Sunday, October 09, 2011

Directions in Feminism

I've blogged in the past about wanting to read more deeply in feminism, but though I knew of some of the authors I wanted to sample, I have to admit that I was unsure of the direction I wanted this reading to take me. This had more to do with wanting to make the best use of my time, given my already existing concerns. And though I did intend to read such authors as Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly and Catherine MacKinnon (and still do), I somehow felt uncertain about the path I should take through the literature. I needed some help.

Then this past Spring, I learned of the deaths of two woman writers whose existences, not to mention their bodies of work, were previously completely unknown to me—Sara Ruddick and Joanna Russ. In March, Ruddick's New York Times obituary informed me of her classic book, Maternal Thinking, the mere title of which set off a series of hopeful connective explosions in my mind. I ordered the book immediately and read it greedily upon its arrival. Then I was intrigued by Ethan's May Day post remembering Joanna Russ, the feminist critic and science fiction writer whose fiction "was everything science fiction should be and very rarely is: experimental both in style and content, feminist, vicious, sure as hell not techno-utopian". I knew right away that I was going to need to read this writer, too (and I read with interest other memorial posts, for example by Matthew Cheney and, especially, Timmi Duchamp).

That I had never heard of either Ruddick or Russ, while frustrating, now seems weirdly appropriate, given the arguments Russ herself made about the exclusion, and disappearance, of women from male-written and -dominated histories and canons. A writer such as Emily Dickinson, for example, while certainly recognized for her greatness, and indeed canonized, is systematically isolated from her female literary influences, so that she is seen as odd, as having come from nowhere, relevant to no one but herself. In my own reading life, I have often meant to read more women writers, but I had great difficulty coming up with names to pursue or people to ask. When I did happen upon one I liked, she seemed to pop up, again, out of nowhere, connected to no one else. Or there'd be one name, or three, but they were still dwarfed by the number of apparently worthy male writers still and constantly coming to my attention. Some of this personal history was a function of my own now-eradicated desire to "keep up", and much of it, I am sure, was simply a function of being male myself. But even (especially?) as I focused more and more on modernism, here too, the writers I sought out and subsequently read were almost exclusively male.

While Russ emerges as a science fiction writer, and theorist of science fiction, of considerable interest to me, both Russ and Ruddick have emerged as vitally important feminist thinkers and all important pointers towards other thinkers and writers (this is true even though I've still, to date, read just one book by each of them; in Russ's case, it's the novel The Female Man, which includes an introduction featuring several fascinating passages from Russ's criticism, as well as material from interviews and letters: it is really this introductory material, along with certain portions of the novel, rather than the novel as a whole, which has made Russ seem central; Ethan's various posts on Russ, as well as our conversations, have contributed mightily as well). In Ruddick's case, I was attracted to her book because, as I've noted here previously, it was really the politics and practices of birth and of childcare that originally moved my feminism in a more radical direction. I quickly perceived that her project fit in with what I have been thinking, but which I have had difficulty articulating, in part because I've been extremely wary of coming off as the Man pronouncing on birth matters to women. That my thinking has been heavily influenced by the experiences of the women in my life, as well as their own ideas, has not removed this feeling of wariness and uncertainty. Ruddick, among other things, argues on behalf of a conception of mothering as a (non-automatic) choice to respond to the demand for care. That this demand is usually made of women, and responded to by women, forms a crucial part of the experience of women, while also, in a practical sense, pointing towards a certain kind of politics, in which care, and its demand, are central.

I think Maternal Thinking is a great book. As I said above, I read it with great excitement. Here, finally, was the book I'd been wanting to read, the arguments I wanted to know and expand on. By placing birth and care central to a political argument, but, crucially, without resorting to any kind of essentialism, Ruddick both made a lot of sense and helped solidify my own sense of things. Even better, it opened up a vista of possibilities for future reading and study, in feminism, philosophy, history, and science. Before long, I was reading Adrienne Rich's great book, Of Woman Born (itself a bibliographical goldmine) and Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body and The Flight to Objectivity (seriously, how could I resist a book by that title?? It turns out that book is not quite what my fevered imagination thought it would be. It's much better and more complicated than that. Incidentally, I had of course heard of Rich, though never read her poetry, but I'd also heard of Bordo, courtesy of Stan Goff, through whom I'd also learned some years ago of Maria Mies). Most of these authors refer in places to famous works by Barbara Ehrenreich & Deidre English (including For Her Own Good, a book I'd read years ago, but which somehow did not point me towards other reading), and especially to Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Science and Gender and Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (the latter book being another Goff pointer). The list of authors and titles to investigate grows ever longer, yet is much more focused than before (and the intention to read Dworkin, Daly, MacKinnon, and others remains, but now I feel better about where to go, how their works will fit in with what I've already read).

Here, then, is a body of literature, a community of study and political activity, previously more or less invisible to me, self-described leftwing feminist white male of a certain age. (Check out the skimpy Wikipedia pages for most of these authors, too.) My plan is to explore some of these books and ideas in the coming months.


David Auerbach said...

Have to add a plug for Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To, in my opinion her masterwork, designed to resist any sort of assimilation whatsoever. Though I don't think she meant herself to be overlooked to the extent that she was; chronic illness pretty much killed her writing career in the middle of her peak, alas.

I cannot claim any expertise, but the figures that I feel articulate some of what you mention most vigorously and radically are Laura Riding and Ingeborg Bachmann.

Richard said...

Thanks, David.

Yes, I meant to mention We Who Are About To as a book that is very much at the top of my list of books to read soon (inter-library loan has been uncooperative). Ethan has blogged about it a few times, which really put it on my radar.

I have read one collection of Bachmann's stories, and liked it a lot. Thanks for the reminder, and also for the Laura Riding recommendation.