Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 376 pp. Cloth, $110.00, ISBN:9780521879927, Paper, $34.95, ISBN: 9781107400399)
Jill Fields, ed. Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists (New York: Routledge, 2011. 345 pp. Cloth, $150, ISBN 0415887682, Paper, $42.95, ISBN: 0415887690)
Eileen Hayes, Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics and Women’s Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 248 pp. Cloth $75.00, ISBN 0252035143, Paper $25.00, ISBN: 0252076982)
In recent years, a variety of scholars have broadened the scope of histories of the U.S. women’s movement of the 1970s. The three books addressed in this review by a historian, a communication studies scholar and a music ethnographer, all contribute to this effort by documenting forms of activism in “second wave” feminism that have largely been ignored or marginalized in prior works. All three authors argue that culture comprised a crucial form of activist practice in the women’s liberation movement. This thesis sets these works at odds with Alice Echols’ enormously influential interpretation of the women’s liberation movement in which “radical feminism” declines into “cultural feminism”. In this narrative, culture is construed as oppositional to a narrowly defined notion of politics and to activism in general.
In Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists editor Jill Fields wants to broaden the historical narrative to allow artists into the picture. Bronstein attempts to rescue early anti-violence against women activists from inclusion in the larger anti-pornography movement in Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986. Finally Eileen Hayes’ Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics and Women’s Music incorporates black women’s music into the history of radical feminism.
Fields’ introductory essay for Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program, and the Collective Visions of Women Artists documents the activities and impact of a seldom-discussed Feminist Art Program (FAP) at California State University, Fresno that began in 1970. Fields argues that how we remember things about the past matters for the history of women’s liberation: “Remembering the Fresno Feminist Art Program augments understandings of the relationship between the larger women’s movement and the feminist art movement it spawned and was and enlarged and enriched by” (2-3).
The articles in Entering the Picture, half of which have been previously published, range from individual accounts to international perspectives. Singular perspectives from the FAP faculty emerge in excerpts from Gail Levin’s biography of Judy Chicago, as well as a Chicago’s own edited remarks from a symposium “Celebrating 30 Years of Feminist Art in Fresno and Beyond,” organized by Fields in March 2001. Jennie Klein offers an excellent assessment at Rita Yokoi’s tenure as the head of the Feminist Art program, which lasted for one year after Chicago’s departure. Lillian Faderman provides a first hand perspective that focuses on Joyce Aikens, who led the program following Yokoi until 1992 when her retirement brought it to an end.
Student perspectives are amply documented in excerpts from Moira Roth’s 1990 interview with Suzanne Lacy. Nancy Youdelman and Karen Le Coq re-worked their symposium talks to offer “Reflections on the First Feminist Art Program.” Laura Meyers, an art historian at Fresno, analyzes, with FAP student Faith Wilding, the pedagogy of the Feminist Art Program.
A cluster of articles trace the development of the feminist art pedagogy started at Fresno to other sites in Southern California. Paula Harper’s early piece on the “First Feminist Art Program” actually focuses on Cal Arts, a successor program started by Chicago with Miriam Schapiro in 1972. The “third” feminist art program, the Feminist Studio Workshop started by Chicago, along with Arlene Raven and Sheila de Bretteville at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building in 1973, provides the background to Phranc’s hilariously titled “Your Vagina Smells Fine Now Naturally” about her introduction to feminist art education.
Yet another cluster of articles focuses on the “collective visions of women artists” that developed contemporaneously outside southern California. Terezita Romo contributes a wonderful exploration of the San Francisco Mujers Muralista. Johanna Gardner-Huggett’s consideration of Chicago’s Artemisia Gallery, reprinted here, offers insights into the connections between southern California and other locations. Gloria Feman Orenstein reminisces about the Woman’s Salons she helped to found in both New York and Los Angeles. Two previously published accounts of the New York feminist Art Institutes by Nancy Azara and Darla Bjork, and Katie, explore the New York Feminist Art Institute.
Finally, the widest impact of the feminist art movement is considered in a set of essays that move both geographically, and temporally, into the late twentieth century. These seven essays, which are so broad as to defy easy summarization here, in some ways relate to the other works included in Entering the Picture, but at some points seem to be linked only by their focus on “women artists.” However pieces about Chicana feminist art, Asian American women artists, American Indian women’s art, and Pacific Rim women’s arts, provide valuable contributions to the discussion of the feminist art movement, which often focuses too much on the work of white women artists.
In many ways, Entering the Picture mirrors the feminist art movement itself in its disparate approaches. Some articles are written in a scholarly tone with extensive footnotes, while others are personal narratives with no notes. The disparate approaches of the pieces may make the volume difficult to teach from and may make some pieces of more value to certain readers than to others. Ultimately, while Fields argues that scholars need a “way to evaluate the intertwined histories of the women’s movement and the feminist art movement” (11) and she has space only to sketch out an admittedly “brief and partial account of artists’ participation in the fight for women’s rights” (10), the essays in the collection offer intriguing points of departure for thinking about the connections between feminist artists’ activism and the women’s movement.
