Provocations

By Susan Bordo, M. Christina Alcalde, and Ellen Rosenman, co-editors of Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Chicago.Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Tuesday, August 25th. 

The foreword mentions that your own feminist cross talk became the collection’s true editor. In constructing such a broad, transnational text, what were some of the greatest challenges that you faced in the construction of Provocations, particularly in terms of placing very different readings in conversation with one another?

SB: One of the biggest challenges was not intellectual, but learning to be joyously collaborative rather than watchful and protective of our respective “turf.” We started out with a great deal of respect and affection for each other, which was a huge plus. But even so, coming from different disciplines and knowledgable about different areas (national and topical), we had our own ideas about what to include and what couldn’t be left out. This is the jagged reef on which many collaborations founder, as issues of inclusion and exclusion are so charged–and often in highly personal ways. Most academic feminists have still-raw memories of being shut out of conversations, having our concerns trivialized, having the traditions we love marginalized. Even the most successful among us have wounds of exclusion that can easily be re-opened. And of course, we all have blind spots in our own perspectives.

You can’t will away these very human limitations. But you can commit to not letting them destroy your process. That meant bringing a certain emotional equanimity and generosity to our discussions.  When sore spots were irritated, we learned not to let our knee-jerk reactions dominate, and we continually reminded each other that including everything we wanted to was a fantasy that couldn’t be realized by any collection. Once you let fantasy that go, you become open to excitement over the connections that you do discover rather than annoyed at what is left out. And that’s when the collaboration starts to bubble and pop, and you begin to see the world in a different way.

CA: I absolutely agree with what Susan writes above. From the time we began working on the collection to when we finally completed it, the organization of the book and crosstalk went through several iterations as we discussed what each of us envisioned, and learned from those discussions and the readings we selected.  Having a deep respect and affection for each other (and for this project!) helped us explore and recognize the parameters of what we could and could not include, since we knew from the start it would be impossible to include all world areas, time periods, feminisms, and topics one or more of us might be interested in including.  The bigger the project became, the more exciting it was to find connections, yet the more questions about texts, ideas in those texts, and decisions about how and why to include or not include something in a section we faced.

ER: Of course, I agree with both of you! It’s hard to separate the intellectual challenges from the interpersonal/process ones, because one of the wonderful thing about feminist work is the seriousness,  intensity, and commitment that people bring to it. The passion of our colleagues challenged all of us to assess our own assumptions about feminist thought. I think we were lucky to begin with a collection of scholars rather than a table of contents, because we immediately confronted dynamic points of view and complex ideas rather beginning with a static, impossible “coverage” structure — a series of empty boxes already labeled and awaiting content. Placing the readings in conversation with each other was actually not that difficult – the connections emerged in ways that were organic yet often surprising. Because we looked for rich instances of feminist thought without the constraint of coverage, the readings raised multiple issues and engaged in multiple conversations across time and space, intentionally or not.

Were you able to uncover new insights or discussions between your areas of feminist specialty and areas you may have been less knowledgeable about?

SB: All the time! There’s so much that we attribute to the fiction we call “the West” that is happening at roughly the same time in different ways across the globe. Sometimes the parallels are the result of actual “cross-talk” or various cultural or geographical interactions. But sometimes, too, there seems to be a more mysterious transnational convergence of concerns and ideas. One of the biggest discoveries, for me, as a historian of ideas, was learning how transnational the “Querelle des femmes”–the 15th and 16th century debate about “woman’s” reason, morality, virtues–was. I’ll never teach Cristine de Pizan again without teaching Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz at the same time. Discoveries such as this explode–in a concrete rather than theoretical way–the very notion that there is such a thing as “our” history (no matter how the “our” is designated.)

