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Feminist Studies Symposium Politics and Culture in Women’s History 1980

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Prompted by the growing influence of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s 1975 article “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” the Feminist Studies symposium offered four perspectives on the uses of women’s culture by historians.[1]    Ellen Dubois, Mari Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan and Gerda Lerner,“all distinguished commentators on the social history of women and/or the history of female political culture” contributed essays that reflected evolving ideas about the “political.”[2]  From Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics to the slogan the personal is political, women’s movement activists expanded the political terrain to encompass social relations under patriarchy.  If politics is construed as a synecdoche for power, then expanding feminism beyond the strictly defined realm of the political opened up whole new arenas for understanding women’s activism in the past and implicitly in the future. Given this broader construction of politics, it is not surprising that the responding scholars had disparate ways of defining feminism and women’s culture, and correspondingly distinct ways of relating them.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As the debate within the Feminist Studies symposium illustrates, historians were grappling with issues of historical causation and formulating alternative ways of understanding how women’s culture could lead to various forms of activism.  As explorations of women’s culture occurred, scholarship revealed that feminism looked different for different women at different points in the past. However, the relationship between culture and power remained unresolved, with only one point of clarity.  Implicitly culture and politics were distinct entities because for the most part historians treated culture as though it were only a thing, the “intellectual and artistic conditions of a society or the (perceived) state of development of those conditions, also the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group (1796, after German Kultur).”[3]  Culture, however, is also a verb, “to refine, improve, or develop (a person, the mind, etc.) by education or training; to cultivate (an art, subject, etc.).”[4]  Not surprisingly, definitional haziness about women’s culture proved the first problem of the roundtable.  Was women’s culture an action or a thing?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Dubois offers a definition of women’s culture that is largely descriptive, “the broad-based commonalities of value, institutions, relationships, and methods of communication focused on domesticity and morality.”[5]   For Buhle women’s culture, “a constituency’s sensibilities” functions as a sort of class-consciousness based on “women’s emerging awareness of themselves.”[6] Kaplan avoids the phrase “women’s culture” for most of her discussion, instead preferring to write in very specific terms about particular groups of women and their ability to shape culture, although she too largely describes women’s culture as though it were a thing: “Women’s culture, like popular or working-class culture, must appear in the context of dominant cultures. Sometimes it is a variation upon the ruling culture. Sometimes it is created from the shards of broken tribal or peasant cultures. Sometimes the alternative culture grows in opposition to the dominant culture.”[7] Only Lerner talks about women’s culture as action “that which women do and the ways in which they do it.”[8]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This disparate construction of culture reveals an additional assumption about women’s culture  — its origins.  The descriptive notion of women’s culture is based on the premise that it is prescribed by men, while the process notion understands women’s culture as a mechanism of women’s agency.   Lernerargues that Dubois conflates women’s sphere, the limitations that men impose on women, with women’s culture, the ways women responded to that condition.  For Buhle and Kaplan, both of whom largely describe women’s culture, the origins of women’s culture are less important than its uses, which then leads to yet another thorny issue, whether women’s culture facilitates access to greater power or agency for women.  Dubois differentiates betweenwomen’s resistance to patriarchy, seen in aspects of women’s culture, and more powerful forms of challenging patriarchy, which she equates with feminism and women’s attempts to gain traditional political power.  She argues “women’s culture itself did not constitute an open and radical break with dominant sexual ideology . . .  Indeed, it was part of the dominant system, sharing most of its assumptions about women and men – separate spheres, women’s domesticity, male dominance.”[9] Buhle dismisses this argument, noting temperance advocates, “destined to remain outside the parameters of feminist history” actually challenged “the concept of male hegemony in all sectors of society” even though they did not claim the label feminist.[10] Kaplan further complicates the discussion by noting that women have different access to avenues of power. While upper class women may have mounted “feminist” attacks on patriarchy in easily discernable “political” movements, less economically privileged women engaged in “female collective action” in order to “assure the survival of groups to which peasant and working-class women belong.”[11]   For Lerner, the political nature of women’s culture depends solely on one’s definition of feminism.[12]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0             With such disparities in the ways the scholars defined women’s culture and the political it is not surprising that they would reach starkly different conclusions about the relationship of the two.  Drawing on her work about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dubois argues that feminism is “a critique of what we are calling women’s culture.”[13]  Women’s culture and feminism existed in a “dialectical relation” to one another, with feminism as political, and women’s culture not.[14] Conversely Buhle’s study of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union “the inheritors of a tenacious women’s culture” leads her to conclude that they “defended that culture outside the home, and thereby pushed thousands of women into political activity,” outlining a seemingly straight linear connection between women’s culture and politics.[15]   Kaplan again interjects a complicating note.  Unlike Dubois and Buhle, who offer a single causal relationship between women’s culture and politics, Kaplan offers examples from various times and places of the ways that “women’s rituals” and “women’s cultural practices” have fostered forms of resistance, rebellion, or impetus to organized female action, while noting that in the European context there exists a developmental relationship between culture and politics.[16]   “Domestic feminism was not so much an alternative as a stage from which some bourgeois women emerged to participate in moral reform movements or socialist struggle.”[17] Only Lerner argues for a relationship that eschews descriptive historical relations, instead arguing that women’s culture motivates agency. “Women’s culture is the ground on which women stand in their resistance to patriarchal dominance.”[18] With the exception of Lerner’s essay, no matter what relationship scholars saw between women’s culture and politics, the assumption was that the two were distinct.  One could lead towards or away from the other, but they were clearly not the same thing.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Underneath all of the debate about the historical women’s culture was a pressing concern with contemporary feminism, which in part explains why the relationship between culture and politics has been so controversial. Dubois took Smith-Rosenberg to task for her description of a women’s culture that existed in isolation, rather than in relation to patriarchy, in other words being insufficiently attentive to relations of power, which “may forestall further inquiry into the system that structured women’s historical activity and shaped their oppression.”[19] The consequences for women’s history of this tendency may be that it becomes “depoliticized and academic in the worst sense of the word.”[20]  Instead, she argues for a “political focus” as a way to keep women’s history connected to “the feminist perspective on contemporary society.”[21]   Buhle notes that current feminists difficulty accepting “values distasteful or disturbing to our generation: motherhood, the home, sentimental sisterhood, and purity” leads to rejection of the contributions of women’s culture.[22] Sheoptimistically argues that while “we will not find feminist role models in the Gilded Age … we may find something ultimately more valuable. … The mediation between the presence of distinct cultural values and their transformation into a political arsenal for the self-advancement of a sex,” which suggests that women’s culture will in the present day result in the death of feminism.[23] Kaplan advocates de-coupling the relationship of culture and politics by focusing on economic power relations, which “illuminates women’s lives in ways that focusing solely on women’s culture or feminism does not.”[24]  Smith-Rosenberg finds Dubois’ fear that “women’s culture” will “lead us to withdraw from the struggle with and against men” unfounded and argues that it is only Dubois’ obfuscation of the terms feminism and women’s culture that allows her to conclude that women’s culture will result in “collaboration with dominant male power system.”[25]


