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"What's in a Name?" On Writing the History of Feminism.

I wrote this article originally as a keynote address for an audience of several hundred feminist academics--very few of them North Americans or Europeans--at an international conference sponsored by Peking University, Beijing, China, in June 1998. Over the course of the subsequent decade, I presented slightly revised versions numerous times, but always in international settings. When the editors suggested that it be included in this issue, I wondered how best to revise it for the Feminist Studies audience. Was the history described here too well known in the United States to merit publication in a scholarly publication? Would the language that I had adopted for speaking to audiences whose first language was not English seem too simplistic, not sophisticated enough, for a scholarly journal? And yet, I was told, students in our women's studies doctoral program who had access to the paper were circulating it and quoting from it. Clearly there was something here that deepened their understanding of an epistemological and theoretical issue of consequence. Or at least that is my hope, for the argument that I put forth is based on my political and intellectual commitments to feminism and to the study of history. My strategy for revising the lecture for publication was to limit revisions and instead add a coda in which I reflect on what I have done and why--in other words, on the intellectual autobiography embedded here.

IN MY WORK AS A HISTORIAN, I focus on women's collective activities in the West, especially in the United States and Europe, and especially those activities that are intended to further the interests of women. (1) This presentation is intended to share a small part of that work with you and also to explore my most recent interest, which is to examine the names we use for this kind of collective activity--by women and on behalf of women--and then to question the significance of our naming practices. (2) In other words, what is at stake in naming a particular form of women's collective action "feminism"? When is it not called "feminism"? What happens when this distinction is parsed too carefully? What does the history of the scope of the term "feminism" tell us about its political successes and shortcomings?

In the most traditional histories, women's public activities have been largely ignored, and the only political power that has been recognized is women's power in the background, usually in the family, to influence men. But after more than three decades of a revived practice of women's studies research in history, this traditional view has been challenged, and the remarkable diversity of women's public political activities has been made visible. Recent studies focused on Western settings have unearthed women's participation in just about every type of political activity men have participated in, both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum--even including movements to strengthen male, white, and bourgeois-class supremacy.

Much of the historical research in the United States and Western Europe has reflected on the conditions that have discouraged or encouraged women's political activities. (3) In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women's exclusion from those state or religious activities deemed "public" precluded certain kinds of organizing but did not inhibit their coming together in neighborhood settings or creating associational structures, often within their churches, that were neither absolutely "public" nor wholly "private." Such groups usually addressed issues traditionally considered appropriate for women's attention, such as the price of food or sexual behavior and morality. Some women, however, were also encouraged to enter arenas not generally considered "womanly" by male coworkers, friends, or spouses. And if their activism was often confined to auxiliary work in male-led movements such as antislavery or labor, they were also sometimes inspired by emancipatory ideologies to challenge their own oppression, usually in opposition to the wishes of their male allies. This seems to have been the experience of the earliest advocates of voting rights for women who had come to political consciousness first in the antislavery movement, only to discover that their efforts were disparaged simply because they were women. Additionally, historians have noted that many women were inspired to daring activism by other women--teachers, mothers, sisters, friends.

Around which issues have women in the modern West organized? Not surprisingly, reproduction and sexuality have played a central role, from the Protestant "female moral reform" societies of the 1830s in England and the United States to the reproductive rights movements in the United States and Europe in our time. The family has also played a central role, with some women organizing in defense of what they viewed as traditional and therefore best; other women laboring to reform the family, for example by demanding that wives be able to own property or control wages on equal terms with men; and still others working to abolish the family and establish radically different settings, such as communes, that would support intimate relationships between women and men or parents and children, while separating these relationships from economic questions, housekeeping, and child rearing. Political issues of race and class have also claimed the attention of women organizers in the modern West, reminding us that women's interests have been shaped by their positioning in multiple social hierarchies and not just by their sex.

Women have also organized around improving conditions of daily life, for example, providing food and shelter for their families or changing the conditions of both their own and their husbands' work lives. And well beyond the local level, women have often been in the forefront of movements to transform relations between nations, and if not wholly successful, they have at least prodded the government to take some limited steps. For example, it was women--organized in a housewives' strike--who nurtured an emerging peace movement in the early 1960s in the United States. But we must not forget that women's activities were not always and only emancipatory; women also organized to defend hierarchical, male-dominant families and their belief in the purity and supremacy of white, Protestant families. As scholars have shown, women's organizing facilitated Ku Klux Klan activities in the 1920s and 1930s as well as Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. (4)

Recent histories of women have also focused on the ways that women have organized and have considered how their methods have differed from men's. For example, the early 1960s peace activists that I just mentioned created no actual organization, but came together in informal groups and were thus able to frustrate the right-wingers in the US Congress who had destroyed socialist- and communist-inspired male groups by attacking their leaders and obtaining their membership lists. Women also used their familial and neighborhood ties--even the lists they maintained for sending out New Year's and Christmas greetings--to create networks that, in their dependability, made up for what they may have lacked in national organization. And, finally, women have often organized most effectively when they have organized separately from men, as community activists, professionals, unionists, and feminists. (5)

