Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema
By Laura Horak
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016, 311 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
Clothing offers a visible and sometimes even measurable marker of gender and sexuality. That makes it ripe for study within the visual medium of film. The film scholar Laura Horak makes an impressive debut with Girls Will Be Boys by looking at how clothes relate to gender roles during cinema’s formative years, from 1908 to 1934. That’s before commercialization, consolidation, and the star system cemented Hollywood as one of the United States’ most potent cultural exports. It’s also before those influences narrowed Hollywood’s depictions of what supposedly makes a girl a girl, a woman a lesbian, and so forth.
Horak wants readers to know that gender rigidity, and the negativity associated with lesbians in particular, hasn’t always been cinema’s norm. The forgetting of film history is one of the book’s top concerns, and it’s a legitimate one. Cross-dressed images of the international stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn (who are discussed at length in chapter five) could jar even an educated cinemagoer into thinking, “Wow, she dressed as a man and kept getting roles?” Yet their films are in circulation and frequently studied. Girls Will Be Boys offers an explanation.
Horak’s research singlehandedly increases the record of silent-era films known to include crossed-dressed women from 37 to more than 400. Sadly, only some 200 of the films still exist. Horak tracked them down and provides scene analyses that in some cases measure down to the second. Throughout the book she effectively deploys this research, using quotes from film reviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, film ephemera, and more to illuminate and bolster her case. Moreover she includes a list of films and their archival locations in the book’s appendix.
Horak’s two-part book opens with an explanation of why females were so frequently cast as male characters in early American cinema. It wasn’t to pander for laughs or incur moral scorn. Rather, during the boom era for “female boy performers,” from 1908 to 1921 (a majority of the 476 total films Horak considers are of young women in boy roles), it was thought that only a girl actor could embody the ideal of boyhood on screen. “Female boys were considered more expressive, more beautiful, more innocent, and more vulnerable than boys played by male actors,” Horak explains. She ties this to a shifting appraisal of youth in general: “In contrast to Puritan and Enlightenment conceptions of the child as fallen or flawed, the Romantic child was innocent, spiritual, and wise. The child’s beauty attested to its goodness.”
Moral heft was exactly what the burgeoning form of cinema sought in its early years. That’s why casting girls in boys’ roles was a common practice among film companies like Vitagraph, Biograph, and Thanhouser, among others. The intent and result, according to Horak, was to improve cinema’s reputation and brand film companies as respectable. After all, they were borrowing the cultural cachet from the theater, where cross-dressing goes back centuries. (While Horak provides scant discussion of cross-dressed male performers, she maintains that those roles were limited to comedy. She observes, “While men’s clothing could make women more attractive to both men and women on-screen, women’s clothing most often made men undesirable to everyone.”)
So it was that the adolescent Marie Eline, who strikes an androgynous pose in tuxedo and top hat on the book’s cover, became the star of Thanhouser Company by playing both girl and boy roles. An exemplar of the era, Eline played boys “in at least thirty-seven films between 1910 and 1914, when she was between the ages of eight and twelve,” writes Horak. What’s more, Eline was dubbed the Thanhouser Kid and dressed in both boy and girl garb in publicity photos. In a similar case, Edna “Billy” Foster played boys in fourteen D.W. Griffith films and was marketed predominantly as a boy. She and Eline set the scene for Horak’s deeper plunge into the complicated ways in which female boys predominated in the films of the 1910s and how studios and critics accepted and even embraced cross-gender casting.
(As a comparison, it’s hard to imagine the gender-neutral billing of a contemporary child actor, especially when The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (1989 – 1994) delivered Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera; and Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus got their starts in cultural machines like the Disney Channel. One could argue that in adulthood these celebrities are gendered—and heterosexualized—to the point of parody.)
Horak maintains a respectably studious tone, so she does not dramatically leap from the Thanhouser Kids to the Mickey Mouse Club, but she does situate herself within contemporary scholarship. For example, in chapter two, when she shifts into a discussion of the frontier “gender disguise” roles of cross-dressed cowboy girls, girl spies, and plots involving female ranch takeovers, she points to other scholars who, she says, have oversimplified these roles as “embodiments of the ‘New Woman.’” (I will oversimplify an explanation of the New Woman by defining it as a turn-of-the-century embodiment of feminism. New Women typically had political intentions.)
Horak wants readers to see that female bodies were, and thus are, significant in both the evolution of American cinema as it moved from East to West Coast, and to the formation of American masculinity. At times, these bodies were apolitical. A female driving a team of horses was as much of a spectacle to early cinemagoers as Alaskan glaciers or the Rocky Mountains. When a female evades a band of male pursuers, as they commonly do in cross-dressed chase sequences, her female status (evident to the audience despite the male disguise) ups the anxiety of those watching, and thus the narrative tension.
