Wednesday, February 25, 2009

WMST 621 - Feminist Differences

First, for my own reflections on this weeks readings, I think about the feminist and lesbian journals that I am reading from the 1970s and how contested everything is, not just what does it mean to be a woman or a lesbian, but what does it mean to live in the world, how should we live in the world, what are our responsibilities to ourselves, to others, to society? What is art? What is poetry? What is good poetry? Does it matter? Who gets to say? I write this to remind myself that at the core of the beliefs of the women I am reading is an active engagement in the world and a questioning about everything.

This helps me to understand the series of articles about “differences” and challenging the notions of a monolithic “woman.” A part of what these articles do in their creation is narrate a past in which there is the story of a monolithic “woman” and therefore there is a need for their interventions. Not to say that isn’t the case; I see the narrative that they tell and can understand the history. At the same time, it is just one strand of the history and I don’t want to lose sight of that or of the other strands that exist as well.

I’ll begin with Elsa Barkley Brown’s ““What Has Happened Here”: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics.” I begin with this article in part because I found it compelling both in terms of its argument and also in terms of its structure and the ideas and evidence it brings to its analysis (e.g. this is the sort of thing I’d like to write.) Barkley Brown begins with the image of quilts and different types of quilts and their reception by both quilters and scholars and uses that image to animate her analogy from Luisah Teish (a brilliant choice of a source, I think) of history as “gumbo ya ya.” In this analogy there are many conversations happening simultaneously and all are engaged with one another. To pull out only one and imagine that it is not engaged is to try and make the conversation conform to the model of classical music when we are in fact at a jazz concert. Barkley Brown then takes this model and does a close reading of the politics of the Anita Hill hearing in Congress. Barkley Brown argues that feminists positioned Hill in relationship only to gender and ignored race and the consequence of that is the Thomas arguments were able to be heard more clearly and seem more authentic. The remedy for this to Barkley Brown is the “gumbo ya ya” approach – not only to history but to political interventions. She concludes, “Learning to think nonlinearly, asymmetrically, is, I believe essential to our intellectual and political developments” (p. 307.)

I turn to the chapter from Ruth Frankenberg’s book White Women, Race Matters next because in some ways I think that Frankenberg’s work responds to a portion of Barkley Brown’s analysis in which she writes, “In other words, we have yet to accept the fact that one cannot write adequately about the lives of white women in the United States in any context without acknowledging the way in which race shaped their lives” (Barkley Brown, p. 300.) Frankenberg does just that in this chapter. She interviews five women to understand how race shaped their lives. These interviews are then recounted and analyzed by Frankenberg. She concludes, “landscape and the experience of it were racially structured—whether those narratives seemed to be marked predominantly by the presence or the absence of people of color” (p. 69.) Frankenberg also looks at how the racial structuring of white experience is complex and multi-faceted from her interviewees.

Evelyn Torton Beck’s article “The Politics of Jewish Invisibility” is the next article I take up even though chronologically it precedes the first two articles. The intention of this article is to intervene in dialogues about multicultural to engage Jewish women as the site of an ethnic identity that should be included and also to include Anti-semitism as a form of oppression that needs to be a feminist issue. Beck documents the elision of Jewish women from a variety of recent feminist materials in her discussion of the situation. What interests me the most about this article – and where the hair really stood up on the back of my neck as I read it – is at the very end of the article where Beck describes the active omission of Jewish issues from Teresa de Lauretis’ Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. The elision of Jewish issues from this text is described by Beck in a single paragraph – and in the footnote, Beck writes that she was the scholar whose work was omitted – and questioned at the conference. What is most interesting, to me, about the footnote is the dimensions of race implicated within the description of the event. I am keenly interested in how dialogues or rejections of dialogues are constructed between Jewish women and African-American women and this is an interesting example that I’d love to discuss in class if we have time. (I’ve included other questions relating to this below.)

In 1996, Maxine Baca Zinn and Bonnie Thornton Dill publish “Theorizing Difference from Multiracial Feminism.” This essay argues for a conceptual framework of ‘multiracial feminism.’ They ground this in social science as emanating from ‘socialist feminism’ and articulate six distinguishing features:
• Gender is constructed by a range of interlocking inequalities
• Emphasizes the intersectional nature of hierarchies at all leves of social life
• Highlights the relational nature of dominance and subordination with power as the cornerstone of women’s differences
• Explores the interplay of social structure and women’s agency
• Encompasses wide-ranging methodological approaches
• Brings together understandings drawn from the lived experiences of diverse and continuously changing groups of women.