But if sisterhood--women acting collectively with other women--has often been powerful, it has also been hard to achieve and harder to maintain. Sometimes class prejudice or race prejudice have been purposeful, as was the case with Ku Klux Klanswomen in the United States and with Nazi women in Germany. But sometimes this has been an unexpected consequence of poorly thought-through positions, as was the case, for example, with the moral reformers in the nineteenth century, whose antiprostitution politics slipped into a womanhating, victim-blaming, anti-poor discourse, or the abortion rights movement of more recent times that has often seemed class- and race-biased because of its failure to also fight strenuously to end sterilization abuses or to improve access to maternity and children's healthcare. (6) Do women's historians in the United States claim that all women's groups are "feminist"? If not, what makes some groups "feminist" and others not? The question of naming is of great interest in Western scholarship these days with linguists, literature specialists, historians, and social scientists all interested in the way in which meaning--and even the meanings of words--is shaped by context. Words, in this way of understanding, act much like symbols. Although we think we can define words absolutely, it turns out that their meanings change with time and place. The word "feminist" is an excellent example. In Western Europe and the Americas, historians typically use the word "feminist" to describe women's collective activities to advance women's condition; but the meaning of "feminism" is neither stable nor fixed. As a historian, I know for example that the word is often assigned to women's collective actions that occurred before the word even existed. But if the word did not yet exist, how do historians decide which activities are to be labeled "feminist"? And if we label some activities "feminist" and not others, are we not constructing-- rather than identifying--feminism?

For example, when studying the history of nineteenth-century women's collective activities, if we historians of the twentieth century choose to look at the activities of nineteenth-century women of the privileged classes only--perhaps because they wrote books about their activities and therefore make our research easy for us--and in fact look at only some of their activities (for example, their organizational activity to win voting rights for women--perhaps because it is easy to study organizational records), then we would be defining as "feminist" something that is narrow in class interest. (7) But since the word "feminist" did not actually exist, and it is therefore we--as historians-- and not those women, nor any other women, who actually use the word to label their activities, what would happen to our understanding of the meaning of the word "feminism" if historians used it for another group of women who also worked collectively to advance women's development? For example, if historians used it for Black women who, in the years following their emancipation from slavery, created organizations intended to overcome the indignities of racism? Their efforts were also collective: in their Black women's clubs they organized separately from men, they also focused on advancing women's development, and they challenged standard notions of permissible "womanly" actions both within and beyond the community of Black women and men. Would not this make them "feminists"? What would happen to our understanding of the word "feminism" if we attached it to the efforts of women industrial workers to improve their conditions of work--efforts that directly challenged men who were either their employers or their coworkers (who thought that all working-class organizing should be by and for men)? What would happen to our understanding of the word "feminism" if we attached it to the power exercised by American Indian women in tribal councils? Recent histories, for example, have now identified close personal connections between Seneca Indians and famous voting rights activists, and we now know that Indian women played an important role in shaping the goals of what we have labeled US feminism. (8)

In other words, history is not simply the past; rather it is the way we construct a narrative of the past. Historians do not simply uncover history; they construct it in the way in which we assign meanings and make sense of the mass of materials that we find from the past. In the practice of women's history in the United States and Western Europe today, the very word "feminist" is hotly debated, and these debates tell us as much about disagreements concerning present-day politics as they do about the past.

The US historian Nancy Cott has suggested that we resolve these disagreements by using the word only for those women who used it for themselves. (9) In the United States, it was not until the late 1910s that some women began to call themselves feminists, just as women were about to obtain voting rights. However, following the success of the suffrage campaign and throughout the period from the 1920s to the early 1960s those calling themselves feminists remained few in number, and both their advocacy and identity separated them from the majority of their former suffrage allies. Their distinctiveness was both in their view of the nature of womanhood and their support for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. In their view, gender equality presumed a fundamental sameness; to them, womanhood--and indeed manhood--was socially (not naturally) shaped. (10) Their advocacy for the ERA was arguably of even greater significance in narrowing their number, for this positioned them against those who favored retaining separate laws to regulate the conditions of work for women differently than for men. Significantly, a much larger number of former suffrage advocates distanced themselves from an ERA, advocating instead for the importance to women workers of so-called protective legislation. At the same time, other former suffrage advocates had their own reasons for denying the "feminism" label. For example, as Cott notes, the greatest number of professional women sought to develop a gender-neutral identification within their career, and political activists--especially those with liberal or socialist leanings--came to doubt the continuing utility of autonomous woman-focused advocacy. (11) Thus, throughout the period from 1920 to the early 1960s, women activists for women's development were divided both in their abstract theoretical views on the nature of womanhood and in the practical application of their views (especially on protective labor legislation). Only the small group among women activists who called themselves feminists advocated for equal treatment for women and men workers, espoused a view of womanhood emphasizing its social construction, and continued to hold onto the necessity of an autonomous woman-focused movement. In other words, in the United States, from the 1920s through the 1950s, "feminism" had a very specific meaning that encompassed only one small group among a much larger group that today we would consider, at the very least, advocates for women's development.

