«VIEWPOINT Moving Forward/Looking Back: Reclaiming and Revising our Feminist Past and Searching for Solidarity Cassandra Denise Fetters, University of ...»
Moving Forward/Looking Back: Reclaiming and
Revising our Feminist Past and Searching for
Cassandra Denise Fetters, University of Cincinnati, Clermont
Abstract: Interweaving personal anecdotes, feminist theory, and literary and popular culture references,
this article attempts to provide answers to the question of how we build a social movement and establish
solidarity among women while still recognizing and respecting difference. The article traces historical accounts of feminists contending with the “difference impasse” and argues that we should return to and revise the feminist thought that preceded us, weaving together theories from our feminist past with contemporary models, including those of feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin and her ideas of “mutual recognition” and intersubjectivity. Drawing on fictional accounts from literature by women writers, the middle section of the article illustrates what intersubjective relating can mean for the feminist movement and provides a discussion of how differences and interdependencies can be sources of connection rather than division. The article ends with examples of divisions among women drawn from popular culture, wherein the author recognizes the difficulty of establishing solidarity in the face of the neoliberal cooptation of the feminist movement, the intensely materialist and individualistic images and ideas bombarding us daily, and the polarizing economic conditions faced by women today. Ultimately, the article acknowledges that finding solidarity is just a starting point, as we really need a pervasive change in consciousness.
Keywords: feminism, solidarity, intersubjectivity, popular culture, neoliberalism, difference Copyright by Cassandra D. Fetters When women actively struggle in a truly supportive way to understand our differences, to change misguided, distorted perspectives, we lay the foundation for the experience of political solidarity.
— bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, pop star Beyoncé took the stage with the word “Feminist” displayed behind her in colossal, bright lights. I watched her with surprise and excitement, eager to see how today’s young women would respond to this public embrace of the word and all it carries with it. I subsequently learned that my preteen niece and her friends spent the following week making “Feminist” signs with glitter
and colored markers and paints to hang in their rooms. I was cautiously optimistic in my reaction to this:
optimistic because my niece also began asking questions about what the word means; cautious because I was simultaneously provoked by and nervous about Beyoncé’s public display. She’s a pop star; she’s a Journal of Feminist Scholarship 9 (Fall 2015) billionaire; and she spent part of her performance dancing on a stripper pole. I was anticipating the debates feminists would engage in about whether or not to embrace this public pronouncement; and indeed even a cursory search into feminist responses revealed a wide range of views, from “she’s too sexy to be a feminist icon” (Hobson 2014a) to “she is a terrorist” because, as bell hooks opines, she confines her body to the values of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (quoted in Hobson 2014b). Is Beyoncé a strong, twenty-first-century representation of how far women have come and where we are heading, or is she a glaring example of the ways in which neoliberalism and our consumerist ethos have coopted feminism for its own use? Some of these questions and criticism deserve consideration, but the entire scenario feels like déjà vu to me.
The debates about what makes a good feminist and who can be a feminist have played out in theory, in popular culture, and in mainstream feminism for decades, if not longer, and have centered—along with many of the continual impasses in feminism—on the idea of difference. And yet, academic feminists have grown wary of discussing the so-called “difference impasse,” of talking about what is considered settled theory. But is it really settled theory? Robyn Wiegman argues that academic feminism has essentially abandoned solving the difference impasse or the crisis of the “category of women,” “remaining confident instead that its critical deconstruction, no less than its long-standing activist critique, advances a more compelling future than any that seeks to wrench women from its familiar complicity with universalizing norms” (Wiegman 2012, 64).
In Object Lessons, Wiegman interrogates the notion of the “progress narrative,” and the theories, critiques, and ideas that get relegated to a troubled past when we believe that we have moved on or progressed to more complex and inclusive theories. That troubled past, of course, includes the problems of and theories about identity politics, and the exclusions often associated with specific kinds of identity politics; as such, it is a past we needed to overcome and, according to many, have moved beyond. I contend, however, that even a perfunctory look at disputes among academic feminists and ideas about feminism in popular culture, as well as women’s own personal lives, exposes a need for political unity, a need for solidarity, and the necessity of returning to our feminist past in order to work on our feminist future.
I am admittedly uncomfortable with what seems to be the prevailing notion among many feminists, that the difference debates are over, a thing of the past, and I want to quibble a bit with the dominant agreement that it is cliché or essentialist to talk about “women’s experience.” In part, my discomfort comes from what I perceive as homogenizing views of those women and theories preceding us, views that allow for an easy dismissal of what came before. Discussions of our so-called problematic feminist past seem to follow one of two trajectories, as noted above: Either we have rightfully and fortunately moved beyond the exclusionary politics associated with earlier waves of feminism, or we have tragically lost the political solidarity and activism that characterized earlier feminist thought and theory. Both trajectories carry with them a somewhat homogenized view of what has come before, a glossed-over picture of feminist history.
Like the polarized stereotypical views of the first wave, which hold either that the early suffragists were bonded together in some sort of sisterly solidarity or that they were exclusionary racists who do not deserve the accolades they have received, discussions of the second wave and the responsive feminist thought that developed in the 1980s and 1990s often likewise embrace homogenized views, placing feminists into prescribed camps and feminism into definitive decades. In some ways, as scholars like Wiegman, Jodi Dean, and Claire Hemmings have argued, reading our feminist past as something we have overcome allows us to see where we are now as located ahead of where we were before, as these histories are “mobilized in the service of a broader narrative of progress” (Wiegman 2012, 64). As Hemmings observes, “A shift from the naïve, essentialist seventies, through the black feminist critiques and ‘sex wars’ of the eighties, and into the Journal of Feminist Scholarship 9 (Fall 2015) ‘difference’ nineties and beyond, charts the story as one of progress beyond falsely boundaried categories and identities” (Hemmings 2005, 120). If we see our history as progression, then we could comfortably move into what many see as a “post-identity” stage of feminist thought.
