The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability
By Kristen Hogan
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016, 260 pp., $24.95 paperback
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis
No sooner had early second-wave feminists begun to identify the silences in their lives—about violence, harassment, and workplace discrimination; about the absence of women from literature and history and the invisibility of lesbians in daily life, among many other things—then they started reporting their findings and telling their stories, in feminist newspapers and pamphlets, in magazines and books. Though they often had little or no prior publishing experience, they brought publications and presses into existence, learning as they went.
Feminist bookstores came into being in much the same way. The first, Amazon, in Minneapolis, and ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland, were established in 1970.Within a decade there were at least 100 feminist bookstores, most but not all of them in North America. Estimates of the number operating in the late twentieth century range as high as 130.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the rise of increasingly aggressive chain bookstores took a terrible toll of the independents. By 2000, according to a May 9, 2014, article by Anjali Enjeti (“The Last 13 Feminist Bookstores in the US and Canada,” Paste magazine blog), most of the feminist bookstores were gone.
In all-too-familiar fashion, feminist bookstores and the women in print movement of which they were an integral part seem to have faded not only from general consciousness (where even in their heyday they were barely visible) but from the consciousness of feminists, liberals, and progressives of all stripes. This is unfortunate, because women in print was above all a successful example of grassroots feminism in practice, one in which “sisters doing it for ourselves” did far more than make women’s words available to a wide audience. The women in print movement called into being a new and often activist readership—a counterpublic, if you will. Works were written and published and kept in circulation because that readership existed. A history and assessment of this movement is long overdue.
Unfortunately, Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement is not that book.
In her preface, Hogan writes, “This history, redefining bookwomen’s successes and failures on their own terms, offers an embodied feminist theory for our futures.” But her book doesn’t define, or redefine, “bookwomen’s successes and failures on their own terms.” Hogan’s informants make clear what they thought they were doing, but Hogan doesn’t seem to have been paying attention.
Rita Arditti told her, about the genesis of New Words bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of which she was a cofounder:
I was thinking about the need to have a feminist bookstore, a place for women to buy books about women. Because in those days [the early to mid 1970s], if you would go to a regular bookstore and ask about books for women, one, they would have almost nothing, two, they wouldn’t pay attention, or they would look at you like you were a weird person.
Carol Seajay, founder of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco and for nearly 25 years editor and publisher of FBN, the Feminist Bookstore News, trade journal to the women in print network:
I think there’s something very special about booksellers because, you know, we’re the shopkeepers. . . . The booksellers are just kind of like the working-class girls. Just like, got some information, they want you to have it.
And artist-activist-author Sharon Bridgforth on her first visit to a feminist bookstore, Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles:
It just, literally, rocked my world, changed my life. . . . I found all those great writers, . . . at that time Alice Walker was really pushing Zora Neale Hurston, I had never heard of either one of them.
The primary purpose of the feminist bookstores was to create spaces where books by and about women could be found. Everything else flowed from that, including but not limited to the “lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability” that give this book its subtitle.
Hogan pays remarkably little attention to the effort it took—and still takes, for the surviving bookstores—to keep the doors open and the shelves stocked. Bookselling is not a lucrative business. Speaking generally, bookstores buy books from publishers at sixty percent of retail. Prices are generally printed on the books, so marking them up is out of the question. Invoices are due, theoretically at least, in thirty days, before most of the books have sold. Out of that forty percent, the store has to pay rent, compensate staffers, and cover all other expenses. Most feminist bookstores were relatively small and undercapitalized, meaning that bills had to be paid mostly out of cash flow.
Hogan does note that each collective, owner and staff configuration, and business partnership struggled with their own negotiation of the tension between business practice and reimagining the bookstore structure with feminist values.
All too often, though, she seems to pit a “feminist business model” against a “grassroots organizing model,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. They weren’t. In effect, that forty percent discount was funding grassroots organizing, a feminist workplace, and all kinds of community service. Bookstores were important nodes on the feminist grapevine because they were open during reliable hours in visible locations. Women called the bookstore or dropped by when they were new in town, or passing through, or coming out. Bookstores were gathering places and informal hotlines even in cities that had other options. For lesbians in particular, they were an alternative to the bars.
For feminist bookstores, in other words, accountability was plural, not singular. Booksellers were accountable to their customers, to each other, to their suppliers (bills from feminist publishers and feminist-friendly distributors often got paid first), and to their communities. Those accountabilities sometimes conflicted and had to be continually negotiated. Expectations often ran higher than resources could accommodate.
Hogan mentions several times the importance of being accountable to the “movement” without clarifying what movement she’s talking about. Feminism wasn’t monolithic then, and it isn’t now.
The Feminist Bookstore Movement falters most seriously at the conceptual level, as evidenced by its title. The feminist bookstore network was part of the women in print movement. Hogan does discuss the landmark women in print gatherings of 1976 and 1981, but without fully recognizing their importance. By considering feminist bookstores independent of feminist publishers and other "women in print," Hogan misses one of their most important functions: serving as retail outlets and promoters of feminist-press books. Her own firsthand bookselling experience may be partly responsible for this omission.
Hogan, currently the education program coordinator at the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas at Austin, was co-manager and book buyer at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (TWB) for fourteen months beginning in 2006, after most North American feminist bookstores had closed. Feminist publishers were no longer the force they had been.