I’ve saved the Fine and Asch article for last (and am going to include Anzaldua as an addendum for reasons that I will explain when I take it up) because I find the issues and positions that they articulate in the final chapter, “Shared Dreams,” incredibly vexing. The first chapter, “Beyond Pedestals,” is the introduction to the larger collection and it outlines the issues at stake for girls and women with disabilities. It is a thoughtful overview of both the scholarship in the field as well as the issues. Fine and Asch consider the ways in which disability and gender are socially constructed and how the two imbricate each other. They also outline a variety of material issues facing women and girls with disability including health care, education, sexuality, parenthood, and accessibility. In the final chapter, “Shared Dreams,” Fine and Asch articulate the position of an unwavering commitment to abortion rights for women and, to them, the corollary position that once born infants and children are entitled to medical care and treatment. They do a compelling argument for how these two issues are connected and how they relate to questions of disability rights and women’s rights. So why am I vexed? I am one of the leftists that they target in their analysis. I can’t help it. I hear their arguments and something still sits uneasily for me. I do feel like parents should have the right to make decisions about what medical care should be given and should be withheld for their children – at all ages but including newborn children. I understand the implications that this has for people with disabilities and I am troubled by it. I hold similar ideas about medical treatment across the lifespan (I tend to being a non-interventionist seeking to avoid a life of pain and discomfort.) This is also vexing because I know it is rooted in negative ideas about people with disabilities – and I continue to hold these ideas in spite of having people with disabilities in my family! I’ll include some questions about this below.

Finally Borderlands. Oh, Gloria! I love you! Why did you have to leave us? In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua is writing to the creation of a new consciousness or subjectivity of “la mestiza.” In the chapter, “La conciencia de la mestiza,” which is the final “chapter” of the portion of the book that combines narrative and essays with her poetic impulse, Anzaldua produces the consciousness that she seeks. It is a consciousness that provides her with a way of entering into the world and living in the world. It is characterized by celebrating ambiguity, being able to return to multiple homes, and being able to live fully as she is. The opportunity to read this section brought me back to the full book and I’ll make a few observations about it. First, it was published in 1987 and was the first book from Anzaldua after she co-edited This Bridge Called My Back. It is an extraordinary book and a book that reflects to me what I understand to be some of the feminist formations of the time. The book uses a variety of textual strategies for its argument, melding prose, essays, poetry, memoir, personal reflections, and feminist analysis. There are a number of books produced like that between 1979 and 1989 and I think that they reflect some of the theoretical strands and thinking of this period of feminism, and I note, I am unable to think of comparable texts that are being produced today (or have been produced since 1989.) This I think is significant, but I can’t encapsulate its significance right now. Second, this book is a book that seeks to produce a subjectivity and a subject location that is reflective of the feminist community in which Anzaldua is situated. That feels really important to me rereading it. Anzaldua is in dialogue with a number of people in the book and produces her book in relationship to the conversations with those people. (As I type this it feels very DUH – doesn’t everyone?) I think that this is important because I often hear the book referenced as a book about “Chicana feminism” and I don’t suppose that is terrible wrong, but it isn’t quite right either, at least for me. It is a book about contributing to a larger project of multiracial feminism (even though that term comes after this book.) It is a book about creating a space for Anzaldua and other women that affirms and gives voice to their experience for the purpose of dialoguing with others. I love this book profoundly for the many things that it does – and more so, I think, for the aspirations of what it hopes to do: create a world in which women – all kinds of women – can talk among themselves in serious, thoughtful, important, conflictual, satisfying, uncomfortable, tense, funny, and enjoyable ways.

Things to discuss:

• Elsa Barkley Brown argues, “One important dimension of this would involve understanding the relationship between white women and white men as shaped by race. This speaks not just to the history we write but to the way we understand our own lives. And I believe it challenges women’s history at its core, for it suggests that until women’s historians adequately address difference and the causes for it, they have not and can not adequately tell the history of even white middle-class women” (p. 300-1.) I am in agreement with this analysis. My question is this: in what way does this drive scholarship to studies of “whiteness” and does that in effect continue to privilege whiteness and take time and attention away from projects that recuperate histories of communities that have not traditionally be a part of the project of white, famous male history?

• What do we make of the exclusion that Beck describes in her article and the experience of Beck at the conference (from footnote 21)? What do we make of the racial dimensions of the experience? What does feminist theory do and not do for relationship between the constructed subject positions of Jewish women and African-American women?

• What are the stakes of understanding Jewish women as a part of multiracial feminism? What are the stakes of understanding Jewish women in the context of whiteness?

• In a related question, one of the things I am trying to do with my thinking more is telescoping and periscoping, that is thinking about how different vantage points change how people understand and think about situations, conditions, ideas, and values. So one area that I am interested in this is thinking about how race and ethnicity are understood by people in other countries and how those understandings speak to my own understandings as a US citizen. For instance, I am interested in what it means to be Jewish in Australia, what the relationship is between Jewish as an ethnic identity and Australian as a citizenship and what those locations say in relationship to Israel. Then I am interested in the relationship between Australian Jews and aboriginal people to see what differences or similarities there might be there to relationships between US Jews and African-Americans. I don’t know that there are any, but this sort of telescoping and periscoping is an exercise that I am hoping might give me new ways to think about things. What other intellectual strategies exist to change, reframe, or alter public dialogues?

• Is there an activist feminist practice that we can identify with the framework of multiracial feminism as articulated by Zinn and Dill?

• How do different constructions of women as mothers and of the state affect the analysis by Fine and Asch in relationship to abortion and medical treatment? How might this be in dialogue with Adrienne Rich’s article, “Of Woman Born?” How do different strands of feminist theory influence this dialogue about abortion and medical treatment? How is it in dialogue with other areas of concern for feminists? (I think in particular of issues raised by transgender and intersex individuals.) How does the historic moment and context affect the analysis of Fine and Asch? Has anything changed today?

• Why do you love Gloria Anzaldua?

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