Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who decides what feminism is?

Yesterday in the midst of massive syllabus prep, my bookblog went wild.  While I generally get a decent amount of hits/day, the pingback requests are rare.  Tracing through I realized all came from a single source.  Tweeting the link,  I learned that syllabus jail had caused me to miss out on debate* over a statement signed by many of the women I write about in which they denounce the shift from sex to gender.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to this issue.  Just a few weeks ago, as Ellen Dubois and I pondered the digital history of the history of woman suffrage project, we joked about the common confusion between sex and gender.  I said when I get a form that requests my gender, I’m always wondering  do you want to know what genitals I have?  If my outsides match my inside?  Or are you asking how I’ve been systematically conditioned to live in a system that creates identity based on ideas of masculinity and femininity and asymmetrical power ascribed to the former?

Still, the arguments in the above piece make me sad not only because I respect the work done by many of those women who I write about in my book, but because I wonder what it means for the many second wave activists who now use gender in their work.   I can think of many scholars with long histories in women’s liberation, say any of the members of the socialist feminist group Bread and Roses, who have been pivotal in the development of understandings of gender as a system that perpetuates women’s oppression.  So are Linda Gordon, Ellen Dubois, Mari Jo Buhle, Nancy Chodorow, and Lise Vogel all backsliders because their work used gendered analysis?  As this statement is all about radical feminism, and the debates between socialist feminists and radical feminists, got pretty heated back in the day, I suppose some of the signatories on the petition might agree yes, those women aren’t part of women’s liberation.  

Looked at from the longer perspective of history though, both socialist feminism and radical feminism are part of a century of sweeping change.  The idea of sex and the concomitant understanding of gender has roots far deeper than the 1980s and 1990s and the “invention” of academic feminism.  Two excellent books, Rosalind Rosenberg’s Beyond the Separate Spheres and Shira Tarrant’s more recent When Sex Became Gender explore the intellectual roots of gender in the emergence of the social sciences at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

The statement raises questions that I grapple with every day.  Who decides what feminism is?  Who counts as a feminist?  In my work I struggle to make sure voices of grass roots activists aren't drowned out by scholarly writing.   Digital history provides some interesting ways to do that and I'm exploring them. 

*debate appears twofold, one on the content (search pandagon on twitter to follow) and two on allegations that the reposting of the statement was by a domain squatter, which is how it came to my attention with all the pingbacks).  That website seems to be run by Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff.  The signatories, which I skimmed yesterday, have been removed.  However I tracked them down on another website

Initiated by Carol Hanisch (NY), Kathy Scarbrough (NJ), Ti-Grace Atkinson (MA), and Kathie Sarachild (NY)
Also signed by Roberta Salper (MA), Marjorie Kramer (VT), Jean Golden (MI), Marisa Figueiredo (MA), Maureen Nappi (NY), Sonia Jaffe Robbins (NY), Tobe Levin (Germany), Marge Piercy (MA), Barbara Leon (CA), Anne Forer (AZ), Anselma Dell’Olio (Italy), Carla Lesh (NY), Laura X (CA), Gabrielle Tree (Canada), Christine Delphy (France), Pam Martens (FL), Nellie Hester Bailey (NY), Colette Price (NY), Candi Churchhill (FL), Peggy Powell Dobbins (GA), Annie Tummino (NY), Margo Jefferson (NY), Jennifer Sunderland (NY), Michele Wallace (NJ), Allison Guttu (NY), Sheila Michaels (MO), Carol Giardina (NY), Nicole Hardin (FL), Merle Hoffman (NY), Linda Stein (NY), Margaret Stern (NY), Faith Ringgold (NJ), Joanne Steele (NY)

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