Of necessity Hogan had to rely on interviews and other sources to document the feminist bookstores’ first three decades. The twenty booksellers she interviewed came from a total of only six bookstores, and eight of the twenty were from TWB.
In her early chapters, Hogan notes how bookseller advocacy helped persuade commercial publishers to keep some feminist books in print, but largely ignores the growth of feminist publishing throughout the 1970s. The bookstores provided secure retail outlets for the publishers, places where books would be stocked and actively promoted, where readings and book launches could be held, around which book tours could be organized. They also demonstrated to commercial publishers that there was a market and a distribution network for feminist books, though to no one’s surprise the commercial publishers seemed to believe that books by straight white women were the most salable. Crucial works by feminists of color, among them Audre Lorde, June Jordan, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa, were published and kept in print by such feminist and feminist-friendly presses as Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Persephone, Crossing, Firebrand, Aunt Lute, the Feminist Press, Seal, South End, and Beacon.
As Hogan notes, briefly but importantly, feminist-press anthologies were crucial consciousness-raising and organizing tools that expanded and deepened feminist theory and feminist activism. In addition to the landmark anthologies This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), and All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982), feminist bookshelves featured, among many other titles, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982) and The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (1986); With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology (1985); Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression (1983); Voices in the Night: Women Speaking About Incest (1982); Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering (1986); Women and Aging: An Anthology by Women (1986); and Fight Back! Feminist Resistance to Male Violence (1981).
To see such books gathered in one place, along with kids’ books, biographies, books on women’s history and women’s health, theory books, books on lesbian sexuality, and all kinds of fiction, was a mind-expanding experience one couldn’t have in a chain bookstore. Books published by feminist presses were irregularly stocked by the chains, if they were carried at all.
Thanks in part to the scant attention she pays to the day-to-day economics of bookselling and to the synergistic connection between feminist bookstores and feminist publishers, Hogan doesn’t seem to understand why feminist booksellers joined other independents in fighting the collusion between the chain bookstores and the big publishers, which gave the chains unpublished discounts and other advantages. (Both the collusion and the fight against it were well under way before the 1990s, by the way.) “Facing drastic market changes in publishing and bookselling,” she writes,
white bookwomen turned to influence the book industry and left less space for accountability around racial justice in feminist bookstores. The gains in bookstore advocacy were substantial, the losses in antiracist feminism devastating
This statement is puzzling. How did the attempt to influence the book industry undermine “accountability around racial justice”? We don’t learn how the booksellers involved understood what they were doing because here as elsewhere Hogan relies almost entirely on FBN reports and on public statements made at an American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention.
The history and assessment of the feminist bookstores and the women in print movement has yet to be written. In the grand feminist-press tradition, it might be an anthology of multiple voices. Whatever form it takes, it should be written. It’s an inspiring part of recent feminist history, and one whose lessons could be adapted for the digital age. If the movement had left a last will and testament, Carol Seajay would have been named its executor, literary and otherwise. I nominate her to write or edit it.
Susanna J. Sturgis was the book buyer at Lammas, Washington, DC’s feminist bookstore, from 1981 to 1985. She wrote the fantasy and science fiction column for Feminist Bookstore News from 1984 to 1996 and is still proud to have been FBN’s first regular columnist. These days she supports herself as a freelance editor while working on her second novel and maintaining a blog, Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going, at http://writethroughitblog.com.
By Terese Svoboda
Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2016, 627 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Margaret Randall
Terese Svoboda opens her biography of Lola Ridge with a scene reminiscent of the 1989 photograph of the lone protester standing before the oncoming tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Except that it took place more than sixty years earlier, and Ridge—a woman, an immigrant, and a poet—was standing up to a rearing horse. She, along with many throughout the world, was protesting the impending executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—Italian anarchists who were falsely accused of armed robbery and murder. The horse, Svoboda tells us, reared again and again. The woman, “anorexic and Virginia Woolf-ethereal . . . tiny yet always described as tall,” remained motionless.
Poets rarely receive their due. This is true especially if they are woman, and even more if their poetry eschews lyric pleasantry to address the sociopolitical issues of their time. Lola Ridge (1873 – 1941) came into her mature voice in the interwar years, when political passion was suspect. Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980), another female poet with similar concerns, belonged to the generation after Ridge’s and still had difficulty being taken seriously by publishers and critics. Reading this biography, I sensed a connection between Ridge and Rukeyser, although the former’s poetry was less literarily compelling than the latter’s. Still, Ridge is a figure who deserves our attention, and Svoboda’s long overdue and immensely welcome biography does her justice.
In carefully constructed, chronological sections, Svoboda gives us a life, complete with all of its challenges and richness. As a poet myself, and as a reader, I especially appreciate the way Svoboda includes Ridge’s poems in the text, creating a conversation between the details of the life and the work. This is a meticulously documented volume, enriched by extensive notes, a bibliography, and quotations from letters and other archival material.
Place is important in this story. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Ridge spent her formative years traveling among Sydney, Australia; San Francisco; Chicago; New York; Baghdad; Taos; and Mexico City. In many of these places she was central to the vanguard artistic community. Because of Svoboda’s skill, we walk the streets of these places with the poet and gain an understanding of what they looked and felt like when she was there.
