When Difference became différance

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Moving over from google doc started August 2013

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 While difference now functions largely as a marker of ethnicity and race within feminist discourse, the earliest discussions of difference centered on differences between the sexes, and only then as related to women’s differing identities.  Eventually though difference became différance under an American-made French feminist theory.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The difference among and between various feminists writing in French are elided in the American construction of a “French feminism” to fit their needs.    Claire Moses argues that French feminist theory provided a strategy for academic feminists.   This strategic theorizing served to legitimate feminism in academia when it was under attack as well as distance from charges of racism  However it also meant that American feminists created a version of french feminism that served their needs best.   What is called “French feminism” in the U.S. is better understood as francophone feminism since the central authors are neither french nationals nor in accord with one another.  These Francophone feminists were positioned against an equally constructed monolithic “American” feminism.  [FN Clare moses Made in America: “French Feminism” in Academia by Claire Goldberg Moses explores these same divides but to explore the differences in French v american histories of feminists in france.   I see the US construction as embedded in the historic debates around difference in the US that which they considered to be essentialist in American feminism]

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6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The publication in 1978 of two reports from the field that offered both a guided tour and a from the trenches reporting on feminism in France.  Elaine Marks assumes the position of a sort of academic tour guide to “French Feminisms“ positioned as exotic foreign “American feminists” that requires ideological as well as linguistic translation.  Earlier introductions already established French feminist thought as of “relatively unknown” (SubStance 1976) or juxtaposed “American feminists” and “french feminists” as if monolithic national groups stood in opposition to each other (Jardine on Kristeva Signs 1975).

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8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Marks continues this trope of the “fundamental dissimilarity in the American/French orientation.”  In her comparison, Americans come off as Jamesian innocents abroad: “where american women cry out male chauvinist pig french women inscribe phallologocentrism” Marks explains.  While  American feminists writers look to the past, French feminists look to the unconscious (Marks Signs 1978).  Yet even as “french feminists” appeared more sophisticated than Americans Marks, the pragmatic american, asks “who then can read this new writing?” This question provoked considerable ire among activists as feminists inside academia began to draw on an americanized version of French Feminist Theory

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10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Two groups came to dominate Anglophone scholars’ discussions of French feminisms, replicating the divisions they saw in their own countries.  On the one side, MLF, associated with Monique Wittig, Christine Delphy and Michele le Doeuff, offered a materialist feminist analysis that Anglophone feminists, who called themselves socialist feminists, found most similar to their beliefs.  All psychoanalytically informed feminist authors in France including Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, were telescoped into one group, Psych et Po, although only Cixous participated in that group and she ended her involvement in the early 1980s.  This latter group seemed more similar to radical feminists, or sometimes labeled cultural feminists by their critics.

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12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 How French feminism came to redefine the American movements for women’s liberation is a complicated story beginning in the late 1970s, and one with devastating consequences.  While Simone de Beauvoir long cited as the origins of women’s liberation movement, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the “new” ideas of French feminists began making their way into Anglophone journals.

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14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Elaine Marks, in the summer 1978 issue of Signs, assumed the position of an academic tour guide of sorts to “French Feminisms“  positioned as exotically foreign for “American feminists” who require ideological as well as linguistic translation.  Marks describes the “fundamental dissimilarity in the American/French orientation.”  In her comparison, Americans come off as Jamesian innocents abroad: “where American women cry out male chauvinist pig French women inscribe phallogocentrism, While American feminists writers look to the past, French feminists look to the unconscious (Marks Signs 1978).  Marks here begins the conflation of French Feminisms diversity into a single postructuralist strand in AngloAmerican “French Feminism,” as evidenced by her use of phallogocentrism and the unconscious, both phrases associated with psychoanalytically informed feminism.  Because Marks’ purpose is to explicate the theoretical strands of French Feminism as a sort of “other” to and for Americans, the strife between MLF and Psych et Po recedes into the background. However the same issue of Signs Carolyn Burke offered an in the trenches report that detailed the battles between MLF Psych et Po, describing them as both “fascinating and glamorous” but also “byzantine beyond belief.”  Like Marks, Burke devotes most of her exploration to Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous, the theoretical French feminists whose works fascinated Anglophone academics, not the writing of Wittig or Delphy or le Doeuff.  When she does write of the MLF, Burke focuses on their “initiatives” not their ideas.

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This notion of a radically different French feminism informed the organization of the 1979 conferencethe Scholar and The Feminist VI The Future of Difference.  Alice Jardine invited Monique Wittig to address the conference, in order to explain the “fundamentally different” French feminism.

