Journal of Women’s History

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The inaugural issue of the Journal of Women’s History contained a roundtable,  “Women’s Culture and Women’s Power: An Attempt at Historiography,” That addressed, from a European perspective, many of the unresolved academic questions from the earlier Feminist Studies symposium on women’s culture.[1]

Cécile Dauphin, Anette Farge, Geneviève Fraisse, Christiane Klapische-Zuber, Rose-Marie Lagrave, Michelle Perrot, Pierrette Pfzerat, Yannick Ripa, Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, Danièle Voldman, and Camille Garnier sketched out a historiography of the concept of women’s culture  focused even more closely on its relation to a search for female empowerment.  “Naming, identifying, and evaluating women’s presence in places, situations, and roles which are theirs,” a working definition of women’s culture, was driven by and simultaneously produced a sense of “agency” for women in the past.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If women have their own view of the sens social, if they are allowed practices meant to help the whole community from birth to death, they obviously have ‘some’ power.  And such power should change the direction of the general debate, and open up new ways of interpretation” about the past (66-67).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The essay argues that  new ways of interpretation have failed.   In emphasizing women’s agency in the past, historians may have unintentionally lessened an emphasis on the restrictions under patriarchy.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “However, this emphasis on female powers is fraught with danger … To realize that women possess powers in terms of culture can lead to the espousal of an appeasing attitude, and to the juxtaposition of both pluralistic and complementary cultures, while forgetting that relationships between the sexes are fraught with violence and inequality”(67).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The authors call for a returned focus to the “contradictions” and “paradoxes” of gendered power relations as a way of circumventing the increasingly Whiggish interpretation of women’s history, “that women’s history is one of steady improvement” (85).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 A variety of scholars in the United States were invited to respond to the piece.  What is so interesting is the way in which they ignored the questions raised by the French Historians and instead replicated the conversation that took place in Feminist Studies circa 1980. What is women’s culture?  What is power?  How do the two relate to one another?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Hilda Smith asks