Horak notes that most such chases were initiated by the cross-dressed character herself, and the films “stressed the dynamism of the chase” rather than the male characters’ failures or the resolution of homoerotic attraction through heterosexual coupling (after the woman reveals her true gender). What’s more, Horak did not find a single cross-dressed chase sequence in which a girl gets caught. In other words, cross-dressed women were not punished or deemed pathological. Instead, most of these films “legitimized female masculinity as a necessary expedient.” The producers of frontier films hoped to draw in audiences already accustomed to cross-dressed characters “from the periodical press, dime novels, memoirs, elaborate stage shows, and Wild West performances.” Cross-dressed women crossed in and out of many forms of American entertainment.
Horak focuses the remaining three of her five chapters on the “detection of sexual deviance” and the “emergence of lesbian legibility.” The disapproving cultural turn is likely more familiar, and aggravating, to feminist and lesbian readers than the discovery and celebration of cross-dressed females in Horak’s earlier chapters. Yet she comes up here too with an abundance of original scholarship. Her fascinating examination of A Florida Enchantment, about women who swallow seeds that change their sex, turns the clock back the 1890s, when it came out as a novel (1892) and then a play (1896), the latter to a mixed critical reception. Elitist critics pointed out the play’s sexual pathology by using coded references, whereas populist critics “resisted these interpretations and insisted that even the most literal representation of gender inversion was innocent of immorality.” This marks a turning point, writes Horak: whether you perceived deviance depended upon where you stood in a hierarchy of cultural sophistication.
That may sound baffling to modern ears. Isn’t educated open-mindedness part of being sophisticated? Not to the critics of that time, Horak explains, with a synopsis of how the word “sophisticated” entered the popular lexicon. Theater critics were keen to moralize, and in the case of film critics, hungry—like the form itself—to establish themselves as legitimate. These cultural shifts are subtle and complicated, especially given that critics embraced the 1914 film of A Florida Enchantment as a wholesome comedy. It is to Horak’s credit that she hones in on such an ideal case study, presenting macro- and micro-level analyses that span high and popular culture and resist a modern-day lens.
With the visibility of sexual deviance in A Florida Enchantment questionable, Horak points out that “lesbian filmgoers could see some version of themselves on screen precisely because no one else recognized them there.” That changed in the mid 1920s, around the time when American women embraced the unequivocally masculine garb of trousers. Similar to her resistance to equating all cross-dressed females with New Women, as she had in chapter two, Horak resists equating all masculine (or trouser-wearing) women of 1920s films with protolesbians, as other scholars have. “I recognize them as belonging to a wide-ranging genealogy of gender nonconforming people,” she writes. And in keeping with her multidepartmental credibility (her book is applicable to Film and Media Studies, LGBTQ Studies, Gender Studies, and American Studies), she looks across multiple media and fields to track lesbianism’s entry into popular culture.
To accomplish this, Horak reminds readers that the presence of cross-dressed women in American movies falls into two waves: 1908 – 1921, averaging 26 films per year; and 1922 – 1928, averaging ten films per year and almost universally featuring slim, young flappers. Film critics, even those of the time, apparently forgot about the first wave and treated trouser-wearing female characters as if they were brand new, despite the more than 300 qualifying films made before 1923. Horak suggests this might have been a marketing strategy, to capitalize on a supposedly exotic trend, but it may also be attributed to the burgeoning field of film criticism. Those writing in the 1920s may not have had knowledge of prior films, because before then it was uncommon for newspapers to have film critics on staff.
Nevertheless, on its second go, cross-dressing was more likely to be questioned, due to the public’s increased association of it with lesbianism. Horak spends more than two-dozen pages discussing the play The Captive (1926) and the novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Awareness of their same-sex storylines, she argues, galvanized film critics into writing, for the first time, that “an actress’s masculine clothing could have ‘pathological suggestions.’” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America added sex perversion to the long list of movie subjects to avoid, and by 1933 Warner Brothers had banned women from wearing men’s clothing in its pictures.
All was not lost. Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn are just three examples of women who successfully wore mannish styles on and off-screen. And pants have prevailed in women’s daily attire. As it was, and is, in Hollywood, contentious symbols are opportunities. Horak closes with the observation that on the one hand a journalist
could use the phrase “ladies who prefer pants to petticoats” to mean lesbians. One the other, fan magazines could endorse trousers as a charming fashion statement available to all women.
