Saturday, March 14, 2009

WMST 621: All the Women Followed Her with Drums and Dancing

Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed her with drums and dancing.
                                Exodus 15:20

Miriam Schnier’s Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings was first published in 1972 and then republished twenty-two years later after over 100,000 copies had been sold. (N.B. this means the book sold about 5,000 copies a year, which is a nice clip for book sales.) Schnier divides the writing into the following categories:

  • •Eighteenth-century Rebels (Adams, Wollstonecraft)

  • •Women Alone (Wright, Sand, Grimke, Robinson, Hood, Fuller, Married Women’s Property Act)

  • •An American Woman’s Movement (Declaration of the Sentiments and Resolutions Seneca Falls, Douglass, Garrison, Letter from prison of St. Lazare Paris, Truth, Mott, Stone, Stanton, Married Women’s Property Act, Rose, Truth, Anthony, Woodhull & Claflin, Stanton)

  • •Men as Feminists (Mill, Ibsen, Engels, Bebel, Veblen)

  • •Twentieth-Century Themes (Gilman, Putnam, Senate Report—History of Women in Industry in the United States, Spencer, Catt, Pankhurst, Bread and Roses, Goldman, Sanger, Zetkin, Woolf, Beard)

The book is a gathering of original writings from a wide array of eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century writers and thinkers about women, women’s rights, and issues affecting women. In addition to the original works, there is an introduction for each written by Schnier.

While it is easy to critique this book, I don’t want to do that (partially because it is so easy and partially because I don’t think it’s going to increase my understanding of the book.) What I want to do instead is grapple with what this book tells us in response to two questions posed by Dr. Moses. Why did the women’s liberation movement need a history? How does history get constructed? And, finally, my question, what does Miriam Schnier want us to learn and know from her history as constructed here by the reprint of these original documents?
So let me consider each of these questions. First, why did the women’s liberation movement need a history? Or to ask the question in a different way, what does Schnier want her readers to do with this history? I think Schnier wanted the movement to have a history for people who are engaged in looking backward to understand the current moment. Moreover, I think that Schnier wanted to mobilize a history to inspire women and engage them and channel their energy in particular ways, most notably toward achieving objectives of equality. So history for Schnier is tied to a political practice that she wants to produce.
In this way, I think that she selected and edited items so that they would demonstrate a particularly direct voice. She selected speeches, for instance by Frances Wright and Lucretia Mott. These demonstrate a particular function of motivating an audience. In addition, though, Schnier selects a fair amount of personal, more intimate writing, particularly letters. The counterpoint of these two is to demonstrate a voice that can move between the public and private sectors, an action that Schnier wanted her audiences to take.
How does Schnier’s history get constructed? Well, like most anthologies, and at the most basic level this is an anthology of Schnier’s attentions at a particular moment. It is a compendium of writing that was available to her either through her own reading or through the attention of other’s reading that was directed to her. This is something I always try to remember in reading other’s anthology and in thinking about my own writing and attentions: they are limited, necessarily, by time (both in the amount of time and the historic moment of time) and my intellectual capacities of the moment and interests. At the same time, I can work to countervail that by reading outside and seeking others reading outside. That makes me ask the question, did Schnier do this? Well, I don’t know. I think she probably did, but was limited by the moment in which she was writing. I was looking for evidence around this while reading, but don’t have much to contribute on this point.
Finally, what does Miriam Schnier want us to learn and know from her history as constructed here by the reprint of these original documents? Well, I think that the first thing that Schnier wants us to know is that there is a history and that it exists to be discovered and explored. I don’t think that Schnier had any idea or expectation that this would be the only book read by women, nor was it. So, that to me is the first thing she wants us to do with the book. The second thing that I think she wants us to do is draw ideas from the past. I was particular struck by the attention to marriage and the problems of marriage for women. Recent reforms to marriage make those less visible to me so reading this history felt very important. The third thing that I think she wants us to do is to draw inspiration from these women of the past.

Questions that I’m interested in thinking about and discussing in class:

  • •In what ways do women and men get co-constructed in this text? In what ways are women constructed more independently and autonomously? What prompts these questions is that at some points in reading the book and thinking about its construction, I was struck by its sense of woman-focus; for example, the creation of a separate section for “Men as Feminists.” At other times, I was struck by how connected men’s and women’s narratives are in the books; for example, the editorial by Frederick Douglass immediately after the Seneca Falls Declaration. In the introduction, Schnier tells us, “No historical survey of feminist writings would be complete without the works of the men included in this anthology” (p. xv.) What does this tell us about Schnier’s construction of feminism in the nineteenth century and more important what was she transmitting to her contemporary readers about men, women, and feminism?

  • •The related question to this is, so many of these women were queer, in the sense of having primary emotional, intellectual, and lifetime commitments to women, yet that is nearly invisible in the text. Why?

  • •What do Schnier’s diversions from Liberalism tell us about her feminism and things she felt were important for feminists in 1972? I think in particular of her inclusion of Frances Wright, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, Victoria Woodhull and Clara Zetkin. What did Schneir find important for contemporary women to know from them?

  • •How does an editor wield power, both over a reader and over a larger community if the work is taken up and used by a community of people? This struck me in particular when reading Schnier’s extraction of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’m really familiar with this text and so I could see the way it was constructed by Schnier as an editor and how, while she created an argument that is congruent with Woolf’s overall argument in the book, it is extracted to make the argument stronger and less tentative, in some ways, as well as to make it appear more synthetic. Moreover, Schnier gives minimal indication to the reader about how she creates this extract. For instance, she doesn’t indicate which parts, or chapters, of the book are extracted. Realizing that an editor wields this sort of power, what are the obligations that an editor has? Are there particular obligations for editors who think of themselves as feminists?

  • •What do we make in light of these editorial issues of the way that the racism, even while acknowledged by Schnier in her introduction to the collection is largely edited out in the selections from various authors?

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