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 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,
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.