The poster inviting visitors to the grand opening of the new location of the Woman’s Building, a public center for women’s culture, in Los Angeles drew such a large crowd that the organizers feared the second floor might collapse. Assured by the architect-husband of one of the Building founders that the center would hold, they happily resumed the party.
That simultaneous invocation of celebration and instability is an apt metaphor for the concept of women’s culture, which provided the ideological foundation for the Woman’s Building. While other women’s liberation groups evinced interest in the concept of women’s culture, the Woman’s Building offered the greatest elaboration of the idea among activists. With its eighteen-year history, and connections to groups and organizations across the United States, it provides a unique entre into some of the most contentious feminist debates of the past two decades.
Interest in the concept of women’s culture linked activists, both linguistically and ideologically to the emerging field of women’s history, where historians searched for the roots of women’s activism, which they also termed “women’s culture.” How these two uses of the term intertwined and diverged over two decades is central to my book about the ways grassroots feminists, at the Woman’s Building and beyond, played a major role in a much larger story about women’s history and feminist theory than normally gets told in histories of the women’s movement.
Drawing on oral histories, archives, and published sources, The Politics of Women’s Culture offers a new narrative, one that transcends old divides, while reinserting a largely ignored group of activists, feminist artists, back into the story of 1970s feminist activism. This account challenges notions about the development of women’s history 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. It also disputes the largely accepted teleological narrative of feminist theory in which discredited essentialist theories were replaced by more sophisticated postmodernist ideas. Finally, The Politics of Women’s Culture rewrites the history of the women’s liberation movement to include a broader spectrum of participants.
The Politics of Women’s Culture refers not only to debate over the validity and value of the concept of women’s culture, but also to the power relations imbedded in those conversations. While initially activists and feminist historians jointly developed ideas about women’s culture, eventually schisms and conflicts in the late 1970s and early 1980s discredited the concept in academic circles. Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, as activists continued to bring feminist issues to the public and to create historically based work, the idea of women’s culture was mistaken for, confused with, or transformed into “cultural feminism” by feminists within academia. As a result, the contributions of these activists have largely been excluded from histories of the women’s liberation movement.
The Politics of Women’s Culture cannot be understood without a careful investigation of the women’s liberation movement, which provides crucial context for the subsequent debates in academia. The first chapter focuses on the earliest writings of key women’s historians, circa the late 1960s and very early 1970s, who were themselves often members of the women’s movement or largely influenced by it.  Combined with close reading of grassroots women’s liberation movement archival sources, this chapter reveals the myriad functions of culture in early radical feminist writings, as well as the close ties between these movement publications and early women’s historians.
At the same time, feminist artists, poets, and writers developed their own conception of women’s culture that combined art and activism into a unique method I call art activism. This process for raising consciousness about feminist issues, facilitating public dialogue, and hopefully transforming patriarchal culture, drew on myriad sources of inspiration. In the second chapter, I resituate the best-known feminists associated with culture, the writers Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin and Robin Morgan, within their early radical feminist histories. In addition, I utilize the unpublished academic writings, archival sources, and published materials from art activists to trace the evolution of their notion of women’s culture from ideas in the women’s liberation movement, their nascent feminist research in to art history and literature, and their involvement in other social movements of the era. The result was a vibrant array of not only literary, but also artistic, production informed the women’s liberation movement, such as the “bills,” depicting images of women from history, created in support of the E.R.A. Organized by the Feminist Art Workers for a protest at the College Art Association in Louisiana, which had yet to ratify the amendment “Bill of Rights” (1980) was subsequently performed by other women’s movement activists in the fifteen states that had yet to pass the E.R.A.
During the seventies and first years of the Eighties, historians and art activists alike produced scholarship on women’s culture, participated in conferences together and published in the same journals, including Chrysalis, A Journal of Women’s Culture, created with the contributions of many Woman’s Building members. The third chapter explores these fruitful collaborations to reveal the role of art activists in shaping ideas about women’s culture.
In the fourth chapter, drawing on the historically informed works of artists associated with the Woman’s Building, I explore the ways that activists both reflected and diverged from their academic sisters during the mid to late 1970s. For example, in The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron (1977), Suzanne Lacy appeared as the historical “rescuer” of Chinese prostitutes, discussed extensively in Peggy Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue (1990), which is framed in terms of the women’s culture debates. The sharp contrast in Lacy’s embodiment of Cameron and Pascoe’s critique of Cameron point to the separate paths taken by historians and activists by the 1980s.
In the fifth chapter, I take close look at the origins and consequences of that divergence. I argue that a series of developments, in both the women’s liberation movement and in feminist academia, created an irreparable schism. The intense debate fostered by the feminist anti-pornography movement, combined with the increasing vocal critiques of women’s culture as ethnocentric, and the emerging influence of postmodernism, particularly as articulated in French feminist theory, resulted in the concept of women’s culture falling into almost complete disrepute in academic circles. Eventually it became conflated with “cultural feminism” a pejorative label deriving from early women’s liberation movement rhetoric, typically applied to some feminists, including prominent activists, such as Robin Morgan, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Griffin. While the activist-writers lumped under the phrase “cultural feminism” differed dramatically, they shared a commitment to the concept of women’s culture and it was precisely that which drew the ire of their critics.
