On the triple origins of the concept of women’s culture
As I’ve been writing the first chapters of the Politics of Women’s Culture, I’ve been refining and reformulating my ideas about the development of the concept. While it is clear that the women’s liberation movement preceded academic feminists in discussing the concept, I wondered still about the origins of the emphasis on culture itself.
The counterculture, black culture, working class culture, everywhere culture was in the zeitgeist. I’ve written a bit about the role of Marcuse in introducing culture to the New Left, but was left wondering still about antecedents and models. Much discussion occurred in the “movement” of working class culture. While the key work of Gramsci was not translated into English until the mid 1980s, Marxist consideration of culture came to the New Left in America via E.P. Thompson (1963, rev ed 1968) and Raymond Williams, while Americanist historians Hubert Gutman and Eugene Genovese pioneered studies that were equally influential I think on the development of U.S. historians’ ideas of women’s culture.
Thanks I’m sure to the efforts of the Buhles, Radical America, one of the most interesting periodicals (and chock full of soon to be academic historians, as well as activists wtih PhDs) from the long decade known as the “sixties” which in my mind runs from the (assassination of Kennedy to the resignation of Nixon) is now completely digitized.
The March-April 1969 issue dedicated to the topic of the Working Class and Culture, contains a literature review on the white working class, authored by a host of graduate students, intended to clear away the “myths” about the working class and offer greater insights into “class conscious” in five areas: American working class, working classes in other countries, sociological studies of the American worker, racism and ethnic conflict in working class “sub-cultures” and finally “working class culture” proper, dealing with novels, eschewing the “old left” “proletarian culture,” in favor of “modern working class youth culture.”
The authors discuss prominent American historians who built on the scaffloding first erected by European Marxist historians. Lemisch and Gutman, as well as Stephen Thernstrom, of whom I must confess ignorance although once I see the title Poverty and Progress I pull up a hazy memory) feature prominently. Of course Montgomery and Woodward make appearances in the chronologically structured sections that follow, although I must confess surprise to see Handlin included here. Women mentioned in this section include Carolyn F Ware and Hannah Josephson, both of whom about which I must also confess complete ignorance.
The section on Europeans opens with Thompson, who is recommended as mandatory reading for all, and Hobsbawm. No women at all in this section. File under sociology gets us oddly enough not to Mills, who is included with the U.S. historians, but Whyte and Mirra Komarovsky.
A whole host of DWEM are listed as writing the Great Novels about working class culture in the depression era, while the (mostly) DWEMs on the post-war era are condemned for focusing on the upper and middle classes. However Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers appear on the list of lesser known peeps writing about subcultures of the Southern working class variety.
By the time I reach working class youth culture I must admit I’m almost expecting a cite to Brando in the Wild One
“what are you rebelling against, Chuny?” “what have you got?”
but instead I’m treated to a pretty balanced assessment of the admittedly Madison Avenue created “radical youth culture” (aka the counterculture) which has diluted the original “rebelliousness” of the New Left, but at least has created something of a lingua franca among the young protest set.
The authors acknowledge that
“behind the appeals of these forms of protest (dress, music, et cetera) lie a new recognition that young people are rejecting some of the same controls – the draft, police, high schools — and this opens up new possibilities for organizing.”
The article ends however with the caution that this youth culture is not sufficient and that by their twenties working kids may have quietly taken their places on the factory floor unless the movement manages to mobilize them.
In an article on working class historiography, Paul Faler argues that
“within the larger context of social history, E.P. Thompson in England and Herbert Gutman in the United States have vastly enlarged our knowledge of the magnitude of industrialization; its impact on the social structure, values, and traditions of a previous way of life [aka the culture]”
From Thompson’s notion of shared experiences over a long period of time, obviously culture becomes central to class formation and influential in determining consciousness, as the author notes, invoking Thompson’s oft quoted
“class consciousness is the way in which these class experiences are handled in cultural terms”
The Gutman here is not the Gutman I knew best in graduate school, the author of books on slave family and religion and critic of quantitative analyses of slavery that I dutifully digested for comps, but rather something of a lesser, American-based Thompson. For my purposes here, that the author notes Gutman’s emphasis on a common culture shared by “workingmen and middle class” is interesting for its echoing of later criticisms of the universalizing tendency of women’s culture.
All in all the “American working class culture” comes off as far less distinct than its English counterpart, which seems not too surprising to me given them more rigid class stratification associated with England as opposed to the States. What also struck me forcefully were the explorations of pre-industrial society by these historians which reminded me of early women’s liberationists excursions into the pre-historical.
It is somewhat startling, if already well documented by prior generations of feminist scholars, to see gender wholly excluded from these discussions of “industrializing cultures and subcultures” so woven into our understanding of American history are everyone from the young women of the first textile mills to the immigrant women of the twentieth-century garment factories.
Those omissions helped me to understand just how tenuous was the ground underneath the feet of those women’s historians who dared to argue that women comprised an oppressed class on the pages of Radical America.