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [1]Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs, 1, No. 1. (1975):1-29.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [2] Judith R. Walkowitz, “Introduction,” Feminist Studies 6, no. 1 (1980):26. What Walkowitz omits is that they were also early members of the women’s liberation movement, with DuBois in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, Kaplan in Bread and Roses (Becoming historians James M. Banner, John R. Gillis), while Buhle was active in socialist feminism in Madison Wisconsin.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [3] “culture, n.”. OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/45746 (accessed December 09, 2010).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [4] “culture, v.”. OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/45747 (accessed December 09, 2010).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [5] Dubois, “Politics and Culture” 29.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [6] Buhle, Politics and Culture ” 38.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [7] Kaplan, “Politics and Culture,” 44

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [8] Lerner, “Politics and Culture,” 52.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [9]Dubois, “Politics and Culture,” 30.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [10] Buhle, “Politics and Culture,” 47.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [11] Kaplan, “Politics and Culture,” 43.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [12] Lerner, “Politics and Culture,” 49.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [13] Dubois, “Politics and Culture,” 30.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [14] Dubois, “Politics and Culture,” 30.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [15] Buhle, “Politics and Culture,” 39.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [16] Kalplan, “Politics and Culture,” 45.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [17] Kaplan, “Politics and Culture,” 46.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [18] Lerner, “Politics and Culture,” 53.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [19] Dubois, “Politics and History,” 31.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [20] Dubois , “Politics and History,” 34.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [21] Dubois, “Politics and History,” 33.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [22] Buhle, “Politics and History,” 39.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [23] Buhle, “Politics and History,” 39.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [24] Kaplan, “Politics and History,” 47.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [25] Lerner, “Politics and History,” 58,59.

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