Drawing on the archival records, unpublished proceedings, and press coverage of events involving activists and historians, I explore the dismal consequences of the Politics of Women’s Culture for the history of activists’ women’s culture. For example the 1986 performance and conference, The Dark Madonna co-sponsored by the Woman’s Building and the then-new Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, resulted in charges of racism and essentialism being levied at activists by academics. I conclude by arguing that the narrative of the women’s movement and women’s history itself must be revisited in order to untangle the histories that led to such misunderstandings.
Contributions and Qualifications
The time is particularly propitious for The Politics of Women’s Culture, as interest in the feminist art movement and a revised interpretation of the women’s liberation movement have rise to the fore of feminist scholarship. By drawing on recent work in a variety of disciplines about the women’s movement, I challenge Alice Echols’ interpretation of radical feminism as supplanted by “cultural feminism”, which has been incorporated into virtually all narratives of the women’s movement and adopted by scholars in other fields. The Politics of Women’s Culture tells the other half of the story by detailing the activist histories of advocates of women’s culture.
The Politics of Women’s Culture makes several original contributions to histories of the women’s movement and feminist theory. My primary motivation has been to return a broader group of grassroots feminists to the history of the women’s movement and to discussions of the women’s culture-cultural feminist divide. In order to do that I’ve drawn not on mass published works by a few women, but on extensive archival sources about many activists and academics. I work with visual images and performance art rather than the literature and poetry that are typically associated with the cultural products of the women’s movement. The Politics of Women’s Culture resituates feminist art activism within the history of the women’s liberation movement, rather than within the stream of contemporary art, which is where academic discussion has largely occurred.
Archival work for the book is complete, as are drafts of the first three chapters. During my 2011-2012 I will complete the remaining chapters. NEH summer funding will provide time for revising the book for submission to publishers in the fall of 2012.
 In particular, I focus on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and Boston’s Bread and Roses, the historian-activists Ellen Dubois, Linda Gordon, Amy Kessleman, Ros Baxandall, Roxanne Dunbar, Temma Kaplan, Peg Strobel, Barbara Winslow, as well as the work of Nancy Cott and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, who while not participants in women’s liberation groups, acknowledged their debt to the movement in writings from that time period.
 Publications include Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Notes from the First Year, and Women: A Journal of Liberation, as well as the less well-known Women’s Liberation Newsletter published in Boston and the Womankind in Chicago. Early academic writings come from the first Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians in 1973 and dissertations of women’s historians.
 While other feminist involved primarily as grassroots activists also drew on the concept of women’s culture, they produced almost no theoretical or descriptive writings about it. The sole exception to this tendency is Robin Morgan. Therefore most studies of the women’s movement rely on the published work of poets and fiction writers to discuss women’s culture, but do not emphasize the authors’ activist histories. Susan Griffin worked with Slate, a civil rights group at Berkeley that gave rise to the Free Speech movement, then served as an editorial assistant for the New Left journal Ramparts and was involved in the abortion counseling movement. Adrienne Rich’s involvement with the women’s movement dates to 1971, although she is not associated with any one group or publication exclusively until 1981 when she took over the editorship, with her partner Michelle Cliff, of Sinister Wisdom.
 Locally Conference on Women’s Culture In American Society (1981) at the Woman’s Building was organized with UCLA women’s historians and The House of Women conference (1982) with women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach, while the National Women’s Studies Association conferences provided national connections. Frontiers, a Journal of Women’s History often published activist articles alongside academics. Historians published in Chrysalis include Blanche Weisen Cook, Estelle Friedman, and Nancy Sahli.
 I use archival documents from the Women Against Pornography conference (San Francisco 1978) the Second Sex Conference (NYU 1979) and The Scholar and the Feminist (Barnard 1982), in addition to the published debate over these events in the women’s liberation movement periodical Off Our Backs and in academic journal and books.
 Although for a brief time in the early 1970s, cultural feminism meant culturally based forms of feminist activism, because the term had a negative connotation in women’s liberation movement literature, it was never widely adopted by activists themselves. See Gayle Kimball Women’s Culture, The Renaissance of the Seventies. The term is almost exclusively used now to refer to a strand of feminist theory associated with essentialist, ahistorical celebrations of female values.
 I begin with the unpublished writings of Ellen Dubois in 1978, which led to “Politics and Culture in Women’s History” symposium [Ellen Dubois, Mari Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. “Politics and Culture in Women’s History” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980) 26-64] and continue through Joan Wallach Scott’s response to the roundtable “Considering the State of U.S. Women’s History.” [Joan Wallach Scott, “Feminism’s History,” Journal of Women’s History, 16, No. 2 (2004):10-29; Nancy F. Scott, Gerda Lerner and Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Considering the State of U.S. Women’s History,” Journal of Women’s History, 15, No. 1 (2003):145-163).]
 By the 1990s, art activists associated with women’s culture were seldom invited to participate in large academic conferences. However in Los Angeles they created two events at UCLA Art Criticism for Women in the 90s and The Dark Madonna performance and conference.
See relevant sections of my bibliography for specific works.
 Archives consulted include UCLA Special Collections, the Archives of American Art, The Douglass Library at Rutgers University, the Sallie Bingham Collection at Duke University, and the Getty Research Institute. In addition, I have conducted over 50 oral history interviews with participants, and have published twelve articles about the relationship between art activism and the women’s liberation movement.