Moving forward a few years from Fresno, and following some of our same participants, most notable Suzanne Lacy, to Los Angeles, Carolyn Bronstein’s Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986 sets out to show that while Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have come to stand in for the anti-pornography movement as a whole, they were, in fact, the fourth and last stage in a long campaign that began to protest “sexualized media violence” (6). Based on exhaustive research and extensive use of archival materials, Bronstein persuasively demonstrates that the first encounters with media-based violence grew out of concern for violence against women, but morphed into a censorship-advocating, purity- pushing, anti-pornography movement.
Battling Pornography provides the details of how exactly this transformation occurred. Bronstein focuses on three successive groups, Women Against Violence Against Women, Women Against Violence and Pornography in the Media in San Francisco, and Women Against Pornography. In between she includes brief chapters on women’s dissatisfaction with the sexual revolution, the mainstreaming of pornography, and the rise of home electronics.
During the key years of 1976 to 1986, the decade between the founding of WAVAW to Supreme Court invalidation of the McKinnon statute, feminist activists traversed a lot of ground. Bronstein links developments in American popular culture, the shifting political context, and developing feminist theories about the connections between power, violence and sexuality to explain how feminist discourse shifted. Bronstein persuasively demonstrates a trajectory from an analysis of sexualized violence and voluntary eschewal of pornography to a position that viewed causal connections between sexually violent images and sexually violent acts as necessitating a legally coercive end to such images.
Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986 makes an extraordinarily important contribution to our understanding of some of the most contentious moments in women’s movement history. Bronstein writes in a clear narrative style that make her work suitable for even undergraduates, but her engagement with larger historiographical arguments means that graduate students and scholars will find the book equally valuable.
Eileen M Hayes’s Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics and Women’s Music offers an ethnographic approach to the women’s music scene. This approach shifts her focus forward chronologically, as she relies on interviews with participants, some of who participated in the “golden age” of women’s music during the 1970s, but many of who arrived on the scene long after that. Hayes sets out on an ambitious project, to locate “women’s music as a site for the generation of critical theory by black women” rooted in lesbian feminism.
Songs in Black and Lavender, the shortest work, with the most chapters, offers fascinating glimpses into many ideas. Hayes organizes her work thematically following a lengthy ethnographic “diary” of festival-goer and a chapter that delves into her methods and approaches. The story of women’s music begins in media res, with “after the golden age.” For those not familiar with what came before, it might be confusing. Subsequent chapters offer a sort of musical politics, an evaluation of the women’s music scene and separatism, and finally, a glimpse into future histories centered on the next generation of women’s musicians.
With nine chapters in just over 160 pages, the narrative of Songs in Black and Lavender reads a bit disjointed. Excluding the ethnographic first chapter and a methodological second one, the analysis of the music festivals is contained in a scant 131 pages, which may not satisfy the depth desired by some readers. In a lengthier manuscript Hayes could explore in more depth some of her key insights that have particular relevance for women’s movement history. Her reference, for example, to nostalgia as a cultural practice is particularly fascinating (49). As someone who also conducted interviews with feminist activists in the early 1990s, I immediately recognized this “discourse of nostalgia” (49) and I would have loved to have seen more consideration of how this discourse structures understandings of contemporary women’s music festivals and insights into women’s culture.
Songs in Black and Lavender is based almost exclusively on Hayes’ interviews. She makes little use of contemporaneous documentation from the era to support the existence of essentialism in women’s music. A consideration of the lyrics might have provided further evidence, but Hayes’ primary interest in the environment in which the music takes place, the larger community of women, and the culture of women’s musical festivals this would involve considerable broadening of her focus. “framework” for thinking about black women’s relationship to the “women’s culture” via music provides a much needed perspective to what is often a history of predominantly white women and is the most useful part of Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics and Women’s Music. Hayes’ excels in evoking the zeitgeist of music festival culture and as such the work will be of interest not only to participants, but to scholars who wish to get a better of sense of what this history was “like.”
Cultural feminism: the “anti-magical sign” of women’s history
Katie King, in Theory in its Feminist Travels, offered one of the earliest attacks on the Echols’ interpretation of women’s liberation movement history. She argues that from between 1968-1972 lesbianism functioned as “feminism’s magical sign,” providing an identity seemingly “outside” patriarchy and facilitating challenges to it, as well as potentially unifying women. Cultural feminism, first invoked in 1971, functions conversely in women’s history, as the “anti-magical sign” that supposed constrained challenges to patriarchy while (falsely) unifying women.(1)
While the phrase “cultural feminism” provides a conveniently terse nomenclature for a complex set of ideas, “cultural feminism” refers to both an ideological thread in “feminist theory” that is often also historicized to represent a certain period in the women’s movement.(2) Each of the works discussed here attempts to untangle these threads to reveal that culturally-based forms of activism do not equate to “cultural feminism.”