But this had not always been the case. A different understanding of the meaning of the term "feminism" emerges when we trace it back to its earliest usage, outside the United States. The word seems to have been invented in the 1880s in France simply by joining the word for woman--in French, femme--with "ism" (the suffix that identifies a political position). Were we to follow Nancy Cott's suggestion that we pay attention to self-naming in defining feminists, we would not call anyone a "feminist" before the 1880s, and after that, we would use the term for a much broader group of activists than those women advocates in the United States in the 1920s. Already in the 1890s in France, activists and writers--sympathizers and opponents alike--had identified a proliferation of feminisms. Both Marya Cheliga (a sympathizer) and Charles Turgeon (an opponent), writing in the 1890s, labeled feminist groupings according to their affinity to political groupings in the French Chamber of Deputies: radicals and socialist-radicals whom Cheliga elsewhere labeled "revolutionaries who would overturn society"; moderates, namely the French League for the Rights of Women; opportunists (the name of one of several Republican factions); and even right-wing women's groups that Cheliga and Turgeon called Christian feminists and royalist feminists. (12)

Nor did these writers think of feminism as something new in France. Cheliga, for example, insisted that "the feminist movement, without being designated by that title, is evident across all epochs.... The program of Proxagora, repeated by Aristophanes, in ancient Greece, differs in no way from that of today's militants." The most prolific historian of French feminism, Leon Abensour, held that feminism first appeared in the Middle Ages.

What then did writers such as Cheliga, Absensour, and Turgeon mean by "feminism"? Cheliga defined feminists, quite broadly, as those "who defended the cause of women." Abensour's feminists believed in the "moral and spiritual equality" of the sexes (naming the Waldensians and Albigensians--medieval Catholic heretics--as feminists) and in their "natural equality" (naming the fourteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan a feminist), or in their "intellectual equality" (naming the sixteenth-century queen Catherine de Medici a feminist). Turgeon's definition was also broad and included all people of a feminist "sensibility"--men "who abdicated their masculine prerogatives" and women "who disparaged male supremacy, although they might neither preach nor make proclamations." The intent, at least for Cheliga and Abensour, both feminist sympathizers, was to allay whatever fears feminism had aroused among a general public by stressing that feminism had deep roots reaching far back in time and linking it with thinkers who were respected among the general French public. For example, they frequently quoted the celebrated phrase of the revered Victor Hugo that "the eighteenth century proclaimed the Rights of Man; the nineteenth century will proclaim the Rights of Woman." In contrast, Turgeon, who was occasionally hostile to the feminism he was describing and always kept his distance, viewed "the thing, feminism," as foreign, "originating in America."

There were deep splits among late nineteenth-century French feminists. Some advocated socialist revolution, a few advocated restoration of the monarchy, and most were deeply loyal to France's still-new republican government. Some were Catholics or Protestants; some, calling themselves "spiritualists," looked to pre-Christian religious traditions; most were fiercely secular, though, viewing the Judeo-Christian tradition and especially the Catholic Church's hierarchy as the source of male power while also dismissing other religions. Class and especially class prejudice also divided feminists. Women calling themselves feminists discussed endlessly and disagreed profoundly about the meaning of equality, the relationship of femininity to feminism, and the role of maternity and waged work in the lives of emancipated women. As in the United States, there was also deeply divided opinion about sex-specific legislation concerning factory work. Feminists differed over strategy and priorities, especially over the use of civil disobedience, the strategic importance of the vote, and married women's property rights. But they did not deny that their opponents were feminists if that was what they called themselves.

Narrowing the usage of the term "feminist" and constricting its meaning did not happen until the twentieth century. In Europe, where the use of the term was being picked up by more and more women engaged in a variety of activities to foster women's development decades before the word was used in the United States, women leaders in the socialist organization Second International called attention to the specificity of their program by referring to their emancipatory program simply as "socialism" and other programs, disparagingly, as "bourgeois feminism." In this period, however--the first decade of the twentieth century--the distinction socialist women were making was based not on a different view of womanhood nor on the goal of sex equality (which both groups shared) but rather on their view that a social revolution and a transformation of economic structures were absolutely required for women's emancipation. (13)

It is interesting for us today to reflect on the broad usage of the term "feminist" in the late nineteenth century and the narrowing of its usage in the early twentieth century, because this history might tell us something about the present. In recent decades in the United States, we have witnessed, first, a recuperation of the word "feminist" (for many whose knowledge of women's history was limited, it seemed like a newly invented word). We then watched as the term became very widely used among all those engaged in an increasingly popular agenda for women's development. But at some point in the 1980s, and increasingly so in the 1990s, we once again witnessed the narrowing of the term's usage. What explains this? Does it prove a lessening of commitment to gender equality? Is it simply a matter of semantics--a desire to change the name but not the commitment to equality? What do people who continue to call themselves "feminists" mean when they apply the term to themselves? What do people who disparage the term intend to disparage? To examine these questions, we should look at feminism's most recent history, from the 1970s to the present.