Ridge was an anarchist concerned with the larger political picture but concerned as well with intimate life. Well ahead of her time, she supported the rights of women, laborers, blacks, Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals (she identified and was identified as bisexual). She advocated individual liberty as well as social justice. In 1919, she gave a speech in Chicago entitled “Women and the Creative Will,” in which she argued that sexually constructed gender roles hindered female identity development. This was at least a decade before such ideas were popular, even among women’s rights advocates, making her a model for us today as we struggle in a world beset by ever more sophisticated versions of the sexist, racist, heterosexist, and xenophobic threats that face each new generation.
Does the artist have an obligation to witness and record her time? I believe she does. And more than the historian or journalist, the successful artist should express not only the events—the facts and figures—but also the feelings the events evoke. Women writers, precisely because they insist on expressing such feelings, have often been ignored or belittled. Svoboda recreates a Ridge who was “not just a poet of activism . . . but one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and in particular, women’s lives in New York City.”
When Ridge lived, such concerns were considered no more literary than they are today. “Four years before Eliot’s … ‘The Wasteland,’” Svoboda writes, “[Ridge’s] equally long poem ‘The Ghetto’ celebrated the “otherness” of the Jewish Lower East Side and prophesied the multiethnic world of the twenty-first century.”
Ridge “died at the nadir of leftist politics, just as the US was entering World War II. By then Eliot and Pound had very effectively equated ‘elitism’ with ‘good’ in poetry,” Svoboda explains. She thought that the sixties generation, with its feminism and anarchism, might have resurrected her subject. Not so. And in the 1970s, although feminists rediscovered many politically engaged women poets—Meridel LeSueur comes to mind—Ridge would remain unread and virtually unknown.
Ridge edited and/or contributed to the important journals of her time, including Dial, the New Republic, and Poetry. Like young artists in every era, she confronted an old guard in her field—female as well as male poets and editors—who felt threatened by her inclusivity, groundbreaking range, and versatility. When she explored issues of style, they accused her of ignoring essence; when she was most passionate they demanded a greater attention to poetics. Her meter was awkward, except to the wisest ear.
“Respectable, high-minded persons are given to classifying writers of vers libre with dog stealers, ticket scalpers, wife deserters, and the Bolshevikii,” Ridge wrote in an announcement of one of her readings. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the disdain Ridge confronted was because she was a strong woman, and an unashamed one at that. Men were wary, and male-oriented women followed their lead.
Ridge knew and communicated with the great thinkers and creative spirits of her time. Although some denounced her, many remained close. She was a figure in important movements, from anarchism and socialism in politics to modernism in poetry. Her work was widely published, in both political and literary magazines. Yet, because of extreme dysfunction in her family of origin—she was deeply affected by her step-father’s insanity—she tended to shy away from those she considered flamboyant or “crazy.” For this reason she attacked what she termed “madness passing as art” in the dadaist performances of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had been embraced by the Little Review, the influential literary magazine published by the lesbians Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. One might have expected Ridge, with her own avant-garde inclinations, to warm to such manifestations, but her psyche held contradictions, and it is to Svoboda’s credit that she conveys the poet in all her complexity.
Throughout her life, Ridge grappled with a variety of ills, ranging from an eating disorder and moments of severe economic insecurity, to the threat of political repression during the 1919 – 1920 Palmer raids on leftists and anarchists, and what may have been a nervous breakdown. She weathered them all, though she died at 68 because of ulcerated teeth and a body devastated by physical and emotional pain. Toward the end, shunned by many she loved but cared for by a loving husband, she retreated into the fierce solitude of her writing. She wrote,
My thought is now a strong current rushing against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, sometimes making a clear path through these, more often held up, but fighting to penetrate, to blaze its way—never evading or going around, or leaving that obstruction for the one who comes after to tunnel through.
Surely, many women artists today will identify with these words.
The independence and astuteness of Ridge’s mind can be seen in her dismissal of Stalinist aesthetics as well as capitalist excess. She wrote:
I think of those awful paintings at the Soviet building in the [New York] World’s Fair—the mindless grimace of assumed joy on the faces of the people depicted . . . this tawdry decoration of a smile stamped upon the faces of a people—the Smile, not only officially approved but officially imposed.
At the same time, she described Wendell Wilkie, then the Republican candidate for president running against Franklin Roosevelt, as
an intelligent businessman, a shrewd advocate of capitalism . . . he implies a society of good capitalists—no more believable than a plague of good locusts—who out of their self-imposed self-control should devour only selected crops—leaving a residue for the grateful croppers.
In her rejection of all political extremes, Ridge was way ahead of her time. She was never limited, in either her life or her work, by what was acceptable or popular at the time.
Her second book, Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920), got rave reviews. Dial called it “acidly translated truth.” The Nation said, with “Freud rather than Plato . . . read back into the infant mind,” it had an “honesty so quick as to be diabolical.” Ridge was able to sustain the long poem better than many, and her title poem, “Sun-Up,” reads, in part:
The girl with the black eyes holds you tight, and you run . . . and run . . .
past the wild, wild towers . . .
and trees in the gardens tugging at their feet
and frightened dolls
shut up in the shops
crying . . . and crying . . . because no one stops . . .
you spin like a penny thrown out in the street.