The leeway women have in front of or behind the camera today feels similarly limited and likewise on the cusp. What seems certain, at least to me, is that Laura Horak is exactly the kind of scholar that feminists and queer advocates want in the academy. She brings rigor, curiosity, and originality into fields that can only benefit from her close observations, analyses, and research.
Erin Trahan writes regularly about movies for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station, and teaches film journalism at Emerson College.
A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations
By Juliet Nicolson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 326 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein
A middle-aged student of mine once shared with me the most memorable event of her family life: the moment when, as she described it, “I watched my grandmother hold my newborn granddaughter.” I recalled that vivid image as I began to read Juliet Nicolson’s deeply engaging history of seven generations of Sackville-West/Nicolson women (and several men). Nicolson, the oldest daughter in the fifth generation of an aristocratic British family, traces her maternal legacy from her grandmother’s grandmother, Pepita, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1830, to her own first granddaughter, born in 2013. She effectively taps her skills as a historian to extrapolate from documents, photos, and artifacts—some recently discovered in the family attic—in addition to biographical accounts written by others. She describes key events through the decades, traces changing social mores, reveals several family secrets, and assesses the effects of the virtues and flaws that shaped each mother’s legacy to her daughter.
The Spanish gypsy Catalina—the unmarried mother of Pepita, the illustrious “Star of Andalusia”—would now be termed a smothering mother: a parent so possessive of her only daughter that Pepita ultimately was compelled to sever their bond to save herself. When, at the age of nineteen, Pepita married her dancing teacher, her meddlesome mother hovered over her life to the point of wrecking her marriage. Their troubled relationship marks the trailhead, as it were, for complicated emotional pathways navigated by successive mothers and daughters. Patterns of ambition and failure, possessiveness and aloofness, estrangement and reconciliation repeat from one generation to the next.
When Pepita was 25 and already a star dancer in European capitals, she fell in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a young attaché to the British legation in Germany, who was equally smitten. They could not marry because Pepita was still legally married to her estranged husband, and Spanish law then (and until 1932) prohibited divorce. With Lionel, Pepita bore five children. Since his diplomatic assignments made him an occasional visitor rather than a live-in spouse and father, she was derided as a woman of “ill repute.” The children were socially ostracized. Eventually, Lionel, despite his devotion to Pepita and their children, drifted away, fearing that scandal might stain his diplomatic career.
Admirers of Virginia Woolf’s fiction will recognize Pepita as the Spanish dancer whom Orlando marries in Orlando (1928), Woolf’s unique “love-letter” to Vita Sackville-West. The actual Pepita died in childbirth at the age of 41, when her eldest daughter Victoria was only eight years old. The children were cared for in Paris by Pepita’s friends until, belatedly, their father conveyed them to England. Only then did they learn of their illegitimacy. When Lionel became British minister to the US legation in Washington, DC, he brought Victoria—nineteen years old and strikingly beautiful, with hip-length hair like her mother’s—to be his social hostess. During seven years in Washington, Victoria met such luminaries as Henry James and Henry Adams, and inspired numerous suitors. While attending a White House reception soon after she arrived, she received a marriage proposal from the widowed president, Chester Arthur, and was so flabbergasted that she burst out laughing.
Juliet Nicolson’s intent is not only to retrace her maternal heritage, fascinating though it is, but also to ponder its influences on her own life. As she observes, her foremothers made necessary compromises; legal powerlessness, gendered moral and social codes, and emotional dependencies decisively shaped destinies. Pepita and her daughter Victoria
made patriarchal bargains, agreements that were to remain fundamental to the practical and emotional structures of their lives. For most of my life I regarded this arrangement with suspicion. It is only recently that I have begun to realize that it is not perhaps an arrangement from which other women, myself included, are immune.
Along with maternal-filial and romantic relationships, A House Full of Daughters highlights a bond that might be termed house-love: for Victoria and her daughter Vita, attachment to the ancestral country mansion, Knole; for Vita and her granddaughter Juliet, Sissinghurst. As Juliet phrases it, “the next suitor to claim Victoria was not a person but a place.” When Lionel Sackville-West’s only brother died without heirs, Lionel became the sole inheritor of Knole, one of the grandest historical houses in England. Situated in a 1000-acre park in Kent, the pedigreed house dates back to the fifteenth century and possesses unique calendric features, including “365 rooms, fifty-two staircases, [and] seven courtyards.” Not long after Victoria fell in house-love with Knole, she became enamored of her first cousin, Lionel Sackville-West, who shared her father’s name. She was decades ahead of the Victorian era in which she lived: once Lionel the younger freed her from “long-held inhibitions,” writes Juliet, the newlyweds discovered “a mutual exhilaration for uninterrupted sex.”
