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Adrienne Rich – feminist history

June 15, 2013

In a (reprinted) 1983 Clark Lecture, Adrienne Rich once addressed the issue of history as it relates to feminism (and, by extension, other activisms more generally). Rich stated:

“As a woman, as a feminist, as a Jew, as a Lesbian, I am pursued by questions of historical process, of historical responsibility, questions of historical consciousness and ignorance and what these have to do with power. And, as a poet, I would be unfaithful to my own trade if I did not recognize the debt that poetry owes to the historical impulse of oral tradition. Many of the enduring devices of the earliest written poetry were mnemonic in origin – repetitions of sound and phrase built into the structure of a narrative to assist memory, the first purpose of the poem being to keep alive the memory of a people. Tribes and peoples throughout the world have embodied this need for the past in poetry. So we can speak of the debt that history owes to poets, not only in terms of how memory is passed on orally and a heritage transmitted, but in terms of how written poetry has kept history alive. And I don’t mean just the obvious – as how Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales evokes a vanished society – but the preservation of collective experience in poems like Thomas Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing,’ Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die,’ Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Lines’ and ‘Losses,’ Kadia Molodowsky’s ‘White Night,’ Audre Lorde’s ‘Afterimages,’ poems which though individual and subjective speak for a whole community, of world wars, of urban uprising, of the Holocaust, of lynching.” (p.15)

Historical responsibility has… to do with action – where we place the weight of our existences on the line, cast our lot with others, move from an individual consciousness to a collective one. But we all need to begin with the individual consciousness: How did we come to be where we are and not elsewhere?” (p.18)

“What, then, is the meaning of history if one is a woman [and adolescent/ a child?]? And what is feminist […] history?” (p.18)

“…it is the historian who invests with meaning the history she or he writes or who may leave gaps in meaning, blur the focus.” (p.18)

As differentiated from women’s history, feminist history does not perpetuate the mainstream by simply invoking women to make the mainstream appear more inclusive. It is not simply contributory; it demands that we turn the questions upside down, that we ask women’s questions where they have not been asked before. Feminist history is not history about women only; it looks afresh at what men have done and how they have behaved, not only toward women but toward each other and the natural world. But the central perspective and preoccupation is female, and this implies a vast shift in values and priorities.” (p.18) [and what might this mean when reconsidering the place of different ages in history?]

“…early European feminism derived from the opportunities afforded by privilege; it was the response of some educated women to the ‘wearisome and obscene’ woman loathing in the writings of the Humanists. …it was also finally limited by the isolation of privilege.In their efforts to counter the Humanists’ insistence on women’s moral and intellectual inferiority, these women were well aware that ‘histories are constructed from a male position.’ But they believed that if they could only demonstrate rationally that women were capable of, and that some had achieved, intellectual stature and powers of leadership, misogyny would collapse under proof of its mistakes and social change would come about through enlightenment. In pursuit of such proofs, the early French feminists turned for models to famous learned women, to queens and aristocratic women and female warriors of the past. Kelly points out that, as a result, in an era when the power of women in general was declining ever more rapidly, these feminists ‘had little knowledge of the lives of most other women and did not look to them as a source of power. For all their fierce retorts to misogyny, for example, they never noticed its single most horrendous expression in early modern Europe, the hanging or burning alive of some 100,000 or more women as witches.’ Had they done so, they might have felt impelled to move from theory to activism and to wider definitions of women and power.” (p.20)

“As we claim our history as women, feminism demands that we give attention not only to patriarchal misogyny, but also to the chauvinisms of ethnicity and class and heterosexuality which prevent us from ‘seeing’ whole groups of women. As long as we separate the history of white and middle-class women from the history of colored and poor women we are not only missing powerful lines of insight, we are perpetuating our own fragmentation. It is a feminist view of history that demands new texts – what Joan Kelly called a new periodization and what I would call a new cultural orientation – that will save women’s history from trickling into the history books as mere lists of names appended to history-as-usual. A new cultural orientation may help us, as women, not to write books in which other women’s lives are misconstrued or ignored.” (p.20)

“As we reclaim metaphors of women weavers and spinners, and the word spinster itself; as we sing the ‘Bread and Roses’ anthem of the nineteenth-century Lawrence, Massachusetts, mill girls; as we search with awe and pride into the flare and authority of women’s imaginations translated into quilts, and study the histories secreted in colors, stitches, materials; as we write our elegies for the women burned to death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, let us not fail to be aware of the history still being played out by the nineteen year old Filipino woman sewing the difficult side seam along the denim cloth of a Levi’s blue jean pant leg in a new industrial zone outside Manilla.” (p.20)

As students, you can ask yourselves and your teachers: What is missing, who is missing, in the versions of history, the canons of literature, we are being taught? You can refuse to be put off from Women’s Studies [and Adolescent of Children’s Literature Studies] courses by the fear of being identified as feminists, by the fear that you may learn things which will make you angry, by the fear that you will not be seen as a serious student. When you are enrolled in courses in the study of women [or children or adolescents], you can ask yourselves: Which women [adolescents/children…] are being talked about? White women only? Women attached to middle- and upper-class men? Heterosexual women only? Black and white women, without reference to women of Asian, American Indian, Latina origin? Where are the Jewish women? The Arab women? Black and white in this country have a long and specific history together, but Black and white are not the only colors used to discriminate against and select among people. You can question generalizations which are made from a white perspective as if they are applied to all women. You can, at the same time, be searching for the patterns of history shared by women everywhere.
As teachers, we have to become students again, continually. We have to do what workers on any intellectual frontier have always had to do: push beyond the limits of our training, look to new kinds of sources.” (p.21)

“Our theory, scholarship, and teaching must continue to refer back to flesh, blood, violence, sexuality, anger, the bread put on the table by the single mother and how it gets there, the body of the woman aging, the pregnant body, the body running, the body limping, the hands of the lesbian touching another lesbian’s face, the hands of the typist, of the midwife, of the sewing machine operator, the eyes of the woman astronomer, of the woman going blind on the transistor assembly line, of the mother catching the briefest expression on the child’s face: the particularity and commonality of this vast turbulence of female becoming, which is continually being erased or generalized.” (p.21)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Adrienne Rich (1990) Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life. Woman of Power 16; pp.15-21

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