CA: Yes! I’ll only mention a few examples to add to those Susan already mentioned. The essay co-written with Srimati Basu and Emily Burrill, on violence against women in Peru, Mali, and India was a great a way for us to examine 9780520264229connections and differences among three contexts and for us to approach the broad topic of violence against women in a way that made sense to three scholars, each with distinct training and expertise. The essays by Ciasullo and Mogrovejo similarly approach a broad topic, lesbian movements, from distinct perspectives and I think readers will be interested in the similarities and differences across these contexts. Nnaemeka’s essay on African feminisms similarly expands discussions of feminisms, colonialism, and womanism. These and others, we hope, will provide additional areas of expertise and examples to those of us teaching who want to expand what we teach in feminist thought, social movements, or history of feminisms.

ER: Because my scholarship has focused primarily on England and the United States, I learned an enormous amount about feminisms around the globe.  I was struck by the similar questions encountered by British suffragettes and the women activists in Cristina Alcalde’s essay – what role, if any, should violence play in feminist activism? And I discovered the wit and insight of Gu Ruopu from China and Tarabai Shinde from India, whom I will now include in my classes on women writers. At the same time, I learned a lot about material I thought I already knew, such as the tensions around race, class, and sexuality in what we sometimes call second wave Anglo-American feminism. That period is sometimes treated in a simplified way, almost as a series of slogans, but the anthology emphasizes the nuances of those conflicts and the extent to which feminists in different camps were talking to each other, trying to figure out difficult problems that hadn’t been articulated before.

In what ways does Provocations emphasize new approaches and perspectives to feminist thought?

SB: For a long time, I’ve been frustrated by how readily feminists have allowed–even encouraged–the erasure of our intellectual accomplishments. Neither Plato nor Foucault (just two examples) have gotten wiped from the curriculum because of their failure to attend to gender or race. But whole traditions of feminist thought have been discarded by later feminists because of their “ethnocentrism.” As a result, intellectual breakthroughs that should properly be seen as inaugurated by feminists–examples: the “politics” of the body, the development of social constructionist thought–continue to be attributed to male thinkers. The sense of feminist intellectual and creative history also gets lost when anthologies are thematically organized (as they often are, lumping various periods and thinkers together under topics like “Bodies,” “Work,” “Activism,” etc.) or when sheer “diversity” becomes paramount rather than context and connection.

At the same time as we wanted to restore a sense of historical movements to the study of feminist thought, we definitely didn’t want to do a “history of feminist thought” that followed the same-old lines of the traditional “Western” narratives.  And we wanted to explore how the categories mapping history change when you put both feminism and transnationalism at the forefront.  You can’t do everything, of course, so we concentrated less on sheer historical coverage or maximum “diversity” and more on inspiring, provocative, challenging periods of transnational activity whose convergences and divergences could be chewed over, explored, analyzed.  We hope that readers will come away not just having been introduced to “more” feminist thought but new ways to think about the history of feminist thought.  In editing the book, we certainly were!

ER: In addition to what Susan has said so well, the contextual essays constitute a new approach to presenting feminist thought to students. As I teacher, I’m ambivalent about venturing beyond my scholarly comfort zone, especially since I value historical context in my own work. On the one hand, I want to expand students’ knowledge – and my own — beyond the modern English-speaking world, but on the other, I don’t want to present material superficially or irresponsibly. The anthology will give teachers more confidence about teaching out of their areas.  It also presents “feminist thought” as a dynamic, shifting series of engagements, interactions, and revisions rather than a series of canned statements about familiar topics such as sexuality and motherhood. We hope readers will come to understand that these topics came to be familiar – in fact, they came to crystalize as topics — because of the persistence with which women throughout history and around the world grappled with their experiences and their worlds.

Susan Bordo is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. Her publications include Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body; The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private; and The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen.

M. Cristina Alcalde is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is author of The Woman in the Violence: Gender, Poverty, and Resistance in Peru and numerous articles on migration, gender violence, race, and masculinities.

Ellen Rosenman is Provost’s Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kentucky . She is author of The Invisible Presence: Virginia Woolf and the Mother-Daughter Relationship and Unauthorized Pleasures: Accounts of Victorian Erotic Experience, as well as coeditor of Other Mothers: Beyond the Maternal Ideal.