Victoria gave her first child her own name, though from birth her daughter was known as Vita. She is the best-known of the Sackville-West women whose lives Juliet retraces. Perhaps because more has been written about her, Vita is the subject of only one of the book’s twelve chapters, while two focus on each of the other women in the author’s maternal history. Nonetheless, Vita stands out. From an early age, her relationship with her mother, Victoria, was, like Pepita’s relationship with her mother, fractious. Both daughters asserted their independence in ways that threatened their mothers.
The young Vita was also torn by guilt that she was not born male, a fact that carried not only emotional but also legal consequences. When her father, Lionel the younger, died, Knole passed to Vita’s uncle rather than to her, because the British laws of primogeniture precluded women from inheriting property. The loss of the ancestral home broke Vita’s heart. In an unpublished diary comment, she expressed her attachment to Knole as one so profound that it “transcended her love for any human being.”
Vita was courted by Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, even though at the time she was secretly conducting a passionate affair with a woman who would later serve as her bridesmaid. Juliet devotes few words to Vita’s most celebrated liaison—her brief but intense relationship with Virginia Woolf—which she places in the context of Vita’s frequent love affairs with perhaps as many as fifty women while she was married to Harold. As has been well documented by Vita’s younger son, Nigel Nicolson, in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), for more than forty years Vita and Harold maintained an unconventional relationship that encompassed tolerance of each other’s same-sex liaisons. Vita also discovered her house-love for Sissinghurst, initially a crumbling Elizabethan manor, which she and Harold lovingly restored. Thanks to Vita’s horticultural skills, writes Juliet, the garden at Sissinghurst Castle became “one of the most famous, most visited, most copied and most loved gardens in the world.”
Vita and Harold had two sons but no daughters. Thus, the story of Juliet’s foremothers diverts from the Sackville-Wests to her mother’s line, and she introduces the attractive but shallow Philippa d’Eyncourt, the daughter of high-bred snobs. Nigel calculatingly married Philippa to advance his diplomatic career. After his death, years later, Juliet discovered in his diary his admission that “I never loved her.” From the inauspicious start, both mismatched partners regarded sex as “disgusting,” though they produced three children. Juliet, their first child—revealingly, her name was inspired by the name of the couple’s adored dog, Romeo—describes her mother as self-preoccupied, remote, and neglectful. Juliet and her siblings grew up in an “emotionally broken” home, she says, where the housekeepers were more affectionate than the parents. When Juliet and her younger brother were only seven and four, they took the school bus daily with no adult supervision apart from the driver; when they returned, their mother was “seldom at home to greet us,” she writes. Disaffected from her mother, Juliet was deeply attached to her father, and through him came to love Sissinghurst as much as Victoria and Vita had loved Knole.
A recurring family pattern of self-medication is also part of Juliet’s heritage: several of her female predecessors—including both Vita, prompted in part by Harold’s frequent work-related absences, and Philippa, trapped in a loveless marriage—sought solace in alcohol. Philippa, who died of liver damage at the age of 58, was also addicted to antidepressants. These facts are important in Juliet’s own story, for she, too, turned to alcohol while unsuccessfully juggling the competing demands of marriage, children, and her husband’s and her careers in the United States. By the time she had given birth to two daughters, acknowledged the failure of her marriage, and returned to England, she had already developed severe liver damage. At the time, she felt as if she were “genetically woven into repetitive surrender and did not know if [she] had the courage or the strength to snap the thread and interrupt the pattern.” Through the intervention of her siblings, she sought treatment and ultimately overcame her addiction. Pondering whether to share details of her private struggle, she chose to follow the model of her father, Nigel, who had addressed in his book the difficult subject of his bisexual parents’ partnership.
The final chapters of A House Full of Daughters turn away from personal struggle to a more positive denouement: Juliet, pondering her ambitious but emotionally flawed female predecessors, forgives both them and herself. Having found great joy as a mother and grandmother, she anticipates that her first grandchild—Imogen, whose name means “beloved daughter” in old Irish—is part of a generation that is “not afraid to learn from the mistakes of the past and is determined not to repeat them. . . possibly the entire point of this book.”
Honest and absorbing, A House Full of Daughters deserves a wide readership, not only for Nicolson’s compulsively readable exploration of her maternal legacy but also for her clear-eyed focus on the emotional and psychological patterns that reappear in women’s lives—not only in the author’s unique family—with significant consequences across generations.
Roberta Rubenstein, professor of Literature at American University, is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (2009) and Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef (2014).
Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies
Edited by Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, 250 pp., $28.95, paperback
The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde
by Gloria I. Joseph
New York: Villarosa Media, 2016, 352 pp., $20.00, paperback
Reviewed by Jan Clausen
“I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now,” writes Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2010), responding to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the subsequent killing of officers in Dallas. The comment recalls Audre Lorde’s work, with its relevance to our historical moment—for Lorde always knew that “something more” was required, and she galvanized her publics to rise to the occasion. A prophet within the “house of difference”—her name for the fraught but promising terrain of the marginalized and multicultural—she called out with terrifying clarity the endemic strain of white supremacist violence in American life.
In “Power” (in her 1978 collection The Black Unicorn), a poem about the fatal police shooting of a ten-year-old black boy, Clifford Glover, in 1973, she included both the words of the cop who said, “I didn’t notice the size or nothing else/only the color,” and the outline of “the destruction within me [emphasis added],” forecasting further acts of seemingly senseless mayhem. In a voice whose range spanned the oracular and the earthy, she warned of and mourned the cycles of devastation fueled by local injustices and globe-spanning imperial wrongs (Undersong: Chosen Poems ): “…you who hear tell the others/you are drowning in my children’s blood/ without metaphor.” Those cycles have only intensified since her death in 1992 at the age of 58.
When she turned her attention to Europe, in the late 1980s, Lorde nailed that continent’s failure to rethink its exclusionary self-definitions, in language that now reads like prescient commentary on an unfolding saga of traumatized displacement (a.k.a. the “refugee crisis”) and xenophobic backlash. She informed the audience at a 1988 Berlin writers’ conference,
I believe it is the hyphenated people of Europe who represent a last chance for Europe to learn how to deal with difference creatively, rather than pretending it does not exist, or destroying it....Our survival means learning to use difference for something other than destruction. So does yours.
These remarks, reprinted in Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, exemplify that volume’s significant insights into the activism of Lorde’s final years, fueled by the urgency of her core belief that her own struggles as a US-born woman of African and Caribbean descent resonated with and could dynamically inform the fates and futures of justice-seekers worldwide.
The cover of The Wind Is Spirit identifies the book as “a bio/anthology by Gloria I. Joseph.” Joseph, a noted scholar and activist, became Lorde’s life partner in the mid-1980s; the couple made their home in St. Croix, the birthplace of Joseph’s parents. Joseph’s introduction explains that the volume originated as the fulfillment of her promise to write the dying Lorde’s biography. A “call and response” structure intersperses an overview of major life events with brief reminiscences by many who knew Lorde. There are homey anecdotes from relatives, among them Lorde’s sister, Phyllis Blackwell, and assessments of her personal impact and public significance by sister poets, public intellectuals, and movement leaders such as Kate Rushin, Angela Y. Davis, and Assata Shakur. We hear from male friends in St. Croix with whom she pursued local projects (beekeeping, mounting a protest against the first Gulf War) and from a group of Afro-German women whose mutual support and activism she helped catalyze during a series of sojourns in Berlin.
Issued by the fledgling independent publisher Villarosa Media and illustrated with plentiful photographs (sadly, the reproductions are often of poor quality), The Wind Is Spirit is best approached as a charming, idiosyncratic personal album, to be sampled rather than read from cover to cover. Among my favorite pieces is Cherríe Moraga’s electrifying dual tribute to Lorde and Pat Parker, the poets who, along with Judy Grahn, she credits with giving “lesbianism a body: a queer body in the original, dangerous, unambivalent sense of the word.”
Another gem is “Meeting Audre Lorde,” by Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, a wry and beautifully balanced look back at being the teenaged daughter of a structure-loving mom whose poetry and fame felt ancillary to a household seemingly ruled by “Ozzie and Harriet. Or Harriet and Harriet.” A craggy-voiced, unsparing meditation on the ravages of “colonizer culture” by the poet Chrystos (Smith) includes this note of gratitude: “No part of Audre was afraid of me, which is an ocean of relief.” The book’s intimate glimpses into Lorde’s choices about health, pleasure, and activism in years marked by intensifying illness offer a poignant coda to The Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde’s pathbreaking self-portrait as a wounded but unyielding feminist opponent of cultural silencing and medical arrogance.
