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The Politics of Women’s Culture offers an intellectual history of the concept of “women’s culture” as it emerged among feminist activists and academics in the 1970s. Drawing on oral histories, archives, and published sources, The Politics of Women’s Culture offers a new narrative of the women’s movement, one that transcends old divides, while offering a revised interpretation of a largely ignored group of activists, feminist artists. This story challenges notions about the development of women’s history as a discipline by stressing the field’s activist roots, not just as the impetus for investigations into women’s past, but in terms of the development of key concepts for early women’s historians. From the earliest days of the women’s liberation movement to the first debates in women’s history, both activists and academics, and individuals with a foot in both camps, argued vociferously about the potential for women’s culture to inform, enable or otherwise ennoble an identity with some form of agency. Driven by similar desires, activists and academics nonetheless seized up different strategies and sought divergent goals while engaging in parallel explorations of women’s collective past.
Who defined women’s history, however, was not at all clear in these early years of debate over women’s culture. Despite similar terminology, activists and academics often held drastically different ideas about what constituted women’s culture and how it related to feminism. As 1970s activists set out to enact women’s culture, and in the process, transform society, concomitantly women’s historians grappled with issues of causation and formulated alternate ways of understanding how women’s culture could lead to feminist activism.
Despite mutual interests in women’s histories, these constituencies developed distinct approaches to women’s history. Some activists attempted to fuse feminism with culture. Revolving around the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, described by its members as a public center for women’s culture, these activists provided a way of understanding women’s culture that drew on the historical, but remained peripheral to academia. At the same time, historians in the emerging discipline of women’s history argued that the past could provide a means of empowering contemporary activists. These seemingly disparate groups interacted frequently via multiple points of overlap during the 1970s and 1980s, in women’s liberation movement groups, at feminist conferences, and in the both activist and academic publications.
The Politics of Women’s Culture refers not only to the contentious debate over the concept of women’s culture, which resulted in fractures that mirrored the broad contours of political ideologies, but also to the central insight of radical feminism, that politics equaled power relations and thus the patriarchal was political. Activists interested in women’s culture saw it as a method for transforming patriarchal society. As an organizing tool and a motivational ideology, their perception of women’s culture initially rested on unifying women under and celebrating aspects of a common past. Historians on the other hand, first sought the origins of women’s oppression in prescriptive domestic ideology. This approach gave way to nuanced investigations into the ways women twisted domesticity into a justification for broader social influence. However, in both the women’s movement and in academia, some feminists proved skeptical about the value of the concept of women’s culture, and thus both in movement publications and in academic journals, concerted discussion occurred over the uses of “women’s culture.” Tracing these overlapping deliberations provides a second major focus of The Politics of Women’s Culture. Ultimately I argue that the idea of women’s culture, which was initially embraced by both activists and academics, became merged with the ideology of cultural feminism, a pejorative label most frequently used to exclude some activists or academics from feminism.
How the women’s culture concept became redefined negatively as cultural feminism is the heart of The Politics of Women’s Culture. By tracing the threads the tied activists and academics as they traversed the same road, history as a narrative to empower various women’s identities, I argue that cultural activism 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 returns cultural activism to the central role it played in the women’s movement.