Wednesday, March 25, 2009

WMST 621: Light the World Afire

“The Root of Oppression is the Loss of Memory: The Iroquois and the Early Feminist Vision” from The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists by Sally Roesch Wagner.

In this chapter, Wagner is working through a number of projects. First, and foremost from the title, she is working to demonstrate the ways that Iroquois thought influenced early feminists. She does this by showing how Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton studied and were influenced by the Iroquois confederation near where each of them lived. Wagner quotes extensively from published articles by Gage who was also “an amateur ethnologist.” Wagner demonstrates how property rights, the right to children, and a broader sense of rights within a society were given to women in the Iroquois nations. Another of Wagner’s project in this article is to demonstrate the centrality and primacy of Gage to nineteenth century feminism. Earlier in the article Wagner refers to a triumvirate of Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, but in fact as the article expands, Gage takes the center stage and a quick search of Wagner’s scholarly interests indicates that Gage is a central historical character of concern for her.

“ReRooting American Women’s Activism: Global Perspectives on 1848” by Nancy A. Hewitt.

Nancy Hewitt is making two intellectual moves in thinking about the Seneca Falls Convention in this article. First, she is putting the convention and the historical moment of the convention in a framework that extends beyond what is happening in the United States. For instance she talks about revolutions happening in Europe, the publication of The Communist Manifesto that year, and the arrival of Chinese immigrants to California for the first time. Second, she centers Lucretia Mott as an intellectual leader of the movement and by doing that is able to trace a different intellectual genealogy for the women’s movement thereafter and the impact of the Seneca Falls Convention.

Words of Fire, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

Guy-Sheftall positions Words of Fire as a remedy to “the history of American feminism” as “primarily a narrative about the heroic deeds of white women” mentioning Schneir’s Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings as a prime example of the issue. In response to this history, Guy-Sheftall assembles a gathering of voices of African-American women from 1831 until the present. She divides the anthology into seven parts. “Beginnings: In Defense of Our Race and Sex, 1831-1900” includes writings of Maria Miller Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Frances E. W. Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Julia A. J. Foote, Gertrude Bustill Mossell, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida Wells-Barnett. “Triumph and Tribulations: Defining Black Womanhood, 1920-1957” includes writing from Elise Johnson McDougald, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Amy Garvey, Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Claudia Jones, and Lorraine Hansberry. “Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation: Racial/Sexual Politics in the Angry Decades” the third chapter includes Frances Beale, Mary Ann Weathers, Linda La Rue, Patricia Haden, Donna Middleton, Patricia Robinson, Pauli Murray, Angela Davis and Michele Wallace. “Beyond the Margins: Black Women Claiming Feminism” includes the statement from the Combahee River Colletive, Cheryl Clarke, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Deborah K. King, Jacquelyn Grant, and Patricia Hill Collins. “The Body Politic: Sexuality, Violence, and Reproduction” is the fifth chapter with contributions from Barbara Omolade, Darlene Clark Hine, Shirley Chisholm, Beth E. Richie, June Jordan, Paula Giddings, Pearl Cleage, and Evelynn Hammonds. “Reading the Academy,” the sixth chapter, includes three contributors, Margaret Walker Alexander, Gloria Joseph, and Elizabeth Higginbotham. Finally, the seventh chapter, “Discourses of Resistance: Interrogating Black Nationalist Ideologies” with contributions from Pauline Terrelonge, E. Frances White, Barbara Ransby and Tracye Matthews, and Alice Walker. An epilogue is provided by Johnnetta B. Cole, then President of Spelman College.

So besides correcting a historical wrong, what is Guy-Sheftall doing with this anthology? First, she is constructing an intellectual history for herself and for Black feminism. The recuperative work that she does in this anthology is important and the way that she is doing it within a community of scholars is evident within the anthology as well. I think of how she writes about the work that Nell Painter is doing on Sojourner Truth’s biography within this text. Not only is that discussion a gesture to scholarly transparency of how things are and will continue to evolve, but it also demonstrates the embedded community of scholarly inquiry in which Guy-Sheftall is as well as the community that she wants to construct for her own intellectual history – and for others to access.

The second thing that Guy-Sheftall is doing is creating a more complicated and nuanced understanding of African-American feminist thought. On one hand, Guy-Sheftall is producing a narrative about black feminist thought in which race and gender are embedded and inseparable characteristics, something that was a consensus position by the time this anthology was first published, but on the other hand she is extending and further nuancing black feminist thought. By recovering histories of radicals like Claudia Jones and putting them in dialogue with critiques of black nationalism for instance, Guy-Sheftall is pressing conversations forward for greater depth and new understandings.

The third thing that Guy-Sheftall is doing is producing an anthology for teaching purposes. This is after all an anthology for women’s studies classrooms and for African-American studies classrooms. It gathers disparate texts that define critical issues in both disciplines for consumptions by undergraduate and graduate students.