The recuperation of the word "feminist" for activities on behalf of women's development happened in the West in the 1970s, a full decade at least after the reemergence of a visible and effective movement for women's equality and development. Following the election of the progressive Democrat John Kennedy in 1960, women who had ties to his administration and to members of the Democratic Congress were able to use their influence to advance women's development. They focused on employment and education, and (not surprisingly, given that their influence was based on their ties to government leaders) their strategy was to press for new laws in these areas. And they were successful: a 1963 law insisted that women be paid the same as men when they worked in the same jobs; a 1964 law stated that all employment must be open to women and men alike; and a 1972 law made unequal treatment of women and men in education illegal.

At the same time, a different group of women, younger (many were only students in universities) and not yet established in professional careers, were also beginning to agitate for women's development. This group's politics, however, were to the left of the Democrats in power. Like the earliest nineteenth-century voting-rights advocates, they came to political consciousness in male-led emancipatory movements. In the 1960s, these were the civil rights movement for equal rights for Black people and the movement against the United States war in Vietnam. And like nineteenth-century voting-rights advocates, they came to an awareness of women's oppression both because of the emancipatory rhetoric of these other movements, but also because they found themselves disparaged--even in these progressive movements--simply because they were women.

At first, these women named themselves--in the language of international, anticolonial struggles--the Women's Liberation Movement. And they organized quite differently from the ways that the women with connections to the Democratic Party leadership had organized--in informal and small groups where consciousness raising was a central activity. Most importantly, they turned their attention to a host of questions that were not likely to be addressed simply by passing laws: questions concerning the private relationships between women and men. "The personal is political" was the slogan that best summed up their politics. Their goal was to point out that the questions that Western governments traditionally refused to address--questions, according to these governments, that were "private" matters (such as violence against women in families)--were the very basis of male power.

It was the women of the Women's Liberation Movement who first reclaimed the term "feminist" for their politics: perhaps because the name "Women's Liberation Movement" was unwieldy; perhaps also because the name identified them with other radical liberatory movements--including the Chinese Cultural Revolution--and they recognized that the majority of US women were unlikely to use those words for themselves; and perhaps, too, because the first books in the renewed practice of women's history had recovered women's earlier struggles and had named these struggles "feminism." (14) By the 1970s, the new women's studies scholarship may have encouraged their desire to connect to a historical tradition that was widely acceptable. (Who, after all, in the 1970s, still thought it was wrong that women had the right to vote alongside men?)

However it happened, though, by the mid-1970s US women advocating women's equality--whether they were closely connected to the liberals in the Democratic Party or were aligned with more left-wing groups, whether they advocated a legal strategy or were organizing in small consciousness-raising groups, or whether they focused on education and work or on sharing housework and child rearing with men--had all come to agree on the term "feminist" for their work. This was the moment in history when use of the term "feminist" was perhaps the most widespread and seemed acceptable to the largest group of advocates for women's equality, even though their views often differed sharply.

Feminism, so broadly accepted, was a term, then, that encompassed many different views about womanhood and many different strategies. Some people identified the differences among feminists by speaking of "liberal feminists," "socialist feminists," "radical feminists," "cultural feminists," "spiritual feminists," "lesbian separatist feminists," "Black feminists," "multicultural feminists," "Christian feminists," "Jewish feminists," and more. In their strategies, some feminists gave priority to sexuality or issues of reproduction; some gave priority to work-related issues; some called for a socialist revolution; some defended capitalism, but noted that reforms were necessary to include women in capitalism's benefits; some stressed the necessity for a new psychology of women if women were to empower themselves; and some stressed that state and economic structures had to change. On the theoretical level, some believed that women had been socialized differently from men and in ways that disempowered them. Some stressed that women were naturally different from and perhaps even superior to men, especially in their capacity for interpersonal relationships.

The gains for women during this period when feminism was so broadly construed were enormous. Laws intended to equalize work opportunities were not only passed, but were supervised by government administrations to assure that they were implemented. Laws equalized women's access to bank credit and their right to own and control property and earnings. Laws also guaranteed women's equal access to higher education, and for the first time in US history, women entered universities in numbers equal to men. Problems that had never been identified as problems before were now named: the double standard that punished women for sexual behavior that was approved of for men was challenged; rape was identified as a crime of violence by men against women, no longer as deserved behavior for women's sinful ways; wife battering was identified as a crime against women, no longer as a husband's prerogative; women's "double day" as wage worker and home worker was challenged and men learned that they, too, could cook and clean and care for children alongside their wives who now worked as many hours outside the home as men did. It was no longer considered appropriate to represent women as stupid or clumsy or as existing solely to satisfy men's sexual needs on television and in other forms of media. Women writers, women's experiences in history, and women's social issues became respected topics for academic research.

Women who learned to proudly name themselves feminists in the 1970s are quick to point out that all of these successes are partial and that our goals have not yet been met. Worse, there are new problems emerging out of the social revolution of the sexes. For example, with most women now fully employed in the waged workforce, the lack of government assistance for childcare has become a truly acute problem in the United States. Also, nearly three decades of legislation favoring corporate interests over workers' interests has resulted in an absolute decline in the standard of living of very poor Americans--women and men alike. The gains for women, in other words, are increasingly leaving behind poor women. Moreover, the gains for women in education are happening at the same time that government funds for education have been cut back so that schooling for women and men alike is worsening. In other words, the transformation of women's lives since the mid-1960s has been enormous, but it is neither complete nor all encompassing.