Then a man clutches her by the hair . . .
He always clutches her by the hair . . .
His eyes stick out like spears.
You see her pulled-back face
and her black, black eyes
lit up by the glare . . .
Read today, these lines are a profound evocation of the abused female child, precursor to the abused woman, the woman still struggling to throw off millennia of patriarchal control.
Ridge wrote as meaningfully about woman abuse as she did about other, less intimate, social ills—but she always wrote from her lived experience. Svoboda brings her to us whole and with a still-beating heart. We should be immensely grateful for this excellent biography of a poet too long forgotten.
Margaret Randall’s most recent nonfiction book is Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (2015). Her latest poetry collection is She Becomes Time (2016).
By Jacqueline Rose
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, 339 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Sometime in the mid-1980s, in the era of nuclear nightmares at the height of Reagan’s reign, I visited the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont—an old barn filled with puppets, props, and posters from the radical theater company’s decades of performances. There I first encountered Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish creator of Life? or Theatre?, a remarkable work of autobiographical art comprising hundreds of gouaches filled with images, texts, and songs. Salomon made the paintings in a frenzy of traumatized creativity between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, where she had fled the Nazis to live with her grandparents. There she discovered a hidden history of family suicides, including her mother, aunt, and eventually, with Salomon in the next room, her grandmother.
Salomon died in Auschwitz after the Germans took France, yet Life? or Theatre? is much more than a Holocaust narrative, entwining the personal horror of a family story and the sociopolitical horror of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. At the Bread and Puppet Museum, I saw a series of paintings of Salomon’s paintings used in Margo Lee Sherman’s art and performance piece, Life and Death of Charlotte Salomon. Even in such mediated form, Salomon’s work stunned me from depression into hope with its insistence that beauty and insight can emerge from the most dire circumstances; that to speak one’s truth is not always enough, but is always something; and that wherever it leads, the struggle matters.
Salomon is one of the key figures in Jacqueline Rose’s new book Women in Dark Times, a passionate, powerful, and occasionally problematic manifesto for a feminism centered on a new articulation of what has become an old saw, “the personal is political.” Women in Dark Times is modeled after Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times (1968), a collection of essays on thinkers (both men and women) who grappled with the spoken and unspoken horrors of the first part of the twentieth century. Rose, in turn, presents six thinkers and artists, along with a collection of victims of honor killing and activists against it, as women “whose rage against the iniquities of the world meshes with their own darkest hours,” and who thus serve as exemplars for her vision of the radical possibilities of women’s speech in addressing our own dark times.
That speech, she argues, in a plethora of psychoanalytically telling images, gives access to the “gutter,” “landscape of the night,” “inner, private dimensions,” and “very dark places,” what is “beneath the surface,” “subterranean,” “at the very core of the world”—that is, to the individual and cultural unconscious. These depths must be exposed because of their imbrication in “the cruelty and injustice with which [the world] tends to go about organizing itself.” Her women in dark times, she claims, reveal—and understand—how the personal, intimate, and private are always connected to the political and public, exposing the insufficiency and violence of our public politics. They must be incorporated into a new public politics if we are ever to truly overcome—or even hope to overcome—the depredations of the modern world.
The so far unstoppable reach of those depredations—perpetrated by capitalism, war, racism and prejudice, violence against women and the environment—points, Rose suggests, to the limits of the enlightenment modalities of reason and law that thus far have been used to address them. She argues that therefore women, as feminists, must delve into the roots of those depredations, which lie in the passionate and unreasonable realms of the self, the family, and the structure of consciousness itself. They must not only embrace those roots but incorporate them into a politics that, rather than suppressing the “stubborn unruliness” and “messy uncertainty” that fundamentally characterizes humanity, will encompass those wild complexities, rejecting certainty and embracing unpredictability.
If this argument sounds abstract and theoretical, well, it is and it isn’t. Rose is one of the pre-eminent voices of British feminist and psychoanalytic thought, and her argument is based on a deconstructive understanding of how oppositions always contain each other, whether she is talking about the construction of masculinity around fighting off the threat of the feminine or the idea of honor, which always already contains its own undoing. So she is not arguing, in oppositional terms, that women are the victims of a battle that men are winning (she is assertively antivictimhood), nor that women can use their dark depths to topple the bright light of male supremacy (overdetermined imagery intended). Rather, she contends that the thinking of the women she discusses upends such distinctions and instead reveals how feeling, thought, and the domestic are integral to politics, whether politics is trying—and failing—to manage them (as in the case of rape and discrimination) or simply failing to substantively address them (as in the case of prejudice and war). But as these parenthetical examples suggest, Rose is not just engaged in an academic exercise: she is acutely attuned to and concerned with the actual violence faced by women and immigrants (she never mentions race in the American sense) and the terrors wreaked by nationalism and totalitarianism; her goal is to find another way—though she never explores the practical implications of basing a politics on unpredictability, an observation that is both boring and necessary to make.