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17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The decline of activists’ influence is evident, as the conference  brought together mostly academics with a few activists (5 of 14) presenters to explore “biological sexual difference as embodied and performed by the majority of men and women” because the organizers, all feminists with academic appointments, viewed with alarm  the shift from arguments “against difference” to those that “minimize(d) difference.”   a transition organizers saw as “hard to imagine 10 years ago.”   These different approaches to gender difference seemed to be tearing “the movement” apart.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Alice Jardine, one of the organizers of the conference, recalled

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20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 .I had invited [Monique] Wittig to the conference to explain to the six hundred feminist registrants what was going on in Paris. … Wittig was very upset with me. … she was furious with me for using the word difference in the conference’s title. The term difference is obviously [now] so historically and epistemologically loaded in post-post-structuralist thought that I limit myself here to its resonant meaning in 1979: biological sexual difference as embodied and performed by the majority of men and women in the world.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 différance  on the other hand, posited differences as not as something to be avoided or celebrated, but as a process already and always at play in identities.  As Jardine’s reminiscences emphasize, such language has become so familiar to academics that it ceases to sound like the jargon it is to those outside academia, but at this conferences the divides over theories became quite clear.  Jardine herself had been one of the few American academics responsible for interpreting such French theoretical concepts for an American audience.  Jardine had written a master’s thesis on the work of Monqiue Wittig, an extraordinarily influential French feminist for some American activists, who made less of an long lasting impression on American academic feminist discourse than Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 At the opening session Jardine must have squirmed as Wittig fumed away during Nancy Chodorow’s unfortunately titled talk “Difference, Relation, and Gender in Pyschoanalytic Perspective” and Josette Feral’s “The Powers of Difference.”  Wittig then took the podium to deliver what can only be described as a feminist jeremiad. “The Straight Mind” which took the audience on a complicated journey ranging from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan to argue “discourses … oppress us.” Wittig’s used pornography as her example, just months after the first anti-pornography conferences in the US, stirred up much controversy.[1] She cited approvingly Ti-Grace Atkinson, Andrea Dworkin and host of other American thinkers in her highly original, but theoretically dense, speech.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 On the other side Canadian Josette Feral noting that she did not speak ‘as a representative of the French feminist movement,” got right to the contrasts between French and Americans, in, an “attempt to walk the tightrope … between the American and French approaches to feminism.” In her defense of psychoanalytic feminism in France Feral explained “French practice differs from American in that the subversions of the written language … does not have as it primary focus an assertion of the similarities between writing in the feminine mode and writing in the masculine mode “(emphasis added91). Instead French feminists, citing Cixous, Irigaray, as well as Politics and Pscyh, “have equated the recognition of the specificity [note not difference] of the female unconscious with the free access to specific discourse in the feminine mode (au feminin) and have defined this as a central focus of their struggle. This does not mean that defining such discourse would be the only way to fight against phallogocentrsm, but it certainly one of the most significant modalities of the struggle (emphasis original) .

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25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 The sole representative of US activist feminist thought came from Audre Lorde, whose Poetry is not a Luxury appeared as part of the afternoon plenary session on difference and language.   It’s context, delivered, at what has been described as the “the moment” when French feminist burst on to the American feminist scene, is often lost. Lorde refused to engage “I think therefore I am”, or French feminists, with their “Nom-du-Pere” or “the white fathers” of American academics. She offered a lyrical exposition of difference without ever using the word, wending her way from “woman” to “black” to reject Kant, Europe, white, man in favor of un-named “possibility” and dreams. She invoked “the black mother in each of us” who lives in a world of “profit… power … institutional dehumanization” but demands food for her child and nourishment for her soul. Poetry, not theory, stands at the “forefront of our move toward change.” Dreaming not thinking was the method that would render experience meaningful.

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27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 However it was not Lorde, but rather Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan who were understood as presenting what became the viewed as American equivalent to the bad French feminists. The foundation of “difference feminism” in the US was built on the psychology of women’s reproductive roles and the consequences of women’s social position.  Jane Gallop who sought to recuperate the French version of Freduian thought from its harsher American cousin, explicitly makes this connection to Chodorow, and invokes Adrienne Rich, who while “not centrally concerned with psychoanalysis” has “numerous affinities with the French writers discussed in this article.”[3] Chodorow, a member of the early socialist feminist group Bread and Roses in Boston is one of the feminists whose histories have been almost completely eclipsed by her conflation with “difference feminism” Except in the work of fellow bread and roses member Mari Jo Buhle who describes the reproduction of motherhood as misunderstood. [4]

