve been in your home,” and proceeded to read a lengthy poem at the podium while the audience exchanged uneasy glances.  If something similar happened at a conference I attended (with an off-the-street admittance policy), of young males, I think people would say screw this and try to get the person to step down.  Then again, unless it were a poets’ convention, instead of hackers’, I can’t imagine a young male who would be reading his poem in front of an audience, except in jest, before giving a technical talk.  This is the same stale dichotomy of females being encouraged to be creative and males being encouraged to be good at talking shop.  Participants in such organizations might be advised to adopt a more confrontational stance, yet confrontation is in many cases contrary to an idea of proper gender-based non-confrontational etiquette.  

Younger people are of course more idealistic.  Their friends are also more important in their lives, and they are often interested in helping out with the problems of their same-gendered peers.  Older women, particularly after menopause, are more cognizant of dropping or blending the gender roles of both men and women—the way it was described was that post-menopausal women feel more connected with the Earth, and less connected with their sex drive, while men can’t stop it short of a heart attack.

Communication is one of the skills most needed by feminists and activists generally: the people who can speak are listened to.  If you believe the publicity leads of one of the largest ad companies in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi: “What the new economy needs is people skilled in organization, emotion, and networking skills, and guess who is most skilled at all of these, women.”  I guess women are doomed to be networking in feminist organizations.

One woman also emphasized the advantage putting theory and practice together afforded. In Berkeley, with day jobs or studentships, they were able to divorce themselves from any patriarchal funding structures.  This woman and her friends were able to work autonomously, but not as separatists.  They theorized profusely, writing up propaganda and by-laws for the Socialist Revolution.  Socialist Revolution is a topic well-suited to students’ idealism around the world.  Eventually through the course of her activism she had come to grips with the ideas her sometimes younger, sometimes older colleagues hadn’t—that it is impossible to overcome sectarianism in any group.  Her group of friends in the Socialist Feminist movement had criticized males for their politicizing and sectarianism.  However, when women in the Socialist Feminist movement from different parts of the country got together at a conference, she realized that women also were incapable of overcoming the sectarianism which prevents different groups from coming together.

Feminism is both natural and not noteworthy.  I say this because if you get a bunch of people in the same room who have similar ideas, a common state of discontent, and the capability to express those ideas, they will start organizing in one form or another.  The fact that women have similar ideas as other women should make this a non-issue, right?  I now invoke cultural elitism: many of the “Barbarous Rituals” that put paid to the Powerful Sisterhood’s list of grievances in the 1970s are distinctly American protestant Caucasian phenomena.  Asian girls don’t have to shave their legs by and large.  Many western European countries don’t have anywhere near the stigma associated with sex that America does.  Many countries like Russia or Italy have such an educational system that if students, girls or boys, have the talent they are institutionally “pushed” towards being scientists and doctors.  In some countries young women are encouraged to be even cuter, more stylish, and better partners, instead of studious and professionally-ambitious, than in America, say Japan or Hong Kong.  Between the mainstream and subculture groups, inclusive, in America one can find similar cultural variety.  With such varied and easily-accessible cultural choices, just pick what suits you and get on with it; why would an enlightened feminist spend time grieving/care about their petty circumstances? 

What is activism?  How can you measure its effect short of legislation?  80% of the women on the panel had done most of their activism in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This geographical and cultural area acts as a catalyst for activism.

Women in Women’s Liberation who believe that feminism is a constant revolution got a hint of the nature of a revolutionary political movement during the days of the active Socialist Feminist movement (1972-ish).  Many felt forever empowered by the fact that at the height of the history of American Marxism, “ordinary people” could run things together.  “Ordinary” for the Marxists of the time meant: people from the working classes; people who did not have a voice; people for whom the power structure did not authorize them to speak up for their rights and act for their advancement. 

What is the goal feminists are working towards?  One gets the impression that many women who consider themselves feminists are simply searching for a greater personal understanding.  Just as some women attend college to be happier through their educations in greater personal understanding.  If it is a general framework for social work or activism, there can be concrete results to the feminist’s efforts.  For example a battered-women’s clinic would provide such an outlet.  Is feminism simply an out-pouring of advice on how to live in the world experiencing the constant critique of male supremacy (Gordon 29)?  If women’s history is really about this, big deal—men can find their own out-pouring at any bar stool in any Podunk town in the alcoholized world.  This is not what women’s history is about—but it provides a striking example of using a movement or the guise of activism for individual and personal interests.  The fact that for many feminist activists these interests are personal or resentful of past cultural or personal political grievances is an issue some more experienced feminists have grown through.

Apathy is one thing feminism fights against.  Apathy is different from ignorance; the people with the power and the money may be very well informed and still not care.  I admit my initial reaction to many feminist issues was that I really didn’t care.  Betty Friedan can craft whatever concept of mystique women want to read and I don’t care.  One of the panel speakers commented that protecting “gender rights, gender politics, or funding battered-women’s homes is not important to the people with the power and the money;” hence her struggle.

Not unexpectedly, I agree most with the woman who had spent the most time in a male-dominated world.  I think through this experience she gained a more pragmatic knowledge of what it would mean to be a constructive feminist, and had learned to use her sense of feminism in her paid and volunteer work.  When necessary she was also able to function with total separation from male power structures.  Two of her key points were (1) that it was OK for women to put themselves at the center of the universe thereby putting oneself at the center of one’s own attentions.  I think it is helpful to consider this while hinting that men adopt some traditional female roles and women adopt some traditional male roles, i.e. the standard sex-role blurring/hermaphroditism.  Men don’t need to be told to put themselves at the center of things, she was reminding the women.  And (2) that if a group accepts money for social work or activism, it has immediately forsaken the ideology it was founded upon, and the revolutionary stance it had.  The question she, at 50, was often asked by younger women was, “How do I get involved in/get money for non-profit work?”  She emphasized the need of activists, whatever their agenda, to be (financially) independent if they do not wish to compromise their goals.