Finally, I think that Guy-Sheftall is organizing some lines of inquiry and thinking for further engagement. In the anthology she definitely produces a historical narrative that generates new valences for historians and other scholars to consider. For instance, there is still recovery work to be done from this anthology in spite of the publishing that has been done in African-American history and literature. The full biography of Jones has been published within the past two or three years; a full biography of Lorraine Hansberry has yet to be produced (to my knowledge at least – if others know of one, I’d love to hear about it. I’ve only seen young adult biographies of her.) I read the fourth chapter as a major contribution to thinking of feminism as a movement in which Black women were central. The chapter on the body raises additional issues for scholarly engagement as well.

Questions to consider:

  • What historical and contemporary narratives is Guy-Sheftall interrupting with this anthology? How effective is her intervention? What new conversations does the book open or invite people to participate in?

  • What is the function of poets and creative writers in this text? She consciously includes a number of major poets and creative writers with pieces that are not within their genre work, but that are theoretical engagements. Is she making a statement with those inclusions?

  • What can we say about the form of theory that we have read both in this anthology and in the Schneir anthology? What forms and structures does feminist theory use? Where does it appear? What material and print conditions need to exist for it to be produced?

  • What about the polemic in feminist theory? What feeds it and what thwarts it?

  • Wagner builds her argument with extensive quotations from Gage, primarily. This is a very geeky, scholarly sort of question, but what do you make of it? On one hand with Wagner’s projects in the article, it is interesting to read the long quotations of Gage and it almost makes it so that Gage has a voice in the article, which I think is intentional. On the other hand, I find the excessively long quotations without contemporary analysis and reflection to be inadequate. I want Wagner to do a bit more with Gage’s words and to bring other complementary information to them. Another way of asking this question is, what in Wagner’s scholarly practice do you like and want to replicate and what might you eschew?

  • Wagner’s article raises for me those thorny questions about white women writing histories of communities of color. Wagner makes some moves that I am sympathetic to and appreciative of. For instance, she works to frame what the Iroquois people might have thought of the white people living among them. At the same time, I feel like there is an element of cultural appropriation to her argument. How is Wagner using Iroquois history in this article? What assumptions about native people does she make in building her argument and using the history? What value can we ascribe to it and what concerns or critiques does it raise?

  • What intrigued me about this chapter is the basic framework that Wagner is using, i.e. she is tracing the intellectual roots of Gage and Stanton in the Iroquois nation. What can we say about this framework that locates it in feminist epistemology that is tied to various historical strands of the Women’s Liberation Movement?

  • Am I too far along in graduate study to still be blown away by the power of reframing history? I probably am, but I was might intrigued and impressed by the work that Nancy Hewitt did in her article and the implications that such an argument has for changing how I think about history. I’m interested in two related questions: what other things might be “centered” in the nineteenth century that would change how we think about women’s rights in the nineteenth century and what changes might that create for our thinking and scholarship today? Secondly, what was the impact of the Stanton, Anthony, Gage publication on centering themselves? (For me this is interesting in terms of thinking about how print culture affects configurations of feminist movements and histories.)


Hystery said...

You seem to assume that Wagner is out there doing work in isolation. On the contrary, as director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation located in historical/geographical heart of the Six Nations, she works very closely with Haudenosaunee scholars (including several joint presentations and lectures with Jeanne Shenandoah) and is deeply mindful of the ethical issue of appropriation.

Given that there is no other person in the world with as much knowledge about Matilda Joslyn Gage and the profound influence of Haudenosaunee culture on Gage's development as a feminist theorist, what is she supposed to do with that information apart from move ahead with the scholarship after consultation with her Haudenosaunee intellectual partners? Let me tell you that only Wagner (and an extremely small group of scholars indebted to her research)are currently prepared to explore this topic. Matilda Joslyn Gage's history was almost wiped out (that's another story). There are very few historians, Euro-American or otherwise, who know much about her at all. The number who can address her relationship to the People of the Longhouse are significantly fewer.

Without a doubt, much damage is done by white scholars who colonize the histories of indigenous peoples for their own gain. However, as Wagner points out, we promote assumptions of Euro-American cultural/intellectual superiority when we ignore the contributions of Native American peoples on the formation of such intellectual traditions as feminist theory. Now that Wagner has drawn our attention to these fascinating connections, to continue to ignore the Haudenosaunee influence on the germinal thinking of women such as Gage, Stanton and Mott is really just inexcusable.

Julie R. Enszer said...

Excellent points all. I'm responding quickly as I am traveling for the next few days but will post more - and more thoughtfully next week. Thank you for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Did you know that there is a more updated book called "Sisters in Spirit?" It's great - check it out!

Hystery said...

Oh! I assumed you were reviewing Sisters in Spirit which more explicitly addresses issues of academic colonization and research ethics and which includes commentary by prominent Haudenosaunee historian/activists. Yes, you should really check that one out. It is much more developed. The Gage Foundation is no longer selling the original text.