If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Born a slave in 1797, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Isabella van Wagenen had changed her name to Sojourner Truth, escaped enslavement, and was involved in abolitionist and women’s rights organizing. Her speech was delivered at an 1850 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The question that she raises in this speech—Arn’t I a Woman?—takes aim at the ways that white women had built a movement for women’s rights that did not consider the wide variety of experiences of women. She offers a critique of white women’s activism in the same breath that she offers a critique of social, political, and economic systems that white women were rejecting. This is an early and poignant example of what we will come to define as intersectional thinking in gender studies.
As you watch:
- Pay attention to the ways that Truth draws on faith to make arguments about equality and justice
- Consider the ways that Truth’s description of her own life pushes both women’s rights activists and their critics to expand definitions of womanhood
- List all of the reasons why Truth believes that women ought to have rights equal to men
I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a major figure in early twentieth century English literature. Born into a well to do bourgeois but bohemian family, Woolf was given free reign over the books in her father’s library. But unlike her brothers, she was not sent to university, despite her obvious aptitudes and vivid interest in learning. Woolf turned her attention to writing and produced some of the most celebrated and in some eyes radical literary works of her time.
In the video below, you’ll see Irish actor Fiona Shaw perform an adaptation of several sections of Woolf’s long essay A Room Of One’s Own, published in England in 1929. A Room of One’s Own is a masterful series of essays in which Woolf practices her trademark “stream of consciousness” style of writing. The book is structured around the challenge of preparing a lecture to a group of students in a women’s college. Emphasizing the perennial under-valuing of women’s education and women’s contributions to knowledge more generally, the essay describes the differences between Mirton—her name for the spartan and underfunded women’s college—and Oxbridge, a prestigious and well funded, though also imaginary, college for men. Ultimately, she argues that the women students at Mirton are starting from scratch, with very little financial and cultural support, whereas the men who study at Oxbridge are supported with generations of financial investment, libraries full of books that were written for and about them, and a virtually unquestionable cultural support for the enterprise of men’s formal education.
An important question to arise from Woolf’s work is this: Why have there been no great women? Why have there been no female equivalents to Shakespeare? No female Michelangelo? No female Galileo? Pushing back against the conventions of her time, she says that the answer has nothing to do with biological capacity and everything to do with the social and financial circumstances that shape who we become.
As you watch:
- Woolf is celebrated for the style that she uses in her writing—pay attention to how she writes and how it makes you feel about women, writing, and freedom of mind.
- Woolf says that women need a room of their own in order to write fiction; use references from the text to determine whether she means this as a metaphor.
In the video below, you’ll see Irish actor Fiona Shaw perform Shakespeare’s Sister at the Almeida Theatre in London, UK.
Shaw’s performance is complemented here by a brief video in which women writers share their contemporary perspective on Woolf’s insistence that women’s creativity is possible only in conditions of stability.
. . .the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement” in Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3/4, 2014, pp. 271
The Combahee River Collective was a group of black American lesbian feminists who critiqued both the racism of the white women’s movement and the sexism of black nationalism, Black Power, and other anti-racist movements in the U.S. and abroad. The authors of the Black Feminist Statement argue that white feminism has not addressed the interlocking nature of oppressions. Note that although they do not use the term intersectionality, members of the Combahee River Collective are certainly developing a theory that contributes to the field of intersectional feminisms.
Before reading “A Black Feminist Statement,” we’ll watch a portion of a Democracy Now interview between American journalist Amy Goodman and Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The conversation between Goodman and Taylor provides a solid introduction to the history of collective and its contributions to contemporary Women of Color feminisms.
As you read:
- Reflect on the role that capitalism plays in the Combahee River Collective’s analyses of black women’s oppression
- Try to discern what the authors of the statement mean by the term “reconceptualization of American society”
- Look for explicit critiques of the white women’s movement and white feminism
Find the Combahee River Collective reading here.
. . .a single, normative definition of Indigenous feminism remains impossible because Indigenous women’s circumstances vary enormously throughout colonizing societies, where patriarchy dominates, and in Indigenous communities with distinct histories and cultural traditions.Shari Huhndorf and Cheryl Suzack, “Indigenous Feminism: Theorizing the Issues”in Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism and Culture (UBC Press, 2010), pp. 2
Peace River Rising is a short film by Coty Savard featuring Helen Knott, a Dane-Zaa/Nehiway social worker, poet, and activist. Knott introduces viewers to her home territory, which has been dramatically and violently transformed by pipelines and industrial development. A discussion of the abuse and disrespect of the land draws her directly toward a discussion of the abuse and violence that is disproportionately aimed at Indigenous women. From her perspective as an Indigenous woman, the land and women’s bodies are connected. Her hope for a new world begins refusing the silence, erasure, and invisibility of gendered colonial violence.
In addition to the short documentary, we’ll read a short piece written by Indigenous artist, activist, and scholar Robyn Bourgeois (Lubicon) that was published in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law. Her review of a book titled Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, and Culture, Bourgeois offers a clear description of the challenges involved in drawing together feminism and indigenous activism.
Some Indigenous activists—for instance, Patricia Monture, whose perspective is outlined in the first paragraphs of Bourgeois’ review—reject feminism because it cannot be disentangled from settler colonialism. Others argue that feminism can be adopted and applied in ways that can contribute to the empowerment of Indigenous women. In addition to providing descriptions of the issues at stake in the relationship between white settler feminism and indigenous approaches, Bourgeois’ review is valuable for this module because it emphasizes that there is not one Indigenous feminism, but rather many Indigenous feminisms.
As you read:
- Pay attention to the the wide variety of Indigenous, feminist, and Indigenous feminist positions described in Bourgeois’ review
- Drawing on your reading of this and other articles in this module, consider the ways in which feminist theories are often plagued by what Monture describes as “exclusions and intrusions” (see page 153 in Bourgeois)
Find the Bourgeois reading here.
First, we need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom… Second, we must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing.Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104.3: 2002, pp. 786
In her book Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving, Palestinian-American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod asks after the ways that Western governments and Western feminists have represented Muslim women as victims in need of rescue. This article was written as part of a special issue of the scholarly journal American Anthropologist on the topic of the War on Terrorism. She notes that in the years immediately following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, there was a concerted effort to represent muslim women, and particularly Afghan women, as victims in need of liberation. In this narrative, Muslim women are represented as victims of a dominating and patriarchal culture, and American politicians, soldiers, and activists are represented as saviors from a post-patriarchal world.
Abu-Lughod draws on media representations of Muslim women in the West in order to emphasize the need for a transnational feminism. Transnational feminism avoids polarizations that place feminism on the side of the West. Transnational feminism also recognizes that feminist visions for women’s liberation are always culturally and historically situated.
As you read:
- Consider how Abu-Lughod’s description of veiling changes your understanding of veiling, burqa, or Afghan women’s lives more generally
- Make note of the parallels that Abu-Lughod draws in her article between American efforts to free women from the burka, on the one hand, and earlier colonial efforts to “save” Muslim women from Muslim men, on the other
Find the Abu-Luhgod reading here.