Women in History a recreation of our past


one of the reasons I love love love this issue is the use of the word “recreation” is that re-creation or recreation, as in a form of play?  Ahhh playing with the past in order to create a different future.  Right there is the pivot point that links the artists from the feminist art movement to the historians in the women’s liberation movement.

The cover is Sojourner Truth (who everyone wanted a piece off, see my conference paper on feminist manifestos.  She is the point of overlap between Judy Chicago and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union!).

From the editorial “A Theory of Women in History”

History has been presented to us as a dusty, academic seed which sprouted cliches and dates  … Women, blacks and workers are learning that that same seed holds within it nourishment for our fight against exploitation.  From history we learn to act to transform all social institutions; unless all are changed, new social relationships which could make life fulfilling for everyone, will never come into existence (cf Marcuse)

Lest you have missed it, they point out this is a “Marxist view of history” one that understands “that history is the result of our biological selves in dynamic relationship with our social, productive selves.  Once we are conscious of the curcial relationship between reproduction and production, women can be active agents to change the social relationship of private property which are ruining the world.”

Men make their own history, Marx once noted, and it is that sort of history the editors see women creating, a praxis not “contemplative history.”  But what if women made their own history?  What would that look like?  Because Marx continued “but they do not  make it just as they please.”


 Following a lengthy passage from Marx on class, consciousness, and history, the editors offer “a slightly different way” of thinking about “reproduction and socialization” as factor influencing history. They then offer a teleological narrative beginning with “women in primitive cultures” and trace the now familiar narrative of the emergence of humans into society in which a division of reproduction/production labor resulted in women’s secondary status, which was then codified at some not-specified moment in history, and reified via various institutions, namely “education’ and “the family.”  The segregation by women, via socialization in schools into the institution of the family has held women back in their fight for liberation.  Now, however, 

“the knowledge of what has happened to us and why is a great power.  Nourished as we are by history, we can strive to control all aspects of human life: those arising form our physical bodies and those arising form the relations of production” (65) 

in other words, as I’ve been arguing all along, history is both empowerment (agency) and inspiration, as well as examplar and strategy, which is why all feminists in the 1970s eventually made the historical turn.  However that eventually led to feminisms own version of the culture wars.  To what uses could this history be put?  Which history exactly?  Who got to use it?

So clearly “recreation” was “re-creation” of the historical narrative to reinsert “reproduction” prior to “production’ as a locus of oppression.

But what if we took it as “rec-reation” as in playing with history?  What if we revisit Marx’s famous dictum via the French sociologist Alain Touraine, who argued that history is the primary field of play for social movements?  As I’ve sought to understand the relationship between culture, history and power, I’ve found his ideas enormously helpful, although they are not much discussed by Anglophone scholars.

Touraine begins his work The Voice and The Eye (Le Voix et Le Regard, and no I don’t know why that isn’t The Voice and The Look) with the sentence “Men make their own history.”  Regretably this is not just a bad translation,  Touraine wrote “les hommes font leur histoire” not “les gens…” yet like Marx it is possible to make him talk to the issue of feminism if one likes (way later he does this all on his own self 🙂

he continues

création culturelle et conflits sociaux produisent la vie sociale et au cœur de la société brûle le feu des mouvements sociaux.

which google translate likes as 

cultural creativity and social conflicts produce social life and in the heart of society burns the fire of social movements

Ah the French, ever lyric even in their theory.  In any case, it seems quite clear that for Touraine none of this talk of production, reproduction etc, but rather cultural creativity lays at the heart of social movements.  So what does history look like if we attempt to situate not “reproduction/production’ but “creativity” at the heart?

We can see this pretty clearly in a comparison between two pieces in this issue of W:JL.  Ellen C DuBois’ piece “Struggling Into Existence – The Feminism of Sarah and Angelina Grimke” (which I think she told me she did for a seminar with Lasch, but it could have been Lemisch) versus in the same issue “Message to future generations from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony” illustrated by Marilyn O’Connor.  DuBois of course went on to write the first book that considered suffrage as a political movement, while Marilyn O’Connor went on to do ????? For “professional” historians, clearly it is the former not the latter approach that won.

O’Connor’s work (above) creates a faux-historical document using the words of the women themselves “written after months of campaigning in Kansas for Woman’s Suffrage — a compaign which was lost in part because male abolitionists did not support the women’s struggle.”  This strategy repeats itself over and over again in the recreational uses of history, relying on the words of historical figures themselves, offering them in reappropriated historical documents, with negligible intervention by the artist because the image itself is the artists’ commentary.

O’Connor’s message is not all that different from DuBois’, which also highlights the connections between abolition and the woman’s rights movement.  However, while O’Connor emphasizes the split between suffrage and abolition, DuBois wants to illustrate how

“the abolitionist crusade provided the Woman Movement with ideas of universal social justice, and supplied a generation of committed women, from Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone to Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who powered feminism through its first decades.”  

While DuBois doesn’t shrink from pointing out the male opposition to the Grimke sisters, she is equally committed to exploring their primary female opponent, Catharine Beecher.

Hinging the emergence of feminism and the demand for suffrage on a clearly political movement such as abolition was a way of granting it a kind of legitimacy, in the same way that WLM activists often cited their CRM experience in their credentials.  DuBois writes

“thus, like the current women’s liberation movement, the crux of the Grimkes’ argument was not that women be allowed to behave like men … Inherent in it, was a critique of the ‘masculine virtues,’ and since they operated in the context of a male controlled social order, a critique of the dominant values of society” (8).  

Ultimately though DuBois offers a narrative of declension, in which the brilliant sisters, trapped by marriage and motherhood, desert the movement.  Quoting O’Neill’s Everyone Was Brave (1969) she notes that “feminism in America failed to alter substantially the feminine condition”  “Femininity” is the enemy as it demanded the “sacrifice” of the “unique promise” of the Grimkes’ as activists in that they married, reproduced, and ended their lives as abolitionists.  The result, “a tragedy.”  The lesson?    Reproduction is the origin of women’s oppression as it traps them in the home (aka private sphere).

Juxtaposed next to O’Connors (art?)work, here we can see the crux of the debate.  If we take the feminine as the antitidote to the “masculine virtues” then femininity cannot also be the sacrificial alter on which feminism falters. As other 1970s feminists sought to do what the Grinkes’ did, use femininity as a vatage point from which to recreate an alternative to a society at present based on male values, they ended up conflicting, not only with men, as might be expected, but other feminists as well.  Those feminists, in the vein of O’Connor used the words of historical figures in very different ways than scholars did.  The O’Connor is an entire page of primary source annotated by a single sentence.  The lesson abstracted out from history in this case was that even “radical” men don’t support women’s struggle.

This sort of playing with the past did not amuse the professionally trained historians, who viewed it as reductionist, yet in terms of “message” to movement women, did the O’Connor piece do more “work” in terms of stoking the fires of social movements?  It is less nuanced, ECS is basically ranting to SBA about the men who sold them out in KS, and not analytical at all, but in an era when convining women from the NL of the need for an independent women’s movement, which worked better?

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