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Can one demonstrate that such a thing as a “women’s culture” has existed? If it has, should one view such a phenomenon in a negative or positive light, or simply as one aspect of women’s past that requires description and analysis? … Does focusing on women’s culture limit our interest in women’s relationships with men and male-dominated institutions? If so, does that inhibit our ability to understand the influence of male power in all aspects of women’s lives? Are there values inherent in being female, or do they evolve out of the separate lives and institutions that women and men have experienced? Finally, does concentration on “feminine” values lead us to ignore questions of power? (97)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Nell Painter warned against the temptation to “adopt uncritically any analysis that ignore fundamental themes that have shaped both the experiences and understandings of experiences of Americans of all classes and races”(95) recalling Temma Kaplan’s caution to not lose focus on class.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Lois Banner even invoked the 1980 article.  While sympathetic to the arguments of the French historians, Banner shares Dubois’ fear that “depoliticization” my have resulted as “the rush … to posit  a model of sisterly comradership and to give women the position of historical agency” (104).  She ends her article, fittingly with Cott, who set off much of the debate about women’s culture in the early 1970s. Banner argues that Cott, in the book that followed Root of Bitterness, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, locates the failure of the first wave of feminism in their inability to create “a unified concept of  ‘women’” and the belief that “equality” has been achieved.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Women’s culture provides a way out of both impasses by focusing on that which women are said to have in common and by granting women agency if not equal power. As with the Feminist Studies roundtable, prescriptions for the contemporary women’s movement underlay most of the U.S. historians’ arguments.  Banner’s invocation of Cott reflects the tensions within the contemporary movement between recognizing the diversity of women while retaining enough of a common bond to facilitate a social movement.  The failure to find away around this impasse had become a major problem for feminist activists by the end of the 1980s and was in part responsible for the fragmentation of the movement.  However, just as the achievement of suffrage removed the unifying goal for early 20th century, activists, as the early demands for abortion and greater rights seemed to have been achieved, despite the failure of the ERA, the visible and unified women’s movement fragmented into what Banner describes “a ‘post feminist’ era.”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The original title of the French historians piece was “Culture et Pouvoir des Femmes: Essai d’Historigraphie.” If pouvoir had been translated as a verb “ability to” rather than the noun power, a very different sort of discussion might have emerged, one that centered more on what the original authors meant, historical agency, the ability of an individual to act, rather than power, which in the States at least is very bound up with power over rather than power to.  Power to is the meaning behind the feminist slogan the personal is political and sisterhood is powerful.  “Power to” reach one’s own definition of self. If history is the power to define ourselves, by claiming a specific past, than excursions into the cultural terrain of history making are anything but a retreat from power relations. In all of these ways, retrieving, reclaiming, and recreating the past, which offered a new subjectivity, used conflicting accounts of the past, and highlighted personal accounts, art activists in Los Angeles created a women’s culture that allowed them to relate to the environment in new ways.  An understanding of these mechanisms, as well as the role of history in the women’s movement, offers a new way of thinking about the relationship of culture, feminism, and history that does not rely on a bifurcated notion of culture versus power, but sees the two as inter-related.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Regrettably, a 2003 assessment of “the state of U.S. Women’s History” in the Journal of Women’s History, which reassembled some of the same participants in the 1980 Feminist Studies roundtable, also failed to rethink in any radical way the ideas of politics and that of culture. Dubois and Lerner were joined this time by Nancy Cott,  Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Nancy Hewitt, Cott was one of the first historians to document women’s culture,  Hewitt both utilized the concept in her work but also authored and important cautionary article of the trope of “sisterhood.”   Sklar’s initial work on Hull house drew on the concept of women’s culture.  Despite a discussion that centered on “women’s political culture” rather than women’s culture, the foundational approach, that such as thing as politics could be distinguished from that thing known as culture, remained.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Gerda Lerner’s review of recent women’s history lead her to conclude that too much focus had become “cultural.”  No longer broadly construed, culture here stood for the aesthetic outputs of a society.  She notes that the largest, and increasing, concentrations were in biography, literature, and representation.  These things apparently stand apart from the world of politics or power as Lerner worries that “women’s agency and community work and organized activities and political struggles of the past are no longer of interest” to young historians.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Sklar more optimistically notes that much recent women’s history has shown “the informal political venues in which women were represented strongly—salons and receptions—were essential aspects of formal politics during these decades of profound transition in American political culture.” Indeed Sklar herself participated in that transformation, from discussion of women’s culture to that of women’s political culture, which initially seems to pose fewer problems.  However, in this shift, which seems to be one of location rather than focus, political activity remains the same, it simply takes place among and in more diverse locales than previously discussed by historians.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 While Sklar sees works in this vein as ‘blurring the distinctions,” reading closely reveals that at least Dubois is still connecting the “political” to traditional realms, such as “the long, slow parallel process by which the Democratic Party came to terms with and became inviting to women voters” and “the role of women and gender in the rise of the national security state?”  This invocation of foreign affairs and party formation reveals that politics is still narrowly construed as power within the framework of the State.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Despite two decades of sustained discussion, historians’ myriad analyses of women’s culture have not moved much on the relationship of culture to politics and power.  The inability to transcend the terms of debate, culture and politics, rather than culture as political, politics as culture, has led to the dismissal by academics of “cultural” forms of activism.  The result is in one part responsible for the lack of continuity and fragmentation in narrative histories of women because scholars are trapped looking for “real” politics, which seemingly come only in “waves.”

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In a response to the 2003 Journal of Women’s History roundtable, Joan Wallach Scott suggests a radically different way of looking at history and feminism.  Feminism’s History proposed that we think of that “feminism as a restless critical operation, as a movement of desire,” in other words as a process, which then “detaches it from its origins in Enlightenment teleologies and the utopian promise of complete emancipation.”[2] History then need not be a relentless search for empowerment in the past that will free women in the future, but can instead function as a form of critique: “The objects of critique are the forms and manifestations of ideology and power (their underlying truths, their foundational assumptions) and these are as varied and unpredictable as desire’s objects.”[3]

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Using Scott’s approach, it becomes posisble to relate the various kinds of women’s activism that occurred in the 1970s, cultural, liberal, labor, legal as well as the better known radical feminist, rather then ordering them, as historians so love to do, which is after all merely another manifestation of ideology and power.   Desire, as postmodernists have given us to understand, both informs and shapes our deepest ways of thinking, including the historical. The longing for agency, empowerment, for a road map for the future too strongly structures our formulations of the past. This notion of feminist history as a form of desire also fits nicely with Touraine’s idea of art as “desire and language.”  Where better then to look for this sort of feminist history than to the art makers? Viewed within this framework then, the activism of feminist artists ceases to be seen chronological “wrong step,” as the dialectical twin of “politics” or a developmental stage in some Whiggish women’s progress.  Instead it is to argue that culture is politics and politics is culture and both are process not product.

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22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [1] the intervening years saw important contributions to this debate including Hewitt and kerber

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Cecile Dauphin et al., “Women’s Culture and Women’s Power: An Attempt at Historiography , ” Journal of Yfomen ‘s History 1 (Spring 1989): 63-102.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [2] Joan Wallach Scott, Feminism’s History Journal of Women’s History, 16, No. 2 (2004):10-29

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [3] Scott, Feminism’s History, 19.


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