Rose lays out her argument in a cogent preface and introduction, then further (and further—by the end, she sounds like an enthusiastic museum docent eagerly showing us yet another painting that proves her point) explicates that argument in a series of portraits of women who exemplify it. The first three chapters take on the socialist Rosa Luxemburg, Salomon, and Marilyn Monroe—all of whom, she claims, spoke the unspeakable of their personal lives and political moments (fear, incest, revolution, the plight of workers) and thus traced and challenged the effects of war, patriarchy, totalitarianism, and capitalism in twentieth-century Europe and, in the case of Monroe, the United States. The fourth chapter discusses victims of honor killing and the women family members and activists who give them voice, literally and politically. The last three chapters describe the work of the contemporary artists Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton, whose sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, and paintings make room for the dispossessed—immigrants, Jews, women, the earth itself—to speak, while simultaneously asserting the power of liminal spaces and positions, thus instantiating the radical possibilities of women’s art.
The most intellectually engaging chapters are the ones about Rosa Luxemburg and honor killing. Luxemburg is Rose’s primary exemplar. As a woman, Polish Jew, emigrant, intellectual, and revolutionary, she was an outsider everywhere, which grounded both her rigorous analysis of capital and politics and her deep commitment to freedom of thought and feeling. Luxemburg’s socialism was based on radical democracy and the belief that individual consciousness and process mattered more than the party, regardless of the uncertainty to which they might lead. Hence her opposition to Lenin’s shift toward totalitarianism and, likely, her murder by a rightwing militia during the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin. Luxemburg, Rose convincingly claims, was “a genuine revolutionary” “who lived in every fibre of her being…the link between the mechanics of freedom and the unknowable processes of the heart.” Of course, there is the awkward fact of the early death she shares with Salomon (murdered at Auschwitz) and Monroe (whether suicide or murder, undoubtedly killed by society’s pressures), but of that Rose has little to say. What matters is what she stands for, not what became of her.
Women who die early are also at the center of Rose’s incisive dissection of honor crimes. On the one hand, she argues that by pinning honor crimes on immigrant communities, the European body politic absolves itself of its own complicity in violence against women. On the other, she questions the multicultural paradigm that allows immigrant communities to police themselves, with the result that women in danger are too often not helped and men who kill too often supported. While this is in some ways the most politically urgent chapter of the book, Rose also interrogates the very nature of honor, which exists on the fault lines between private/public (shame is the private made public through rumor and gossip); woman/man (the woman holds the family’s honor, which the man must but never can fully avenge); and personal/historical (the current prevalence of honor killings in Europe is inextricably tied to the pressures of migration on traditional communities). Her discussion ends up uncomfortably, if necessarily, between the rock of violence against women and the hard place of discrimination against immigrants, but in this case, at least, the material value of women speaking out about what is happening in their communities is indisputable.
Throughout the chapter on honor killings, Rose is scrupulous in giving credit and voice, through stories and quotations, to the immigrant women who are fighting honor killings. Strikingly, though, aside from a Toni Morrison quotation, they may be the only women of color in Women in Dark Times. If Rose has written a compelling brief for the power of women’s voices, the ongoing relevance of feminism, and the fundamental value of complexity and uncertainty, her vision of women and feminism is strangely monolithic (no feminisms here). Defining feminism as a way of seeing and speaking, she does not explain why women are the privileged subjects of this seeing and speaking until the book’s very last pages, when her psychoanalytic account of the primacy of sexual difference as the engine of male violence against women is too little, too late.
The last forty years of intersectional feminist, antiracist, and queer activism and thinking have more than established that gender is far from the only or even the dominant position of otherness, even for women. It must be asked, then, why Rose confines the power of seeing and speech to women. What about people of color, queer and transgender people, Jews? What about David Wojnarowicz, Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Essex Hemphill, to name just a few from the era when I discovered Charlotte Salomon? Surely this is a question Rose should at least address, even if she wants to stick with women. And surely, too, she does not mean to say that only white European and American women can enact her feminism; yet putting forward six such women puts forth a powerful message.
If she proffered a definition of women, or even a justification for locating her vision in women and feminism, this problem might not be so glaring. Instead, she states that “The fact that they are women is key,” but does not go on to explain why—or rather, she goes on to explain the experiences of suffering and agency her women share, but does not locate those experiences specifically in gender (one of several important terms missing from her index, and indeed rarely present in her text). Thérèse Oulton, the last woman artist through whom Rose explores her vision, questions such gendering: “Oulton is not sure whether the new aesthetic she seeks should be defined in gender terms: ‘It doesn’t necessarily belong to the male or female.’” Rose does not comment. I am writing after Beyoncé released her incendiary video “Formation,” in which a black woman speaks truth to the power of the American state, meticulously kaleidoscoping police lines and majorette lines, plantations and churches, Bill Gates and Red Lobster, wig stores and afros, in a simultaneous paean to black women’s lives and power and retort to the forces that work against them. On the one hand, “Formation” can be seen as yet another exemplar of Rose’s argument about the political power of women’s creative voices; on the other, it speaks loudly to complexities of identity and intersectionality that she never fully acknowledges.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. A former professor of English and Women's Studies, she is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary(2011).
By Gloria Anzaldúa, edited by AnaLouise Keating
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 271 pp., $25.95, paperback.