Reading and thinking about our histories in this way has two related and equally troubling problems. For decades now, feminists have explored the difference impasse in academic and activist feminism, exposing the erasures, exclusions, and silences that characterized much feminist thought from the 1960s through the 1980s, and foregrounding critical responses to second-wave insistence on a unified women’s experience from black feminists, socialist feminists, lesbian feminists, Chicana feminists, and many others. Confidently placing the difference debates and responses in our past leaves behind all of these problems and critiques, erasures and corrections. Wiegman and Hemmings similarly argue about this loss: Hemmings posits that containing black feminist writing in the 1980s “marks the work of racial critique of feminism as over and thus as able to be assumed or gestured to rather than evidenced in work after that point” (2005, 123), and Wiegman argues persuasively that rejecting and “moving on” past the difference impasse in feminism removes not only the sometimes universalizing messages of white feminists but also the challenges voiced by women of color, multiracial feminists, lesbian feminists, and others. Some of the troubling responses to Beyoncé’s public embrace of feminism poignantly illustrate this theory.
The second problem with reading the changes in feminist thought as progress concerns the desire of many to move past what is typically seen as the archaic, misguided, and exclusionary ideas of solidarity and/or sisterhood. If we posit that those ideas were firmly placed in essentialist 1970s, and that they were conclusively challenged by the various critiques registered above, then we can, thankfully for many, be done with the notion of sisterhood. But this narrative neglects to consider at least two important points: 1) that problematizing discussions of difference and essentializing also took place in the 1970s, as well as before (in fact, nineteenth-century suffragists directly confronted racial and socioeconomic class differences between women, and Alice Paul and the women of the National Woman’s Party held public debates about addressing the concerns of working women, for example, points I will return to later); and 2) that critical responses from women of color, lesbian feminists, and others also often continued to embrace the notion of solidarity and sisterhood, alongside their calls for inclusivity and attention to difference. As Wiegman argues, the “idea that only those who came to be privileged by the exclusionary effects of women had an investment in women as a political unity seems willfully ludicrous, enabling as it does a totalizing misrecognition of what such critiques were intended to do: to fulfill the aspiration of women as a political unity” (Wiegman 2012, 64). The quote from bell hooks in the epigraph to this article illustrates this claim quite clearly with its call for “political solidarity.” I contend that the emphasis on the idea of “political unity” among women is needed still today, perhaps more so than it was twenty years ago, and so I worry about our desire to move beyond earlier notions of unity and solidarity. A brief look at women’s place in the political and social discourse of 2014 and 2015 indicates the necessity of women’s unity. Women’s reproductive freedoms are under constant and renewed attack, with 231 abortion restrictions enacted in states in just the past four years, and many states now establishing laws that require unnecessary procedures like vaginal ultrasounds, literally punishing women for trying to control their reproductive lives. Many state legislatures have pushed for and achieved the defunding of women’s clinics like those run by Planned Parenthood, leaving poor and minority women disproportionately without reproductive choice and access to basic care. Right-wing school-board members across the country are rewriting history and removing feminist and civil rights leaders from curriculums, while adding requirements for students to learn about such conservative heroes as Phyllis Schlafly, the Journal of Feminist Scholarship 9 (Fall 2015) Heritage Foundation, and the Moral Majority. Sex trafficking in the United States, in which girls between the ages of 12 and 14 are the primary targets, is on the rise in alarming numbers. And the continual, triedand-true rhetoric of politicians, which pits woman against woman, still saturates the political discourse, splintering women with a “divide and conquer” strategy. As Sonia Kruks argues, the forms of exclusion, exploitation, and oppression against which feminism as a social movement has been developing for over two centuries certainly have not disappeared. Nor have “women” ceased to exist, even if exclusion, exploitation, and oppression have a differential impact on different groups of women, so that many of us are, along different axes, at once oppressed and the beneficiaries of others’ oppression. (2001, 15) Indeed, the material realities of many women’s lives in 2015 necessitate a return to some kind of political unity.
Wiegman’s and Hemmings’s critiques of the “progress narrative” also interest me in another way. I worry that in describing our feminist past as unified, cohesive, and neatly packaged in decades, and in looking at it as something we either need to get over and progress from or something that we have already progressed beyond, we fail to see the ways in which we could utilize some of the ideas or themes of the feminist activists, scholars, and theorists we study as a part of this nostalgic and/or problematic past. I realize the dangerous ground I’m walking on here; when feminists today attempt to discuss difference, or “women’s experience,” or identity politics, or the idea of unity or solidarity, we risk the possibility of being associated with a bourgeois, white, middle-class, heterosexual feminism of a much earlier time, and, worse still, we risk the possibility that those associations will lead to us being seen as exclusionary, and perhaps racist, classist, and sexist. In no way do I wish to revive a feminism that relies on a universalizing notion of women’s experience.
My project is not to recover what is stereotypically seen as a seventies-style feminism or to make excuses for the women theorists, activists, and scholars who lived it. But Angela Davis once asked for today’s feminists to try to develop a “nuanced vision of historical feminism” (1995, 282), and I want to insist upon a similarly nuanced history of our past, so that we can see the ways in which some of what has come before could be beneficial for us in the present, in our activism and even in our feminist theorizing. Looking back could help us move forward; and so in what follows I examine feminism through the theories, literature, and popular culture of our past and present and propose ways to reimagine that which preceded us as a way to establish a new kind of solidarity that may help us deal with the impasses of today.