That brings us to the present moment when, as I said above, the use of the term "feminism" in the United States is narrowing once again. Since the 1990s, my undergraduate students in the university have, for the most part, ceased to call themselves feminists. This always surprises me because they have not disavowed feminist views, only the name that is given to these views. For example, when I would ask them if they believe that women and men should be treated equally in the law, they would overwhelmingly answer affirmatively. If I were to ask them if women should have an equal chance to be educated, they would all respond "yes." I could push them for more detail by asking if they believe that women should be limited to only five percent of any class of medical students (as used to be the case before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 made this illegal), they would cry out against what they considered a grave injustice. They would respond in similar outrage to the suggestion that women should be ineligible for scholarships or even that parents might expect their daughters to leave school for work at age eighteen so that they, the daughters, could pay for their brothers to attend university (as happened with my mother and most of her women friends). If I asked if they wished to prepare themselves for professional careers, they would answer "yes." And I know that they would find it unacceptable if a potential employer told them he only hired men for management-level positions or if the employer had two separate pay scales for the same jobs--one for men, the other for women.

These gains are, of course, what women calling themselves "feminists" struggled to obtain. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many people who were not feminists, who did not wish women to have equal rights, and who opposed the changes noted above. My students would not agree with these opponents. So why was their naming different from mine? What do they think that a "feminist" is that they are not?

In questioning them I have found that there are many different answers to this question--sometimes different for each one of my students. Some of them are unaware of the meanings I assign to the term "feminism," and they have little understanding of the history of women's advances. Rather, they reject the distorted version of feminism that has grown increasingly common on television shows and in movies. In these depictions, feminists--or oftentimes simply strong and proud women--are more and more represented as evil (sometimes even murderers), unfeeling, or "losers" who are never able to find personal happiness. (15) Rarely are feminists presented as just ordinary women, as ordinary as I am, for example. Many of my students are convinced by media representations of what feminism is and have actually come to believe that the caricature is true. Who then can blame them for their desire to distance themselves from these portrayals of mean, crazy, or ridiculous women? Unfortunately, feminists do not control the major corporations who, in turn, control the media.

Others of my students, however, know that feminists are actually pretty ordinary women, as ordinary as I am--and as their mothers are. For them, feminism is old fashioned, appropriate maybe for the 1970s, but not for young women today. They wish to invent something original--different from what their mothers have already invented. For them, feminist struggles against rape and representations of women as sexual objects make us seem as old fashioned as our grandmothers probably seemed to me and my friends. Some of these students are my most radical students, but they have also often associated feminism with racism and prejudice. There is a literature, of course, by antiracists that critiques feminism's historical insensitivity to issues of race that would prove the point. Many of these same students call themselves "womanist," adopting the term Alice Walker invented to convey the special power and perspectives of Black women. But these students are not always aware of scholarship that also names as "feminist" the activities of Black women and other women of color, both in the nineteenth century and from the 1960s to the present day (for example, histories by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Carla Peterson and the anthology Words of Fire edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall). (16) The 2001 anthology of writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, Dear Sisters, collected by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, is especially rich in material documenting the feminist activities of Black radical women in the 1960s and 1970s. (17) These students are often even unaware that Alice Walker, in describing her "womanist" woman, defined her as a "feminist," seeking to adjoin feminism to a feisty tradition of Black female rebelliousness rather than to oppose it. (18)

Finally, in discussing this issue with my students, I have discovered another reason that they dissociate themselves from feminism-their alienation from politics, of any kind, but especially progressive politics. Even those students who are progressive--and vote that way--disdain political activism. One may have reason to hope that with the birth of the Occupy Movement, this may now be changing, but it is not yet certain that this movement will endure any longer than the antiglobalization movement of fifteen years ago. Nor is it certain that the activities of this past year's reenergized student-led movement has ennobled politics for those who look on but don't participate themselves. Despite the changes in the media landscape and people's increased involvement in social networks, there remain disturbingly few spaces that do not disparage feminists and feminism, or indeed--think of this--all collective, progressive, activist politics. When did this start? When did films, for example, move from the nostalgia of the 1983 film The Big Chill, which ennobled radical activism, to its denigration? The move was surely complete by the time of the release in 1994 of the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump, which depicted the antiwar activists as the violent ones, even physically abusing their girlfriends. Forrest Gump and his army buddies represented all that was good. They--not the antiwar activists--represented peace and calm: only they valued friendship and love.

Many of the goals of 1960s activists, watered down of course, have been absorbed by US culture, but the activists who brought us those changes have been demonized. My students are good and caring people, and I applaud their values and sentiments: they prove it by the immense amount of energy they give to community service work. But having been told, over and over, that progressive political activists are drug addicts, sex maniacs, and/or abusers and that they disdain the bonds of friendships and intimacy, many of my students are motivated to distance themselves from those who directly challenge the powerful, entrenched political establishment.