Reviewed by Romana Radlwimmer
“When I am writing at night, I’m aware of la luna, Coyolxauhqui, hovering over my house. I envision her muerta y decapitada, ... una cabeza con párpados cerrados…. But then her eyes open y la miro dar luz a los lugares oscuros.” I have been reading these opening lines of Gloria Anzaldúa’s recent book Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro over and over, imagining the fragmented Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who rose up into the night sky to became the moon—her lunar knowledge touching Anzaldúa, shimmering through her, reflecting back to the many worlds we inhabit, reaching me, reaching us, years later, years ago, the same moon, conocimiento lunar. If I had been able to ask her about her vision of the moon, she’d probably answer that we are “all strands of energy connected to each other in the web of existence.” Now, more than a decade after Anzaldúa’s death, her dissertation project, Light in the Dark, continues and synthesizes the life’s work of the acclaimed Chicana theorist and writer.
Ever since the 1980s, Gloria Anzaldúa contributed significantly to international debates on borders, textuality, spirituality, sexuality, activism, knowledge, and the links among them. Her most prominent ideas, such as La Frontera, Mestiza consciousness, in-between-worlds—her notions of fluid, hybrid, decolonizing identities and their challenges and potentials in a patriarchal world shaped by the consequences of colonialism and imperialism—rested on and referred to, the South Texas borderlands where she was raised. “My body is sexed,… is raced,” she wrote. “I can’t … e-race my body.”
She demonstrated that Chicana forms of knowledge are useful frames of reference for understanding the experiences of marginalized, silenced—subaltern—groups in the United States and throughout the Americas. She expanded the epistemologies of the global South to a worldwide scale, going beyond western feminist cultures and writing by interweaving fiction and theory, and bringing Spanish and Nahuatl words into her English-language writing. Light in the Dark adds to her previous writings on embodied knowledge, self-expression, and existence in all kinds of (physical, spiritual, metaphoric) borderlands. Anzaldúa builds bridges among heterogeneous, contradictory realities, employing what she calls her autohistoria-teorías: personal theoretical approaches to living and writing. She prefers these to the academic illusions of scientific objectivity and distance; through them, the Chicana theorist can comprehend the philosophic nuances and epistemological significance of everyday experiences.
Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) was a shifting point for Latina thought. As a feminist intervention, it challenged the patriarchal, nationalist undertones of the Chicano movement and destabilized outdated categories, while avoiding the traps of binary thinking and postmodernist evasion—yet did not undermine the movement’s achievements. Soon, Borderlands was cited as the central reference for discussions of the border. “[I]t didn’t matter which database” researchers “went through, the result was always the same: Gloria Anzaldúa,” writes María Socorro Tabuenca-Córdoba (in “Twenty Years of Borderlands: A Reading from the Border,” Güeras y Prietas: Celebrating 20 years of Borderlands / La Frontera ).
Nearly thirty years after the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúan thought remains inspirational. The daily doses of mass-media normality, which paint complex power structures in simple black and white, have created an ongoing need for “new ways of knowing,” Anzaldúa wrote, capable of dismantling destructive “prevailing modes.”
The essay, “Let us be the healing of the wound,” the first of Light in the Dark’s six chapters, sets the tone for book. Reflecting on the world-changing impact of the 9/11 attacks and their political aftermath, she examines how to deal constructively with the traumatic occasion, especially as “each violent image [is] repeated a thousand times on TV.” She proposes a shift from violence and revenge to harmony and healing, explaining that “[i]n estos tiempos of loss, fear, and confusion the human race must delve into its cenotes (wells) of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern” in order to achieve a “collective consciousness” with “the power to counterbalance the negativity of the rest of humanity.” She suggests that the lessons we learn from such conflicts, arising out of “multiple and conflictive worldviews,” can help us to cure current and future wounds. These lessons are, first, to acknowledge that we cannot control if and when such terrible events happen, but that, second, it truly matters how we react individually and in our communities to them. Anzaldúa sees our artwork and our imagination as possible “attempt[s] to achieve resolution and balance where there may be none in real life.” She writes: “Let’s begin by admitting that as a nation we’re killing the dream of this country (a true democracy) by making war,” and asks us to “stop giving energy to only one side of our instinctual nature, to negative consciousness.” Opting for compassionate interaction instead of fury is part of what Anzaldúa calls conocimiento, knowledge, and it bears the spiritual imprint that suffuses her whole philosophy.
With healing as a primary goal, Anzaldúa looks to the ancient narrative of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, who is killed and dismembered by her mother’s warrior-son. He throws her head into the sky, where it becomes the moon, and her mother can see it and take comfort. Anzaldúa is “aware of la luna,” aware of Coyolxauhqui, aware of the fragmented, colonized feminine body and soul—and of women’s power. “Like Coyolxauhqui, let’s put our dismembered psyches … together in new constructions,” she writes, and through this “interweaving of all minds and hearts and life forces” create and live “the collective dream of the world.”
Coyolxauhqui is an image for the artistic, epistemological, and transformative processes that Anzaldúa discusses throughout the rest of the book. In “Putting Coyolxauhqui Together,” she contemplates the writing process. From the moment of the first “vague longing for form” when “the potential story calls,” the interactions among the writer, her writing practice, and the text lead her through exhausting landscapes of experiences, excavations, and emotions: “Just a couple of more drafts and you’ll be done, but you’re feeling a lot of resistance. Why do you always run into a stone wall when bringing the work to its final completion”? she asks herself. She proposes a literary philosophy in which literature is conceived not as an object that we read and study but rather as a living being with its own will and its own body (made of words). This metaphoric, personified understanding of literature pictures a relationship between author and text that breaks down hierarchies. It is not only the author who makes decisions on how a text evolves; the words themselves also have the power to lead the writer through a creative journey.
