Sunday, June 12, 2011

And Howe!

I just finished reading Florence Howe's new memoir, A Life in Motion (Feminist Press, 2011), which left me feeling inspired and exhausted. Inspired because she's done so much, though she's not as famous as many of the Second Wave feminists: she was a pioneer of Women's Studies, and a founder of the Feminist Press. That may not sound like all that much, but it kept her quite busy, which is why I feel exhausted after reading the book. A Life in Motion is almost literally what she's led since the late 1960s, traveling around the country and the world to do research, to network, to coordinate the research of others, to raise money for the Press -- she's a regular feminist dervish, and seems to have slowed down only a little at the age of 82.

I first became aware of the Feminist Press when the local women's bookstore stocked its early reprints of neglected, nearly forgotten works by women: Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis; The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley. They're well-known and readily available now, but before about 1970 they were nearly impossible to find. Howe tells of searching for copies of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God "in secondhand bookstores ... [which her students] had to return to me before they could have a grade in my course" (133). The press survived arson, sabotage by a commercial publisher, funding difficulties, disorganization, and a couple of moves before setting in at their present base, the City University of New York. They've published a remarkable range of material, and I noted several interesting titles as I read A Life in Motion.

Among their biggest projects were anthologies of works by Indian, African, and Chinese women. On her first visit to India in 1977, she visited
two women's colleges, both relatively impoverished. I began a new quest, asking students what they were reading in literature courses. I was both surprised and disturbed by their responses. They read British male writers. When I asked about Indian writers, they said sometimes they were assigned Tagore and sometimes their most daring teachers gave them American writers, predictably Hemingway or Faulkner.

In Delhi, the university was on strike, along with forty-seven other universities, but I met with feminist faculty and graduate students. Two of the people present were Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Paul, both teachers of English literature. I wanted to talk with them about writers and the curriculum they taught. I had by then talked with faculty in other English departments, all of whom had assured me that there had been no women writers ever and, even if there were any, they would not be worth reading. Madhuri and Ruth were not interested in that issue, even though they were soon to found Manushi, the first feminist journal in India [316-7].
Not too surprisingly, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita and their colleagues found more than enough work by women writers to fill two big volumes of Women Writing in India. When work began on women writers in Africa,
... many of the scholars we met with insisted that African libraries and archives had been "wiped clean" by Western scholars either for their own personal files or for library collections in places like London, New York, Washington, and Chicago. We wouldn't find enough material to fill a large volume, they told us. I laughed when I heard these stories, and sometimes I said outright that since men had been the primary scholars of African history and literature, most of them would not have touched materials relevant to women. And I was usually correct [427].
The same attitude is still with us in the West. Women do write, but their work isn't given the same respect or attention that men's work gets. Recently the Guardian had an article about "the incredible shrinking presence of women in SF", which began by asking, "Is science fiction sexist?" Much of it is, of course, but the problem isn't so much the abstraction SF as it is the very concrete readers, publishers, and fans. Some notable comments: "When I scanned the names, I just saw people. Never imagined that this could be an issue..."; "I don't get it. So... there are plenty of female SF authors, but since none of them are any good the readers must be sexist because when they buy books they don't use gender quotas and positive discrimination to decide what to read?" and my favorite, "[Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing] didn't write SF, they wrote, unwittingly, historical pastiches of SF." Historical pastiches of science fiction and fantasy by men dominate the SF and fantasy sections of the bookstore and library; for a start, think of the many Tolkien imitators out there; then think about steampunk; then think about cyberpunk, which is basically noir in SF drag. These male writers nevertheless sell well and get critical and fan attention.

I can't find now the place where an African scholar told Howe that women's studies is "Western." I think the proper response to such claims is, "Oh, you don't have women in Africa?" Or China, or India ...?