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29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Only one paper highlighted a potential reason for American feminists discomforts with French feminists conceptions of difference.[5]   Carolyn Heilburn’s discussion of androgyny focused on the schisms within American feminism, pointing specifically to Adrienne Rich and the Heresies Collective, whose members were wholly absent from the 1979 program unlike the prior year, as in retreat from Heilbrun’s preferred pursuit of androgyny, understood as the amelioration of all gender differences.[6]

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31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Chodorow and Gilligan’s contributions have come to dwarf Heilbrun’s paper, but the movement press’ reporting on the conference reflected her attention to the schisms. Lois West in OOB disliked the choice of Chodorow as a representative of American theorists, instead invoking Daly as more similar to the French women who spoke. However she wasn’t any happier with the representation of French feminism finding Monique Wittig’s French accent thick enough to impede understanding, and finding the theorists named by Josette Feral so foreign that she was “at a serious disadvantage in understanding … and taking notes.”[7]

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33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Lorde’s Poetry is not a Luxury has not been viewed as pivotal to the Future of Difference Conference, although it is one of her most quoted speeches. Perhaps Lorde’s paper was to brief, or perhaps too close to poetry for this audience grappling with texts translated from the French. Even OOB reporting on Lorde seemed to miss the message of her piece “Lorde… spoke of poetry as the language of difference.”

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35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 The Future of DIfference included no activist feminist artists.  Instead professor, poet and literary critic Rachel Blau Du Plessis lead a workshop Sexual Differences Artistic Production: The Debate over a Female Aesthetic, later published as For the Etruscans: Sexual Difference and Artistic Production — the Debate over a Female Aesthetic an experiment in form as much as content, (written in stream of consciousness,  multiple voices inspired by Robert  Duncan’s H.D. and Viriginia Woolf) that offers “female” aesthetics as “(ambiguously) nonhegemonic”  yet in her interweaving of personal voice and narrative she mirrored, perhaps unknowingly, the very forms explored in Chrysalis and in other experiments in women’s culture. [FN DuPlessis addresses some of these issues years later in http://delirioushem.blogspot.com/2008/02/dim-sum-rachel-blau-duplessis.html which she attempts to distance herself from cultural feminism]  At the time, it left many participants many participants“bewildered” as Mari Jo Buhle obseved year later.  

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37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Resistance to  French inflected theory as too intellectual/elitest became quite evident in the movement press reporting on the Future of Difference Conference. One Off Our Backs reporter opined that “it is only too bad that the activist stance was not expressed by the panelists, but only from the floor” [by leslie smith july 1979/off our backs/page 23] while another reporter apologized that the names and concepts proved so foreign (literally and figuratively) that she could only provide a sketchy summary.  French feminism was described as inaccessible, foreign, requiring the “political american” to undergo a regimen of “intellectual detoxification,”  In reading these remarks in retrospect one wonder why anyone would bother after such patronizing and off-puting an introduction, but of course women inside the university increasingly did both to become familiar with French feminisms.

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39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Mari Jo Buhle recalls Gallops “senastionalistic style” that became common in reporting on “French feminisms”  and how “the american version  suffered by comparison.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Buhle’s narrative positions the “difference feminists” of french theory as the successors to “cultural feminists” (Rich and Daly in particular, but of course they’d fallen far too out of favor to be invited).  The francophile feminists themselves couldn’t get far enough away from the essentialism of these 1970s putative predecessors.  (319).

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43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 A few months later, another contentious conference occurred, the one in commemoration of the 30th anniversay of the publication of  The Second Sex  Organizers motivated by concerns about lesbian separatism, which is often conflated with women’s culture and cultural feminism, although that overshadowed from the opening sessions [Taylor and Rupp]

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45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Reflecting back from some two decades later on the 1979 conference “The Second Sex – Thirty Years Later: A Commemorative Conference on Feminist Theory,   Jessica Benjamin explained that that the difference conference organizers sought to address was between lesbian and straight women since those tensions seemed to be splintering the movement.  However Benjamin also pointed to the gap between “cultural feminists and socialist feminists.” Her interpretation of that split hinged on  ‘cultural feminists” position as only tangentially connected to academia.  She describes the “cultural feminists” as  wanting “ to  rescue feminist intellectual life from the confines of the academy and  keep it tuned into a political movement” 288  Her analysis then positions the cultural feminists as the more politically oriented, the inverse of Echols’ analysis.