Anzaldúa’s final chapter, “now let us shift,” is a masterpiece of feminist decolonial epistemology. Anzaldúa shows the difficulties that can arise in processes of knowing, and theorizes seven stages of how to overcome them:
1. El arrebato, a rupture in one’s worldview
2. Nepantla, being torn between ways
3. The Coatlicue state, not wanting to know about new understandings
4. The call, acceptance of the new worldview
5. Putting Coyolxauhqui together, the creation of new personal and collective stories
6. The clash of realities, a negotiation between the new worldview within old realities
7. Spiritual activism
The concepts of “spiritual activism” and “nepantla,” which are so important in Anzaldúa’s work, are significantly expanded in Light in the Dark compared to former versions. Spiritual activism means to shift from old to new realties by uniting activism and spirituality, integrating contemplation, awareness, and empathy into the daily routines of professional and academic work. Spiritual activism enables us to fight for a cause yet to let go of anger and maintain compassion. It is enacted by nepantleras, people who occupy borderline spaces, who create bridges between diverse kinds of knowledge, and who encourage others to perceive the webs of connections between everybody and everything. Moving from the intricate Tex-Mex-rootedness of Borderlands to the more spiritual, historical-mythical, liminal negotiation zone of Light in the Darkness, Anzaldúa continues her examination of in-between spaces. Her concept of nepantla enables multiple thematic and stylistic lines to intersect, defining possible spaces of cultural transformation.
The process continues; each end is a hopeful beginning. Light in the Dark, which is, for now, Anzaldúa’s “final completion,” leaves us “dreaming” of “another story.” And in fact, Anzaldúa’s archives, at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Austin in Texas, promise more unpublished beauty, which will shape the future of Anzaldúan thought.
Light in the Dark should really be considered a critical edition, since it includes extensive appendices with alternative versions, correspondence, and other documents. In a preface, editor AnaLouise
Keating explains how she organized the archival material and details the reasoning behind her many decisions. Keating explains that her role as a friend, writing comadre, and editing colleague of Anzaldúa’s motivates her work, and that their relationship gave her a “solid understanding” of Anzaldúa’s “personal aesthetics—the emphasis she placed on how a piece sounds and feels.” These descriptions do not claim an interchangeability of editor and author, but are loyal to Anzaldúa’s principles: the embodied personal perspective, the spiritual component of intuitive knowledge, and collective arranging and writing processes. “To be in conocimiento with another person or group is to share knowledge, pool resources …, seek input from communities,” writes Anzaldúa.
Newly published, posthumous texts implicitly pose questions of before and after and what if and who with. Some of them remain open, creating constructive tensions. Keating says, for example, that some of the papers she found in the archive, such as a table of contents, were “finalized.” However, as her archives prove, Anzaldúa constantly re-elaborated her notions, journeying through numerous textual designs. Who is to decide whether or not newer versions would have followed? Anzaldúa’s original dissertation papers remain closed to scholars; as long as this is the case, her textual legacy will persist under the mysterious aura of posthumous knowledge politics (and concurrent polemics of security measures and / or power positions). Until then, this long-awaited book stands powerfully for itself, “guiding me home.” Anzaldúa’s poetic words of lunar knowledge are a must read; their “light is my medicine.”
Romana Radlwimmer has a PhD in Latin American Literatures from the University of Vienna. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Departamento de Estudos Românicos of the Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal, and currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Latina/o Studies Programo of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
By Patricia Melzer
New York: NYU Press, 2015, 352 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heineman
From the moment the Red Army Faction (RAF) burst onto the West German scene, women have been its face. Images of such violent female radicals as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin filled tabloids and wanted posters during RAF’s heyday. Women were overrepresented in such iconic artistic representations as Gerhard Richter’s 18 Oktober 1977. Critics of radical chic feminized the notion with the (admittedly clever) label “Prada Meinhof”—a play on the alternative appellation for RAF’s first generation: the Baader-Meinhof Gang. (Andreas Baader, together with Meinhof and Ensslin, led the group until their capture, convictions, and prison suicides in the mid-to-late 1970s.) All this, despite the fact that women probably made up only about one-third of West Germany’s far left, according to Charity Scribner’s After the Red Army Faction. What did leftist terrorism mean for the women who committed themselves to its secretive and violent world, and what can we learn from the representation of gender in portrayals of the RAF and West Germany’s other far left groups?
It is always difficult to tease apart representations from the subjective experience and meaning-making of those represented. The problem is exacerbated in the case of those who lived underground and thus left few traces other than their actions—until they were caught, at which time their communications were sharply surveilled by prison apparatus. Among the projects of Patricia Melzer, an assistant professor of German and Women’s Studies at Temple University, is to recapture far left women’s own perspectives on their actions. Employing both a close reading of radicals’ correspondence and journals as well as interviews of movement veterans, she explores their understanding of feminism, motherhood, and armed political violence with great sensitivity. Media accounts typically dispatched RAF women’s rejection of motherhood, for example, with reference either to their purported unnaturalness or to their supposed unambivalent adoption of RAF’s ideology of immersion in underground life. Closely analyzing the cases of Ensslin and Meinhof, Melzer instead discovers the women’s genuine struggles over the question of how to reconcile their revolutionary politics and their roles as mothers—not just in the abstract, but in their own highly charged relationships to their children, those children’s fathers, and their extended families. Rather than understanding motherhood and armed action as paradigmatic opposites, which would suggest that the adoption of the second requires the rejection of the first, Ensslin in particular articulated the notion that “the form women’s oppression takes [especially in their maternal roles] should logically lead to armed resistance.”