Does any of this matter? If my students agree with feminist values, does it matter that they disavow the name? Perhaps you might think not: what, after all, is in a name? But I look back on feminism's history and women's history and find that the periods in which our gains were most striking were when we used the word "feminism" most broadly, imbuing it with multiple meanings, and thereby created the largest sense of belonging, a shared aspiration for women's empowerment. During the periods when the meaning and usage of feminism narrowed, we became suspicious of those who spoke for women's equality but argued for different strategies from ours. The result was never more perfect strategies; rather, it was diminished energy. We turned against each other instead of turning against the forces oppressing women.

Over the past several years, I have been discussing this issue with different audiences, particularly in other countries. This question has become an important one, especially since the 1985 and 1995 United Nations world conferences on women, in Nairobi and in Beijing respectively. At those conferences, I met women from all over the world who are joined together by the shared desire to better women's condition, although their priorities and strategies may differ. They are struggling right now with just this question. In their countries, also, "feminism" and "feminists" have been disparaged. Feminism is viewed as another form of cultural imperialism whose associations with the capitalist and imperialist West make it virtually useless in the analysis of women's experiences outside of the United States and Europe. It is caricatured as a movement that makes all men the enemy in a sexual and political struggle, forcing women (always) to choose between the struggle for women's equality and national liberation movements or socialism. This is in spite of the fact that feminist history has most often been one of coalition with movements of national liberation, with socialism, with antiracist struggles--and with men as leaders of these movements. White feminists raised in capitalist societies have taken their feminism to Black struggles in Africa; Japanese women have protested "sex tours" to Korea because the practice is symbolic of the sexism of the two societies, as well as of a continuing imperialist relationship to which women are often held hostage.

Feminism's history is ignored: it is thought to be a recent phenomenon, rooted in Western society only. Yet historians in recent decades have shown that feminism was not imposed by the West on Asian, African, and Middle Eastern women, but rather that historical circumstances produced important material and ideological changes that propelled women's activism in these countries too, even though the impact of imperialism and Western thought was admittedly among the significant elements in these historical circumstances. (19) Debates on women's rights and education were held in eighteenth-century China, and there were movements for women's social emancipation in early nineteenth-century India, in late nineteenth-century Egypt, and in 1920s Japan. The fact that such movements for emancipation and feminism flourished in so many non-European countries during this period has been largely hidden from history.

Again I ask: does it matter how we name ourselves? After all, the struggle for women's equality could continue by a multitude of other names. I'd like to suggest it does matter. It matters because our history matters. It matters because those who distort our history are not motivated by a concern for women's equality. It matters because, in this increasingly globalized world, women are strengthened by also belonging to a global movement and reflecting their commitment to a global movement in their naming. It matters, in other words, for us to believe ourselves joined in a common vision of women's empowerment.

But for this vision of an international women's movement to be achieved, we must learn these lessons from the history of feminism: that "feminism" has had different meanings to different people in different times and places; that we must allow these different meanings to emerge to address the needs and priorities of women in their context; that feminism can never define sexism as the only oppressive force in women's lives. Since such things as class relations, structural poverty, illiteracy, hunger, racism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism figure prominently in the oppression of women, feminism must be inclusive, flexible, and willing to accept contradiction. But if we learn these lessons, the benefits will be great. However our strategies, our priorities, our views might differ, we shall know that we are joined in support of each other, in support of women, and in support of women's empowerment.


There can be no mistaking that this article is a defense of both feminism and the study of history--both of which often come under attack from people with whom I would otherwise believe myself in alliance. I wrote the first version at a time when I was traveling frequently outside the United States to attend both the United Nations conferences on women and a number of international women's studies or women's history academic conferences In many of these settings, the West was presented as the bearer of a hegemonic ideology at odds with the needs and interest of peoples elsewhere. In the context of these conferences, "feminism" was often included as just one more of these hegemonic ideologies--no more than an imperialist mission with little or nothing to offer women from countries identifying themselves as Third World, or postcolonial, or of the Global South.

At the same time, feminism was under attack in the United States for its presumed racism and/or classism. I found this criticism compelling and was influenced by this to think differently about the ways I had understood the oppression of women and many of our academic practices. (20) But at the same time, I also rebelled against some aspects of this criticism. Was my resistance merely defensive? After all, I had committed myself to feminism with the fervor that some experience with religion. Feminism is not only a belief system, a politics, but also the content of my intellectual work as a historian of feminist movements. Nor were the criticisms launched only at "feminism" under attack as well was the study and writing of history. If, after all, feminism in the past was classist and racist, why devote time to its study? What lessons would such a history have for us in our moment in time? Indeed, if the history of feminism is tainted, is it even possible to teach an intellectual history course on feminism without reinscribing its racism, classism, and imperialism? (21)

Perhaps it was my desire to defend my personal commitments, perhaps it was the intellectual opening provided by postmodernism and its analysis of "histories" as constructed narratives of the past rather than revelations of the past, that led me to reconsider the failings of "feminism" in the particular way I have clone here. There was never any question in my mind that there were women activists in the past and present whose views were inflected with unexamined assumptions of racism or classism or imperialism. But my own historical writing--beginning with my earliest work on Saint-Simonian working-class women--had introduced me to activists who were neither privileged themselves nor advocates of a politics of privilege. (22) Moreover, I had taken to heart the argument advanced by Feminist Studies editor Rosalind Terborg-Penn who, already in 1978, had written about racist practices of late nineteenth-century white suffragists, but took her argument a significant step further, railing against feminist historians of the late twentieth century for ignoring the fact that Black women were suffragists too and for not recognizing that by the same standard that historians would label Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony feminists, Black women suffragists were also. (23) In other words, although some feminists may, of course, have been (and some today may still be) racist (by commission or omission), our histories can reinforce that racism (or classism or imperialism) when we center only these feminists and ignore the work of others.