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47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 At the Second Sex Conference, Audre Lorde, relegated to the role of “commentator” (along with Barbara Ehrenreich) on the closing panel “The Personal and the Political” instead delivered what became “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in which she “castigated papers written by Linda Gordon, Camille Bristow, Bonnie Johnson, Manuela Fraire, and the conference coordinator, Jessica Benjamin — as embodying the limitations of the conference’s scope”[1]  Lorde excoriated the audience for the exclusion of women of color AND lesbian women:  “to read this program is to assume that lesbian and black women have nothing to say of existentialism, the erotic, women’s culture and silence, developing feminist theory, or heterosexuality and power.”

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49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 She took to task feminists inside academia: “survival is not an academic skill” and stressed that the movement needed “to make a common cause with those others also identified as outside the structures.”   She points to “the failure of academic feminists” and speaks of “academic arrogance.”  Even more critically, her analysis of the master’s tools, “tools of a racist patriarchy” is aimed at “academic feminists” who lived in the master’s house.  Untangling this metaphor further and within the context of historical discourse of slavery as well as de Beauvoir’s usage of Hegel (FN lester olson) Lorde positions academic feminists as slaves who accommodated to the master while activists outside academia are the slaves who developed strategies of resistance?

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51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Rather than seeking to elide difference, the criticism level by Echols of cultural feminists, she extolled the “creative function of difference.”  Retrospectively this paper’s complex analysis has been flattened out as attacking racism in the women’s movement, which it does, but that only describes part of Lorde’s analysis which tied together tensions over sexual identity, professional identity, and ethnic identity: “I agreed to take part … with the understanding that I would be commenting upon papers dealing with the role of difference within the lives of American women: difference of race, sexuality, class, and age. The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal and the political.”

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53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 As in the paper above, and the title of her collected essays, Lorde understood herself as a “Sister” but also an “outsider,” from academic feminists, from white women in the movement, and also from some parts of the black community.  In a 1980 paper given at Amherst later published as Age, Race, Sex and Class, Lorde engaged most explicitly with the role of history.  Lorde understood the problem of exclusionary thinking as a historical problem:    “much of Western European history  conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition.” Lorde argues that “Black and third World people, working-class people, older people, and women” always occupy the “the place of the dehumanized inferior” in these binaries.

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55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 For Lorde though this bad history isn’t an academic issue; it is intensely personal.   She finds herself effectively erased, just as the work of other women  “has been ignored, trivialized, or misnamed, as with the work of Angelina Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lorraine Hansberry”FN This  “historical amnesia” means that while “woman-bonding has a long and honorable history in the African and African­american communities,” homophobia has hidden it.  Yet,  “by ignoring the past , we are encourage to repeat its mistakes.” (117)    Circling back to the argument she made in the masters tools, Lorde argues that “a tool of social control, [is that] women have been encouraged to recognize only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences which exist between women and men.  … the oppressed must recognize the masters’ difference in order to survive.”  She is herself “caught between the racism of white women and the homophobia of” “heterosexual Black women [who] often tend to ignore or discount the existence and work of Black lesbians”  The answer is to change history.   Lorde’s essay ends with a poem, that concludes with “we seek beyond history/for a new and more possible meeting.”

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57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Yet the possibilities for that meeting on common ground seemed increasingly rare, especially following the 1981 NWSA conference “women respond to racism” which resulted in divisiveness.   Lorde offered one of two keynotes, alongside her longtime friend Adrienne Rich.  Lorde’s The Uses of Anger highlighted the exclusion of “black women” and “poor women” and “other faces” of women that linked many women’s experiences, but also moved towards stressing that the umbrella term “women of color” could not be used to blanket  diverse women’s issues.  Rich’s Disobedience Is What NWSA. Is Potentially About” focused on the separations between “lesbians” and “women of color” which erased lesbian women of color, but also, echoing Linda Gordon, called out the cooptation of the women’s movement, what she described as the once tantruming and tomboyish  daughter who has matured into the “dutiful daughter of the white, patriarchal university.”  As Alexis de Veaux notes, the timing of these challenges “in a political climate in which the New Right and its partner movement, the moral majority were gaining ground opposing women’s agendas” made it even harder for the audience to hear Lorde and Rich.