Taken as a whole, The Wind Is Spirit feels like a printed archive, sprawling and uneven. Contributions by such key figures as Barbara Smith (who provides an overview of Lorde’s role with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press) and Michelle Cliff (Joseph reproduces a found poem, using snippets from Lorde’s writing, that Cliff sent her following Lorde’s death) seem perfunctory, oddly chosen. There are careless lapses, such as the listing of a publication date of 1995 (instead of 1978) for Lorde’s pivotal poetry collection The Black Unicorn, and an unglossed comment that Lorde could be seen as a “forerunner” of the Black Arts Movement. (Although her early career unfolded in tandem with that movement, she related warily to its masculinist leadership.) Joseph’s effort to convey the entire arc of Lorde’s life leaves her in the awkward position of trying to present dispassionately such aspects of her late beloved’s experience as the latter’s relationships with other romantic partners. While the bio/anthology makes a useful companion volume to Alexis De Veaux’s illuminating, carefully researched 2004 biography Warrior Poet: A Life of Audre Lorde, it is no substitute. I grew impatient with Joseph’s rhetoric of uplift and her efforts to cement Lorde’s status as an icon: “[She] surely belongs alongside the great leaders, the humanitarians and the philosophers whose words of wisdom and deeds remain alive throughout the world.” All these years after Lorde’s death, I thought, isn’t it time for celebration and gauzy endorsements to give way to a sturdier edifice of interpretive frameworks?
Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck, editors of Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, suggest some reasons why that level of critical engagement often remains elusive. Citing the lack of “an existing comprehensive scholarly archive” of Lorde’s transnational interactions with diasporic communities, they announce their goal to produce an “alternative archive”—despite the problems presented by a necessary reliance on nontraditional sources such as oral histories. In an introduction that models the searching analytical work such an archive could make possible, they comment thoughtfully on some of Lorde’s specific theoretical contributions—for example, on the perils of constructing an undifferentiated “black” transnational subject.
The anthology itself offers an eclectic combination of reminiscence, reflection, and engaged scholarship centered on a range of Lorde’s international involvements, including the solidarity network Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (SISA). However, the book’s center of gravity rests in Lorde’s European sojourns, anchored by her time in Germany, where she made annual visits for alternative cancer treatment. (This period is also the subject of a recent documentary film, Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992.) The “archive” of Lorde’s interactions with European women of African descent offers important insights into transnational movement building. In dialogue with Lorde—but also, crucially, with each other—these women forged solidarity as “hyphenated people,” reared in circumstances that frequently obscured the implications of their racialization. For example, “Naming Ourselves as Black Women in Europe: An African American-German and Afro-Dutch Conversation,” by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dueck and Gloria Wekker, not only considers Lorde’s centrality as the “wind beneath the wings of Black German women’s political activism and feminism,” but also delves into disparities across national borders, pointing out the need for a “comparative social and political history of the black presence in Europe.”
Despite the clear value of this material, the European focus creates a sense of imbalance, given the sweeping promise of the book’s title. To quote Alexis Pauline Gumbs, one of a handful of contributors who explicitly tackle Lorde’s deep engagement with the global South (and whose probing essay is titled “‘But We Are Not the Same’: Generating a Critical Poetics of Diaspora”),
critical work on Lorde’s impact as a theorist has rarely treated her articulations of solidarity, difference, intimacy, and accountability as a US-born woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage, who navigated her relationships with majority-black spaces that had been (and continue to be) directly harmed by US imperialism. Why not?
In essays grouped under the heading “Connections,” we find useful analytical perspectives on both Lorde’s texts and her activism; crucially, this section pays the most sustained attention to her poetic legacies. In addition to Gumbs’s look at diasporic poetics, I especially appreciated the critical perspectives in Tamara Lea Spira’s “The Geopolitics of the Erotic: Audre Lorde’s Mexico and the Decolonization of the Revolutionary Imagination,” which mines Lorde’s writing for insights into “the force of her thinking as it developed at the fringes of US empire.” In “‘I Cross Her Borders at Midnight’: Audre Lorde’s Berlin Revisions,” Paul M. Farber attentively tracks the poet’s response to that famously divided city, reading the ways she approached its physical and social geography as objective correlatives for her perennial concern with connections across lines of difference.
In an afterword to their volume, Bolaki and Broeck reflect that their project has been a venture in “meaning making” but also an effort at “opening up material to wider audiences, a way of starting a conversation.” In the interests of doing just that, I will say that my own thoughts about Lorde’s bequests return again and again to the question mark that hovers over her poetic legacy. Among the contributors to these two volumes, Chrystos is especially emphatic about what she considers the shameful neglect of Lorde’s poetry. Although The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde appeared in 1997, to date there has been a dearth of critical work that closely examines the stages of her development as a poet or that centers an understanding of her work on her effort (in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ) to position poetry itself as foremost among “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.” Instead, her poems are mined for quotable quotes and insights into the substance of her views on difference, anger, blackness, sisterhood. It is not that these approaches are wrong, but we also need to absorb and reassess her lyrical body of work in its totality, even as we ponder the implications of her claim that poetry elevates “[t]he quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives.”
