talk about pastpresents colliding

I (re)open Peggy Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue for the first time since my exams in the mid-90s.  I am aware that Pascoe overlapped at Stanford with my undergraduate mentor and honor’s thesis supervisor (and still most excellent sounding board/cheerleader/mentor) Valerie Matsumoto, but I’m am still surprised to see in the acknowledgements that the first person named is her — “to Valerie Matsumoto, who first told me about Donaldina Cameron”  I feel so foolish as I’ve talked V’s ear off about DC at a lunch recently and she is too modest/too kind, to remind me of this fact.  SIGH

The incident reminds me however how layered our lives are as scholars.  While it is normally “outsiders” uses of history to serve present needs that draws scholarly ire, I am all too aware in writing this history of women’s culture how embedded my own history is in the story.  These books, these people, if not the exact events, were the context of my undergraduate and graduate education.  Their arguments formed my earliest understandings of the range of feminist theory.

One path of my intellectual lineage goes back via VM to my first endeavors in second wave history, an honors thesis about Los Angeles feminists in the 1970s.  She all too kindly took me on, a then unknown student to her, during her first year at UCLA no less, and taught me, well everything I know about being a historian.  In meticulous, unrelenting red ink she marked up draft after draft of my honor’s thesis for well over a year, pushing, prodding, me along to more precise language, better primary source analyses and more productive engagement with the past beyond “they did this then.” That the thesis won numerous awards is testimony to her role as my mentor.  I certainly never could have succeeded without her.

Her own work in a community also served as a model to me of respectful engagement in a scholarly way, although I made many many mistakes for which she bears no responsibility.

As I re-examine Pascoe I am struck by the presence of the present in this book subtitled 1874-1939.  Both the introduction “the search for female moral authority” and the epilogue “a legacy to ponder – female moral authority and contemporary women’s culture” draw straight lines between Victorian predecessors and the porn wars.

the emergence of a self-consciously “moral” version of feminism must be counted as one of the most striking developments in contemporary American society … Over the past decade, many more shifted their tactics from tearing down the barriers between the sexes to advocating “cultural feminism” — the attempt to identify and define the distinctive values of a “women’s culture” and to show how the adaption of these values might lead to a better world.

While I admire Pascoe’s work immensely, her work on inter-racial marriage is obviously of personal importance to me, I’m dismayed by this conflation of “women’s culture” and “cultural feminism” which is supported by references not to the alleged advocates of “cultural feminism” but to scholars writing about feminist theory.  She quotes Hester Eisenstein (pastpresent moment, the book referred to here was my text for feminist theory as a WS undergrad) from “a recent survey of the field” and the footnotes offer more academic theory texts.

In defining who the “cultural feminists” are Pascoe makes only passing remarks in the footnotes to Mary Daly, Sally Miller Gearhart, Susan Griffin, Janice Raymond, and Adrienne Rich, with no specific works or quotations ascribed to these women.  Pascoe was an excellent historian.  She surely knew how to analyze primary source documents, so why here does she fall back on secondary work and fail to give careful consideration to the writings of those she considers “cultural feminists”?

Pascoe places in quotes the historiogaphical terms “cult of true womanhood”  and the first reference to “women’s culture,” which is largely conflated with the cult of true womanhood and the “so much in common” among Victorian white women to create her working defintion of women’s culture in the book, but eventually the phrase becomes naturalized in her narrative and loses its quotation marks along the way, as she writes repeatedly of “Victorian women’s culture” (6, 10, 17, 31, 33, 34, 50, 69, 75, 87, 113, 131). Other terms from contemporary feminism make their way into the work such as “traffic in women” and “critique of patriarchy.” Pascoe is as concerned with present day history writing as she is with the past as indicated by her repeated invocation of historiographical debates 34-36 (discourse of the Christian Home) 4-42 (moral reforms links to women’s emancipations) 54-55 (race), 62 (Mormon polygamy)  75 (home missions), 86 (the rescueds’ motivations) 90-91 (working class history) 113-115) (ethnic helpers) 158.  I note none of these as criticism.  The best of women’s history for me seeks to create understanding of the present day.  It is however to note that historians were as motivated as activists to create a past suited to their present needs.  Pascoe is simply more transparent than most in acknowledging this approach.


I would argue it is because in framing her careful historical study, presentism provoked the contextualizing  of it within contemporary feminist discourse.  And the narrative here is not all that dissimilar from Echols, which is not surprising since she references Echols’ “Taming the ID,” which preceded Daring to Be Bad,  although Pascoe tells the story from a different vantage point and with considerably more nuances.  Within women’s activism of the United States from the late 19th century on existed an empowerment by stressing women’s moral superiority strand of thought that continues into the sex wars on the early 1980s,  (This context is made quite clear by the citation of many works from the Barnard “Sex Conference” in the footnotes to her introduction).

for the historian what is most significant about contemporary cultural feminism is not its departure from the recent past but its consistency with a familiar theme of American women’s history.  … Both groups [Victorian missionary women and modern cultural feminists] advanced the same plan of action: they tried to valorize “women’s values,” to give women’s moral judgments authority in societies that largely ignored or dismissed their concerns.  

Thus Pascoe writes not about women’s movement people, but Carol Gilligan, because her concern, shared by a sizable chunk of academics in the early 1980s, is the impact this strand of thought is having on academic discourse.  Although Rich, Griffin, Daly and perhaps Gearhart and Raymond were read within the academy, they had far less impact that Gilligan because they were more activist-oriented.  As Pascoe notes in a footnote, Gilligan’s work provoked a storm of academic controversy, while receiving “popular acclaim.”

However Gilligan’s In A Different Voice came out in 1982, years after activists had started their attempts to understand women’s culture (which date back, as I argue, to the same time period that historians began similar endeavors, the very early 1970s).  Again, in her epilogue, Pascoe ranges from anti-pornography to cultural feminism with no references to the writings or activities of these “contemporary feminists” who are so similar to the “New Right.”  That last comparison is the key I think to grasping the anxiety engendered (pun intended) among women’s historians in the late 1970s and early 1980s by trends in both feminist theory and activities of women’s movement people “out there.”  As the political context grew more conservative, what had been happening all along, an interest in what it meant to be “woman,” exploration of alternate structures of religion, the family, society etc, took on new, more fraught meaning, as they appeared to dovetail with the backlash.  Of course, the work of The Politics of Women’s Culture is to untangle all those moments.

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