As I write my book, only half jokingly referred to as the rise and fall of women’s culture: an intellectual history I’ve been on the search for the origins of the phrase “women’s culture.”   I’ve discovered that first the women’s liberation movement had a sort of an anthro-influenced understanding of culture, and that the phrase “female culture” via sociologist Georg Semmel probably was used before women’s culture.   This strand continues in the gynocriticsm of Elaine Showalter, which builds on the work of the anthropologist Edwin Ardener.  However woman’s culture, a 19th century phrase also made its way into both WLM publications as well as writings by more academically oriented feminists, and that lasted well into the 1980s.   Still  Artists, authors, poets, in the women’s liberation movement also used “woman’s culture” to describe the present day.   TDR article on women’s theater groups,  Sue Perlgut (from It’s All Right to be Woman Theatre founded in 1970)) quoted (1974)  there is a woman’s culture and I want to be part of it.”   Finally, women’s culture, emerged, again first in the movement, and then in historical scholarship around 1973. 

Off Our Backs, a national newspaper for women’s liberation movement often used “woman’s culture” at the same time as “women’s culture,” leading me to wonder if this represented mere linguistic slippage indicating that the concepts still had no firm purchase. 

  • Side Effects of Women’s Studies, an extremely critical article about feminists in academia by Frances Chapman that argues against an institutionalized women’s studies (or women’s culture) in favor of individual woman’s studies (and woman’s culture) pursued by individuals with greater accessibility to knowledge
  •  a second article in Nov 1973 again by Chapman “women’s culture” seems to refer to “inroads into” “male culture, ” “woman’s culture” is used in the next sentence that compares it unfavorably, at least for the time being, to “male culture which has all of human culture to enrich it” 
  • this idea of “woman’s culture” as a subset of “human culture” continued in the pages of OOB March 1974 in a review of the documentary “Emerging Women” by anne williams and carol anne douglas “woman’s culture has been a subterranean one; earthwormlike, critical to the enrichment of human culture but surfacing sporadically and rarely cultivated.” 
  • October of 1974 review of Sarah Orne Jewett’s republished County of the Pointed Firs, which Mary Bailey lauds for giving “the reader … a glimpse of what woman’s culture might be like.”
  •  1977 critical piece about Michigan Womyn’s Festival  slips between women’s culture and “a woman’s culture”  

Interview in a 1979 interview with Simone de Beauvoir, 1979 Margaret Simon’s describes “a woman’s culture” as the US equivalent to ecriture feminine both of which she equates with “biological difference” as “essential difference,” and Jessica Benjamin then linking this to separatism “do you think that … the problem with separatism is that it takes the biological fact as the social fact?”

 “The singular “Woman” echoed the 19th locution (or the collection of essays Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture edited by Josephine Butler’s 1928) which many women’s liberation activists read for inspiration and a “usable past.”  Others  may have used it to indicate indicate a  unity of womanhood that some critics, as above, labeled as universalizing essentialism.

  • 1976 Karen Blair’s dissertation title “Clubwoman as feminist: the Woman’s Culture Club movement in the  US 1868-1914) no doubt reflecting the usage in the 19th century  of the singular.   
  • 1980 Feminist Studies symposium entitle politics and culture in women’s culture nonetheless used the historically accurate “woman’s culture” in discussions.  Review of John Mack Farragher in Women and Men on the Overland Trail slammed him for using the idea of “woman’s culture.” 
  • Yet even when referring to the present, some historians used “woman’s culture” “A ‘woman’s culture’ movement is astride” in  Witchcraft in Medieval Europe, 

Just as historians used the chronologically accurate “woman’s culture” so too did lit critics

  • Ellen Cantarow, an early critic of “culture”  put “woman’s culture” in quotes (in responding to paper by Kate Ellis argues that “the idea of a culture of women  needs explorations nearly from scratch”  lauds Salt of the earth “the women have culture” but questions “how does a culture of liberation emerge out of a culture of our oppression” although Ellis herself never used the phrase ‘woman’s culture.” 
  • A similar exchange, also based on papers at the MLA occurred between Josephine Donovan and Zelda Austen with the “woman’s culture to look for patterns in womens literature” vs “women fenc[ing] themselves behind a barricade of sex”
  •  Myra Jehlan (SIgns 1981)  and Elaine Showlater both quote Nina Baym, although the former from a more critical vantage point than the latter.  [Jehlan reminds me a great deal of Linda Nochlin’s Why Have Their Been No Great Women Artists (1971). ]

Women’s culture,
The first historian to use the two word in this order “women’s culture” seems to have been Gerda Lerner in her October 1974 Berks paper,  updated, phrase ‘women’s culture” in March 1975 version of paper given at Symposium at Sarah Lawrence, published in FS Autumn 1975

The next stage may be  to explore the  possibility that what we  call women’s  history may actually be the study of  a separate women’s  culture.  Such a culture would  include not only the separate occupations,  status,  experiences, and rituals of women  but also their consciousness,  which  internalizes  partiarchal assumptions. 

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s contribution to this Berks was not her now-infamous Female World of Love and Ritual (which appeared that year in Signs) but rather “The New Woman and The New History” in which she lays out the “ethnocultural” approach to women’s history that she would take in that article.

The counterpointal  interplay of  prescriptive literature and unpublished  personal documents  lies at the  heart of any ethnohistorical  analysis of  women’s experiences.  The need  for this  dual perspective is obvious.  Prescription is not  behavior,  yet individual families  and women  functioned  as part of  a culture that accepted  normative  attitudes  toward  women’s  roles and role divisions within  the family.  Even those  who rejected a life entirely consistent  with  such ideals could  not  elude  them completely for they existed  as parameters with  which  and against which  individuals either conformed  or defined  the  nature of  their deviance.

And there you have it, the gauntlet is thrown down, as recognized by Natalie Zemon Davis, who in  addressing that  Berkshire Conference urged that  


“we should now be interested in the history of both women and men. We should not be working on the subjected sex any more than a historian of class can focus exclusively on peasants. Our goal is to understand the significance of  the sexes, of  gender groups in the historical past.”

Speaking historiographically, but clearly applicable to current scholarship a well, she dismisses concept of “culture” as “not very clear-cut in European history until the 19th century” and argues that  “domestic and public are categories that slip and slide over time.”  

However, the first battle in the women’s culture wars doesn’t really occur until 1980 when Feminist Studies reunited the American participants for discussion of the influence of the women’s culture on the field of women’s history.

*Sidenote, I always feel badly for CSR since she never actually used the phrase “women’s culture.” How that phrase became so hegemonic is of course the central story of my book.

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