Over and above the work the commentators in both of these anthologies do to clarify some contours of Lorde’s prismatic achievements as seer and activist, the books powerfully demonstrate that legacies, like texts, are not inert. They are fashioned and transformed in intimate, strenuous dialogue with oncoming generations. As we near the 25th anniversary of Lorde’s death, something more is indeed required, on multiple fronts.
Jan Clausen’s most recent book is the poetic hybrid text Veiled Spill: a Sequence (2014). In 2017, Seven Stories Press will reissue her 1999 memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. She teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University.
The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary
By Ann Snitow
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 364 pp., $26.95, paperback
Reviewed by Paula Rabinowitz
Ann Snitow is a hero of late twentieth-century radicalism, in its many guises: a founding mother—an honorific she might balk at—of radical feminism, an architect of consciousness raising as a political practice within such groups as Redstockings and New York Radical Women. During the early 1970s, she hosted Womankind, a radio show on New York’s WBAI about women’s diaries, and published her own “gender diary” as an intervention into the “divide”—her word for the central contradiction within feminism, namely, how to identify and organize as women while at the same time undoing gender. The divide splintered feminists in many directions, in struggles over issues such as motherhood, pornography, sexuality, race, and class during the years Snitow chronicles in The Feminism of Uncertainty, her new collection of essays. The book provides insight into the thinking that went into Snitow’s various life choices—her ambivalence about maternity, both for herself and as an ideology; her political activism; her exploration of teaching in universities and a medium-security prison—and concludes with her co-founding, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, of the Network of East-West Women (NEWW).
Snitow was a major presence in the controversy over the 1982 Scholar and the Feminist IX conference on sexuality, sponsored by the Barnard Women’s Center, at which tensions between “pro-sex” and “antipornography” feminists burst into open, intra-movement conflict. The conference, which had been organized by Snitow and other Redstockings veterans, was vilified and picketed by the antipornography contingent, who pressured the Barnard center into confiscating a “diary of the conference” that the organizers had created for distribution to the participants; it’s now a treasured rare book. The pro-sex feminists later presented their views in two path-breaking anthologies: Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, co-edited by Snitow and Christine Stansell (1983), and Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance (1984). Looking back at the anthologies’ significance in a special issue of the feminist academic journal Signs devoted to Pleasure and Danger (Autumn 2016), the historian Alice Echols argues that they defined a politics and aesthetics that opened feminism to queerness and its current theories and practices. Echols writes, “In my view, the emergence of queer studies is among the most important legacies of Pleasure and Danger.” Of course, at the time the anthologies also intensified the debates over pornography, s/m, and censorship.
The Feminism of Uncertainty is a form of memoir (Snitow also co-edited, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation )—an armature against backlash and forgetting. It demonstrates, however, the limitations of any compilation, especially of works written for diverse venues and varied purposes, even more so when the author’s signature methodology is to tell us about her private approaches to books, activism, desires, work. How does one engage the world through the self without collapsing foreground and background, political and personal—even if this is the point of one’s writing and activism, as it is with feminism? Virginia Woolf tackled this problem, of the first person and its tendency towards narrative dominance, with her usual ironic finesse in A Room of One’s Own (1929):
But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I.” One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it.
Woolf soon tires of this “I” (in this case, the “I” of a male writer) and longs to discern “something beyond, behind it… what is it? … a woman. But she has not a bone in her body.” This is the gist of The Feminism of Uncertainty: how to detail the woman, in this case not a figure but the writer herself, as she recedes behind, beyond, the “I”—but here it is not a male novelist obliterating the landscape, but rather the woman herself, who, trying as hard as she can to undo gender, cannot escape the particular woman “writing, imagining, theorizing, doing” feminism and collecting these pieces. Snitow imagines essayists in general grappling with this problem, while also speaking for herself: “́́‘This is the way I, I, I could find to do it, hence this tells about my mind at work.’”
Caught in the web of one of the great problems of twenty-first-century America—the problem of stuff, of choice, of the too-muchness of it all—history, memory, diaries, books, leaflets and on and on—the feminist teacher/activist/scholar must figure out how to cope with “the primitive urge to record and save.” This compendium of published briefs—pages from a long-kept “gender diary,” notes and journalism, book reviews and think pieces—is a kind of archive. It collects and records images and thoughts, codifying them into memory, leaving a residue that might enter history.