In Entering the Picture, Fields suggest that “various strands of feminism created women’s culture and feminist institutions,” implicitly replacing Echols’ bifurcated analysis in which artists, poets and writers created women’s culture as separate from women’s liberation activism, and resulted in radical feminisms transformation into “cultural feminism.” Fields is a deft scholar and in the brief space of an introductory essay, she does an admirable job of sketching out the contours of a much larger argument that connects the many artists who founded women’s liberation to the idea that “understanding more about the genealogies and locations of these [feminist artists’] innovations within the context of the larger women’s movement is vital for a fuller accounting of feminist history and more nuanced analysis of the conflicts about the place of cultural activism that have shaped feminist movements and their historiography” (17).
Battling Pornography largely answers Fields’ call. Although she relies heavily on Echols’ historical narrative, Bronstein’s analysis actually undermines it. By finely parsing the details of what is known as “the anti-pornography movement,” Bronstein reveals that while some participants relied on an ideology that could be described as “cultural feminism,” not all activism in this area was necessarily reliant on “cultural feminism,” and thus a straight line cannot be drawn between attacks on pornography and the rise of cultural feminism. Bronstein’s sympathies clearly lay with the earliest activists, particularly Women Against Violence Against Women, and she lauds not only their strategy, a consumer-based boycott of sexually violent image in the music industry, but also their methods, culturally based forms of protest. I only wish that she had eschewed the usage of the phrase “cultural feminism” in her own analysis, for while Battling Pornography clearly demonstrates the faults in the blanket application of the notion to the activists she discusses, Bronstein repeatedly invokes it as the explanatory engine for shifts in activist practices.
In keeping with her ethnographic practice, Hayes engages the least with the literature around women’s movement history. She skips over Echols to work almost exclusively form Leila Rupp, Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier, all of whom attempted to overturn Echols’ conclusions about cultural feminism. Hayes’ most elaborate argument that “manifestations of black women’s consciousness” can be found in women’s music, which she describes as “part and parcel of women’s culture” is a provocative one (1). At times she seems to suggest that that attentiveness to race overturns the assumptions behind the critique of cultural feminism, arguing that black women who participated in the women’s music scene actively attacked essentialist notions. At other times Hayes uses the term cultural feminism as an unproblematic way to reference to a certain strain of feminist thought, and tendency within women’s music. When she quotes musicians who explicitly rejected cultural feminism, it then becomes unclear whether what she describes in her book is a practice or an ideological construct imposed by scholars on these events.
However, Hayes engages with a debate more common to sociologists than historians about whether social movements must engage the state in order to be considered “political” rather than “cultural.” Hayes, following the work of Whittier, Rupp and Taylor, argues for the function of culture in “buoying women’s spirits in the process of community formation and serving as the site for hammering out, in concrete terms, certain strains of feminist theory”(5). Hayes also notes that cultural forms of activism served as an “early site of radical feminist praxis” prior to institutionalization of academic feminism (5). While Hayes wants to argue that involvement with culture is political, at some point, her argument seems caught between this assessment, and a concern with whether women’s music can be considered “political” at all.
Still Hayes’ engagement with this argument raises fascinating questions for culturally based forms of activism. For example, Bronstein’s villains, the censorship-advocating activists, clearly engaged the state, but to ends Bronstein considers a betrayal of the ideals of the women’s movement. Conversely, the consumer-based boycotts of WAVAW explicitly eschewed using the state to achieve their desired end to sexually violent images in the music industry, which would lead some scholars to conclude WAVAW was less “political.”
The disparity here hinges on a central insight of the women’s liberation movement, that the personal is political, in which political is understood as referring to power relations of all sorts, particularly patriarchy. WAVAW clearly aimed at redressing a power imbalance between women and major record companies, and won. Similarly Hayes argues that the women’s music challenged the male-dominated music industry, just as feminist artists took on the sexist art world. The activists discussed in these books offer ample evidence that culturally based forms of activism engaged power relations and should be considered as political. These works document the existence of a larger community of practice in the women’s movement. While seemingly about three discrete moments in women’s history, the authors actually document the overlaps that existed among culturally based activists. WAVAW and Olivia Records, the first recording label of women’s music, shared both space and some of the ideology that came out the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, co-founded by Judy Chicago two years after she left Fresno. Hopefully these works will encourage further exploration by scholars of the many other sites of similar practices in the women’s movement.
1. Echols’ narrative is evident in variety of histories of the women’s movement. See for example Sara Evans, Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 143-175. Scholars in many other disciplines continue to rely on Echols. See Simon Taylor and Natalie Ng, Personal And Political: The Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1975 (New York: Guild Hall, 2002), Chris Bobel, New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Martha Mockus, Sounding out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (London: Taylor & Francis, 2008).
2. See for example Clare Hemmings’ recent Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammer of Feminist Theory, which details the historical narratives told by scholars (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011).
Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
Katie King, Theory in Its Feminist Travels: Conversations in U. S. Women’s Movements. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp, “Women’s Culture and Lesbian Feminist Activism: A Reconsideration of Cultural Feminism,” Signs 19(1993): 32-61
Nancy Whittier, Feminist Generations: The Persistence of the Radical Women’s Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).
Michelle Moravec is an associate professor of history and women’s studies at Rosemont College in Philadelphia. She is currently work on a book, The Politics of Women’s Culture.