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59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 FN critics of cultural feminism work hard to separate lorde from the group of women they wish to condemn (Alcoff).  Lorde in the late 1970s distanced herself from both Chrysalis and famously denounced Mary Daly.  Yet her long friendship with Adrienne Rich and Blanche Wiesen Cook attests to her continued to ties to women often labeled CF.  And Lorde, while not an active participant in the anti-pornography movement in the same way that Rich was, still condemned porn in her 1978 Uses of the Erotic given at the 4th berkshire conference.  In a 1982 interview she even more explicitly tied herself to the “wrong” side of the sex wars, criticizing Samois and the BDSM (Against sadomasochism) (Dworkin includes her with Rich in Intercourse p xx)  However, presciently, Lorde also question what the “sex wars” covered up “when sadomasochism gets presented on center stage as a conflict in the feminist movement I ask what conflicts are not being presented”

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61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 The NWSA, a meeting place for academics and activists, provided some common ground, but the “racism” conference had many problems. Chela Sandoval authored  a report on behalf of the  US  Third World Women’s Alliance.  As she notes, everything from the title “women respond to racism” who are the women?  are women themselves not racist?  Are all women positioned the same in regards to racism.  Sandoval lengthy analysis highlighted a kind of danger, like Gordon and Dubois would emphasize just a few months later, but for these dangers hinged on “freezing” political analysis for the sake of “unity.”

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63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 When a coalition about 200 “white women” and “third world women” presented a resolution that began “this has been a racist conference in its structure, organization, and individual interaction” “conflict arose.”  “the majority” of “white delegates” to the Assembly responded “with a great deal of irritation.”

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65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Chela Sandoval contextualized the response as follows:

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67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 “Many of the white Delegates had spent a week of alienation and boredom sitting through too many lecture on women of color — they had ‘put in their time.’  For them, the issue of racism  was worn to the bone.  By the last Assembly meeting, most delegates were ready to  move on to, as they called  it, ‘more pressing issues.’  The continued ‘haranguing’ by  the third world delegates was seen as  ‘idiosyncratic,’ ‘selfish’ and as ‘unnecessarily divisive to the movement.’

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69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 The resolution did not pass, and as Evelynn M Hammond explains that outcome “had consequences  felt by the NWSA for  several years. …. the organization’s inability to effectively address racism in both its  internal structure and at annual meetings  became more and more apparent and the organization was forced to shut down its operations for a time (303).   While third world women continued to organize and publish, they did so increasingly not at academic conferences, and not within structures like the NWSA. [FN to 1990 NWSA conference]

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71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Academic conferences had provided a crucial meeting ground in the 1970s for women inside and outside academia working towards women’s liberation. As the NWSA and Scholar and the Feminist conferences reveal increasingly those opportunities disappeared as battle lines were drawn.   Another set of skirmishes in the women’s culture wars emerged around the introduction of postmodernist theories that destabilized the category of gender, making it theoretically impossible to speak of “women.”   The introduction of these theories not only provoked huge debate within US academic feminist circles, but also had the effect of distancing academics ever more from activists outside academia. Oddly enough the critics of women’s culture who decried it as racists were hostile to French feminism, which was used to condemns its essentialism, although both critiques pivoted on difference.

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77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 [1] (Sep 1978 WAVAW San Francisco then Jan 1979 NY WAP)     [FN much as scholars have attempted to keep Lorde safe from “cultural feminism” (1988 Alcoff), scholars have also attempted to separate Wittig’s support for anti-pornography in 1979 from the sex wars].

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 [2] [fn however gives no support for this hostility, just that Marks has noted it too]

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 [3] Gallop makes clear that while Rich and Kristeva both write of maternity, Kristeva “

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 is not attempting to define an “essence” of the female, but

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 rather to understand the processes of signification and to expand the realm of the signifiable; see Jardine”

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 [4] Unfortunately she still applies a blanket use of unnamed cultural feminists who adopted Chodorow

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 [5] Gallop pointed to a methodological division in a footnote “One reason for this apparent lack of dialogue may be that American and French theoretical discourses are quite dissimilar in style as well as assumptions. While American scholars are trained to work within the language of their disciplines, Kristeva, like many French intellectuals, draws ideas from a variety of different fields and

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 interweaves disparate methodological codes

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 [6] Heilbrun, “Androgyny and Psychology of Sex Differences,” pp. 258 ft).

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 [7] as this positive treatment of Daly reveals, lines of who was and was not labeled essentialist still had not hardened, Chodorow had a movement history dating back to Bread and Roses in Boston 1968. ( Chesler feminist foremothers 141). Her piece for the conference originally appeared in Socialist Review, where she participated in the editorial board from 197 , revealing again that the theorists now labeled as cultural feminism understood as antithetical of socialist feminism were not interpreted by everyone at the time in this way.

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Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/about-2/contention/when-difference-became-differance/