Woolf commented in her diary that “Orlando  was the outcome of a perfectly definite, indeed overmastering, impulse. I want fun. I want fantasy. I want (and this was serious) to give things their caricature value.” The process of writing Orlando: A Biography, Woolf’s probing—and fun—dissection-through-caricature of gender trouble across three centuries, leads her to an odd wish: “I want to write a history, say of Newnham [College] or the women’s movement, in the same vein.” History (and its writing) must entail fantasy and fun, both power and desire, a novel as biography, a fantasy history, which for Woolf meant that when a woman penned history or biography or even fiction, she transformed its form: how else realize its undoing, if one is a woman, a feminist, who lives “between the acts,” who writes? Snitow’s answer is to insist on the “I,” albeit an uncertain one, an “I” who covets a way across the “divide” she sees endlessly cropping up, who can be collected, even collective, in a formal way.
The essays in this volume—many of which first appeared in The Nation, Dissent, the Voice Literary Supplement, and this publication—were written as immediate responses: to a book, a death, an action, an event. As a whole (along with a bibliography and a publication history), they comprise a valuable resource for the ambitious future scholar/activist digging into feminism’s past. Still, reading 27 briefs stitched together with prefatory comments, and even a few prefaces to the prefaces, borders on tedium. As a totality, it is not fun, not fantasy, even if certain essays—“The Poet of Bad Girls: Angela Carter, 1940-1992)”; “Occupying Greenham Common”; “The Peripatetic Feminist Activist/Professor Spends One Day in a Small City in Albania” (and its terrific title); and “Certainty and Doubt in the Classroom: Teaching Film in Prison”—are meaty and give full voice to the thinking political subject animating them. But it is difficult, as Woolf noted, for a reader to sustain an interest in an overarching “I.”
As Snitow suggests (and as many feminists discovered while reading Anais Nin’s copious pages), the archival fever of the diary, the drive to preserve an ephemeral instant after the fact, is both heady and corrupting, at once solipsistic and sacrificial: a hoarding and a giving of one’s self. No matter how significant—and no one can doubt feminism’s significance in 2016, when a woman runs for US president on a major party ticket, and Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sues Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, to grab just two examples—the project of memoir is about “a small personal voice,” as Doris Lessing put it in her 1957 essay on the realist novel’s power to communicate ideas and feelings from author to reader, which Snitow quotes in reference to her memoiristic pieces. It is crucially fascinating because it is a voice, a singular one—and if feminist consciousness raising and political organizing taught us nothing else, it taught us that singularity is housed and embedded within many, and thus is also collective.
The Feminism of Uncertainty shines brightest when Snitow’s uncertainty politics clash with the realities of action (and for Snitow, thinking, reading, and speaking are all actions). Thus, her skepticism about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp of the early 1980s, with its mobilization of gendered images of women as peacekeepers, is upended by the campers’ brazen wackiness, as they nightly cut the wire fencing and parade through the militarized zone. For Snitow, Greenham becomes “a source of fresh thinking about how to be joyously, effectively political in a conservative, dangerous time.” As she puts her body on the line along with the Greenham women, her prose sings along with them too.
The volume is less successful when Snitow resorts to lists and timelines to anatomize movements and debates, as she does in the section “Continuing A Gender Diary,” and the chapters “Changing our Minds about Motherhood, 1963-1990,” and “Feminist Futures in the Former East Bloc.” These interventions into feminist history and political debates—the evolution of US feminism since the 1970s; surrogacy and the desire for the mother and the desire to mother; the state of post-1989 women’s organizing in East Central Europe—are concise and useful catalogues. But they feel programmatic, even prescriptive.
In contrast, Snitow’s evocations of literature—of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976); of Doris Lessing’s and Angela Carter’s uses of fantasy and speculative fiction; of Shulamith Firestone’s strident vision of a posthuman world in The Dialect of Sex (1970)—to reimagine gender and sexual malaise are keenly observed, deeply involved in the forms of political narrative as well as attentive to the materials being narrated and theorized. This is not surprising: Snitow is trained as a literary critic, having produced a dissertation of more than 800 pages on Ford Maddox Ford, which became the scholarly monograph, Ford Maddox Ford and the Voice of Uncertainty (1984). For sure, she’s been voicing uncertainty over the long haul and this volume fixes it for her future indeterminate readers.
Paula Rabinowitz is professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota. Her recent monograph, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) won the 2015 DeLong Prize for Book History In 2015, she co-edited two volumes: Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald and Red Love across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century. Her many books and essays consider the interlocking roles of cinema, photography, labor, gender, literature, space, and objects in the formation of twentieth-century American modernisms. During 2016, she is a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.