Embedded in my work are two arguments: that adopting a common identification for our emancipatory gender politics has strategic value and that teaching the history of feminism is an important political act. Both arguments, however, require that we understand the constructedness of words and meanings. Of course, to adopt the name "feminism" for our politics is not in and of itself a necessity: emancipatory gender politics was undertaken for at least a hundred years without that name; but by the late twentieth century, it is this word that has become recognized around the world--in part because of the United Nations conferences--and the question of adopting this particular word is less at issue than the underlying question of whether a common identification is possible or useful, to which I respond affirmatively. The study and teaching of the history of feminism is important as well, for our contemporary politics carry meanings transmitted to us from the past. But here, too, it is the constructions of history as historical narratives that must become the subject of our research: the questions of who we include and who we exclude and the paths that we trace from a past to the present are not answered simply by collecting facts in archives--although archival work is important--but rather by our current political commitments. This is the "lesson" of the past: that its meanings lie in the politics of the present.


(1.) My reference to the West in this article reflected, specifically, that the lecture was originally presented in China (and thereafter in Korea) where an East/West divide is a common point of reference.

(2.) On feminism in France, see my French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: SUNY Press, 1984); and Claire Goldberg Moses and Leslie Wahl Rabine, Feminism, Socialism, and French Romanticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). For feminism in the United States, see Claire Goldberg Moses and Heidi Hartmann, eds., U.S. Women in Struggle: A Feminist Studies Anthology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). On the political stakes of "naming" feminisms, see especially Claire Goldberg Moses, "Debating the Present/Writing the Past: 'Feminism' in French History and Historiography," Radical History Review 52 (Winter 1992): 79 94; and "Made in America: 'French Feminism' in Academia," Feminist Studies 24, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 241 74.

(3.) My comments here on the nature of women's activism draw on the preface to Moses and Hartmann, U.S. Women in Struggle. Although this limits my discussion to articles previously published in Feminist Studies that explored collective forms of activism within the United States, the articles do cover topics that are impressive in breadth and reach and also invite speculation about the gendered nature of the aims and strategies of the various collectivist actions. Although Hartmann and I carefully avoided labeling some, or all, as "feminist," I'm certain that gathering those articles together inspired me to consider which of them would fall under that label, and why.

(4.) See especially Kathleen M. Blee, "Women in the 1920s' Ku Klux Klan Movement," Feminist Studies 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 57-77; and Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).

(5.) See especially Amy Swerdlow, "Ladies Day at the Capitol: Women Strike for Peace versus HUAC," Feminist Studies 8, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 453-520; and Estelle Freedman, "Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870 1930," Feminist Studies 5, no. 3 (Fall 1979): 513 29; both are reprinted in Moses and Hartmann, U.S. Women in Struggle.

(6.) See especially Blee, "Women in the 1920s' Ku Klux Klan Movement"; and Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland.

(7.) An example of this construction of history is the anthology, edited by Miriam Schneir, Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (New York: Random House, 1972). For many years, this anthology served to teach students what was the so-called First Wave, and therefore it is an important historical document. I believe it is crucial that students of feminism understand the origin of our "knowledge" of feminism's history and recognize the limited sources upon which this "knowledge" is based. In Schneir's case, the source was primarily Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mathilda Gage's The History of Woman Suffrage--a source that constructed a history that placed Stanton and Anthony at the center of that history and limited the range of feminist activities and writings to those written by them or presented in their presence. Although most present-day faculty would shun an anthology such as Schneir's as both out of date and racist, I consider it an important historical artifact in and of itself and especially useful as a starting point to discuss the concept of "constructions of historical narratives." Interestingly, Schneir also included a few documents written by famous nineteenth-century European (mostly male) socialists--thereby presenting a narrative of a historical feminism that united socialists with in the lingo of early twentieth-century socialists-- "bourgeois feminists." Given Schneir's leftist background, and that of so many other radical feminist women in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this narrative presented a history that met our then needs, indicating the interplay of present-day politics with historical constructions.

(8.) In a course I taught for several years before retiring, Feminist Theories and Women's Movements: Genealogies, I assign selections from Sally Wagner, The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Essays (Aberdeen, SD: Sky Carrier Press, 1996).