Then there's the matter of class. Howe was born to Jewish parents who could be categorized as working-class or working-poor, and it surely didn't help that she was born on the cusp of the Great Depression. Her father was a taxi driver, and her mother returned to wage work when the factories opened to women during World War II. Howe was always bright, and did well in school despite some discouragement from her mother. She attended Hunter College, and to her surprise some of her professors encouraged her to think of graduate school; she never finished her Ph.D., and her teaching career, in small, non-elite schools, was constantly diverted by her husbands' pursuit of their own careers. (She married four times.) Like a good 1950s wife, she moved with them.

In college she rebelled against racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, helping to found the first interracial sorority at Hunter. In the early 1960s she went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, where she learned a different approach to teaching that she took back east with her.

So, should Florence Howe be considered working-class (because of her background) or middle-class (because of her profession)? As she tells it, she's never really gotten over the insecurity she felt about her origins, and has been surprised when people take her for the educated, cultured person she's worked so hard to appear. Even as an academic, she's worked mostly at levels below the elite universities, and struggled to ensure that women's studies as a discipline and the Feminist Press wouldn't ignore working-class women, women of color, immigrant women, women in other countries and cultures.

This weekend, in a post on "Feminist SF conversations worth reading," Nicola Griffith linked to and quoted Cheryl Morgan, who wrote of Second Wave feminism that although "[i]n theory it was about equal rights for women in all areas of life[, i]n practice it was sometimes more about equal rights for middle class white women, and occasionally about the rights of middle class white lesbian separatists." I was annoyed by that weasel-word "sometimes." This is a complaint that has often been made about American feminism of the Sixties and Seventies, not without some accuracy. For obvious reasons, American mass/corporate media preferred to focus on middle class white feminists: they were from the same class that manned the American mass/corporate media, they were colorful and articulate and media-savvy. (The Miss America protest of 1968, for example, was planned with TV and the newspapers in mind, and many feminists consciously developed ways to play the media -- by refusing to speak to any but female reporters, for example. A number of female writers who'd been confined to "lifestyle" pages found themselves shifted to the news beat for the first time, and many of them stayed there.) Given the way that even dissidents tend to believe the corporate media's claim to be reporting the news, it's hardly surprising that many Americans assumed that what they saw on TV was Feminism. Nor is it surprising that educated foreigners, including feminists like those Howe talked to in India, China, and Africa, mistook corporate media's depiction of American feminism for its reality -- they had personal and professional reasons of their own for doing so.

But while American feminism "sometimes" was indeed "about middle class white women," it was also "sometimes" (in fact, quite often) about women who were not white or middle class. I suspect that Florence Howe was one of the women that Cheryl Morgan had in the back of her mind in framing that accusation; most people who encountered Howe must have mistaken her for a white middle class woman, instead of the working class Jew she actually was. And the Feminist Press was only one press publishing the writings of women who were not white or middle class, alongside the writings of women who were.

A Life in Motion is, among other things, a valuable corrective to the record on the history of Second Wave feminism, which a surprising range of people have preferred to view as nothing but a bunch of spoiled co-eds invoking white middle-class privilege. Interestingly, Cheryl Morgan also wrote in the post linked above that Third Wave feminism "grew out of a cross-fertilization between feminism and the civil rights movement. Basically feminists realized that discrimination against women was just a small part of a much wider social problem." Well, no; Morgan's chronology is a bit off. As Howe reminds those who needed to be reminded, many Second Wave feminists (including but not only Howe) came to feminism by way of the Civil Rights Movement. (And from what I've seen, Third Wave feminism is "sometimes" a bunch of spoiled college girls complaining that their hippie feminist moms have ruined feminism for them. But only sometimes.)

There's so much more to A Life in Motion than I've mentioned here -- Howe's accounts of her marriages, of her difficult relationships with her parents, of her family of choice, of her women friends (I was especially moved by her account of Tillie Olsen, another working-class Jewish feminist of note), and more. It's a dauntingly large book, nearly 600 pages long, but those who want to know where feminism came from and where it's going ought to read it.