(9.) Nancy Cott, "What's in a Name? The Limits of 'Social Feminism'; or, Expanding the Vocabulary of Women's History," Journal of American History 76 (December 1989): 821. In this article, Cott is challenging Daniel Scott Smith's use of "domestic feminism" and William O'Neill's "social feminism." Although my own characterization of feminism in 1989 actually matched Cott's, my point in this article is to show how we (both Cott and I, but also Smith and O'Neill) will define feminism in ways that construct our present-day politics. Thus, my purpose differs from Cott's. Her interest is in defining "feminism" very carefully; mine is in thinking about why different historians have constructed different "feminisms" and the uses that these different definitions have served.

(10.) For instance, anthropologist Margaret Mead's work among different peoples in New Guinea points out the great variety of women's and men's roles. Mead's work was typical some would say "defining"--of a sociological approach to gender.

(11.) Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) is a deeply researched account of the shifts in the socio-economic context of the inter-war decades in US history during which time women identifying themselves as feminists were rare. Her nuanced study covers the important issues I've mentioned here: the splits around protective legislation, the development of a professional class of career women, and especially the loss of a political sentiment that she identifies--quoting Simone de Beauvoir--as the "we" of women (5).

(12.) The French definitions of "feminism" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are drawn from my Radical History Review article "Debating the Present, Writing the Past." In that article, my argument that feminism is constructed when writing out histories focuses on the place of "feminism" in the equality/difference debates extending over the course of a century. See pp. 81-82 for the quotations that I repeat here.

(13.) Two useful discussions of the so-called socialist/feminist split in the twentieth century are Lilian Kandel and Francoise Picq, "Le Mythe des Origins a propos de la Journee Internationale des Femmes," La Revue d'En Face, no. 12 (Fall 1982): 67 80; and Temma Kaplan, "On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day," Feminist Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 163 71.

(14.) In the 1960s--with the renewal of interest in women's equality and civil rights--a number of high quality books on the nineteenth-century movement were published, among which were Eleanor Flexner, A Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Atheneum, 1968); and Aileen Kraditor, Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890- 1920 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). Note, however, that neither used the term "feminism" for the movement. Only with the emergence of the women's liberation movement is the link made back to feminism. Several books that connected the women's movement of the nineteenth century to feminism and popularized this relationship as they became widely used in women's studies classrooms were William O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (New York: Quadrangle, 1969); and in 1973, two published anthologies, Miriam Schneir's Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings; and Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973). Also important was Ellen Carol Dubois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

(15.) Popular culture representations of feminists may always have been ambivalent, but I'm thinking here about a particularly sharp shift that I saw occurring in the late 1980s with films such as Fatal Attraction, starring Glenn Close ("liberated woman" and murderer), and Broadcast News, with Holly Hunter ("liberated woman," condemned to loneliness).

(16.) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Carla Peterson, "Doers of the Word": African-American Woman Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830- 1880 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995); and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: New Press, 1995).

(17.) Rosalind Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

(18.) See the first of Alice Walker's four-part definition for "womanist": "A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, 'You acting womanish,' i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior." Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1983), xi.

(19.) For example, see Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), for her response to the "tendency to cast feminism as an aping of 'Westernized' political agendas." Narayan argues instead that "for many Third World feminists, our feminist consciousness is not a hot-house bloom grown in the alien atmosphere of 'foreign' ideas, but has its roots much closer to home"(6).

(20.) bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), was especially important to me at this time, for example, leading me to rethink the ways in which I deployed a seemingly innocuous term such as "equality" or the way I expressed a politics of "housework." (I had at the time a women's liberation poster of a woman holding a broken broom under the heading of "Fuck Housework" proudly on view in my kitchen!) My colleague Bonnie Thornton Dill also compelled us editors of Feminist Studies to consider how our practices excluded the scholarship of women of color in her excellent article "Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood," Feminist Studies 9, no. l (Spring 1983): 131-50.

(21.) This is the position of Amy Brandzel in her recent "Haunted by Citizenship: Whitenormative Citizen-Subjects and the Uses of History in Women's Studies," Feminist Studies 37, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 503-33. She writes, "the recurring demand that women's studies students learn the intellectual history (or 'foundations' of feminism) surreptitiously returns the discipline to the whitenormative citizen-woman as the subject and center of women's studies" (505).

(22.) The question of the Saint-Simonian women opens up another question concerning how our histories of feminism are typically constructed. These working-class women, responding to the liberatory language and restrictive practice experienced within a theoretically egalitarian but still male-dominated--movement, established women-only meetings and published books, articles, and a newspaper in which they developed a politics beyond anything Saint-Simonian men had imagined a politics that viewed women's oppression at the nexus of the nuclear family, private property, inheritance, and sexual repression--and wrote about this fifty years before Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. And yet, in US-published anthologies of socialist feminist historical materials, it is Engels (and sometimes Marx, which makes even less sense) who is credited as foundational to socialist feminism. I no longer believe that this is a question simply of "bad history"; rather, I insist that we must ask why. What stakes are involved in tracing our history to Marx's primary collaborator?. What might we understand about feminism if we understood the role of working-class women as foundational instead? Do we fear the loss of authority for our politics?

(23.) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "Discrimination against Afro-American Women in the Woman's Movement, 1830-1920," in The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images, ed. Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1978), 300-15.
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Author:Moses, Claire Goldberg
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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