The yellow press of the day—and a fair number of more “serious” commentators—saw women’s prominence among radical left terrorists as evidence of “excess feminism.” Yet women of the RAF and other radical left groups denounced feminism as a bourgeois concern, and major feminist outlets such as the monthly magazine Emma denounced terrorism as contrary to the feminist values of pacifism and maternalism. Complementing her insistence on a more nuanced discussion of far left women’s understanding of women’s oppression, Melzer also calls into question the notion of a West German feminism unified in denouncing violence. Rather, she discovers contrary strands within feminism, which were subdued by the wave of terror.
Prior to the rise of RAF and other violent far left groups, West German feminist radicals had discussed the uses of political violence. Yet terrorist actions—and the media’s fascination with “emancipated” women’s role in them—made it politically necessary for feminists to distance themselves from RAF, and many feminists who might have engaged in debates about political violence were horrified by what it meant in praxis. The feminist field thus narrowed. The feminist response to evidence of women’s capacity for political violence was, ironically, to develop a feminist theoretical framework rigidly linking violence to maleness and masculinity. The dominance of maternalist, pacifist feminism in 1980s West Germany was in part a legacy of far left terrorism in the 1970s.
What about the triangular relationship among Far Left terrorism, feminism, and liberalism? RAF created a genuine crisis for the West German liberal project, as the state responded with illiberal measures regarding both the rights of prisoners and the rights of political expression and association in civil society. How does feminist analysis help us to understand RAF’s challenge to liberalism?
Melzer posits that prison hunger strikes constituted a feminized politics without a feminist subject (since the revolutionaries disavowed feminism). Hunger strikes, according to Melzer, challenged liberalism’s premise of the rational (disembodied) subject, since liberalism, at least in its origins, had prioritize the rational propertied white male over those who were presumably driven by their bodies, such as women, people of color, and colonized subjects. Hunger strikers’ turn to self-starvation to achieve political ends, and prison officials’ performance of politics through the rape-like process of forced feeding, made the body the locus of politics. Furthermore, rather than perform individual self-abnegation (as in religious fasting), political hunger strikes subverted the liberal subject in a second way: they subordinated the individual to the collective identity (they starved for the larger political project) and elicited a response in which the state treated them as a collective threat.
Charity Scribner’s insights into RAF, feminism, and liberalism are broader. Scribner, an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center and Lafayette Community College, City University of New York, draws on the Frankfurt School’s observation that in rejecting theory in favor of action, the RAF collapsed the political and the aesthetic. The results were not only offensively uninformed, for example, in the RAF’S conflation of its struggle with those of national liberation movements, such as those in Vietnam and Palestine, and the rebellion of African Americans in the burning cities of the US. They were also irresponsible and deadly. Having declined to grapple with “the question of how and when a revolutionary subject could be identified and defined,” the RAF “wagered their lives and those of their victims before developing a viable social alternative” to the state’s monopoly on violence, explains Scribner. It was this “blind demand [for] the priority of action over theoretical elaboration,” and not just anti-Semitic actions, that aligned the RAF with fascism.
What would it mean to reject this collapse of the political and the aesthetic? Scribner finds clues in artistic responses to the RAF, ranging from literature to visual art to film and dance. Some of this work reiterated the media-driven tendency to prioritize narrative over critique (for example, in curatorial decisions at the Berlin Kunst-Werke’s 2005 exhibit on the RAF). Some was downright problematic, presenting Germans collectively as feminized and sexualized victims of the RAF (in novels by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Friedrich Christian Delius). But the more successful work allowed for precisely the kind of contingency, uncertainty, and multiple points of view that the RAF rejected, and these qualities, according to Scribner, are key elements of a “postmilitant” stance that seeks to disentangle the possibility of radical political change from terrorism.
Feminist analysis is a key to Scribner’s understanding of such aesthetic products. Delius’s novel (translated as Windowseat at Mogadishu ), for example, emerged at precisely the moment the trope of Germans as feminized and sexualized victims of the Red Army in 1945 was gaining currency. These mutually reinforcing discourses revealed yet another subterranean link between fascism and RAF terrorism: Germans’ desire to believe themselves to have been victims of both. In a fascinating chapter, Scribner contrasts the “shattered” body of Ulrike Meinhof, in Johann Kresnik’s eponymous dance piece, and the fate of Meinhof’s literally disembodied brain to—of all things—the vulnerable yet healed body resulting from the radical-turned-cabinet minister Joschka Fischer’s fitness program.
Yet feminism here is not simply an analytical tool. For Scribner as for Melzer, it is a historical phenomenon in dialogue with far left politics. Second-wave feminism’s critique of the public/private divide applied equally to RAF and to liberalism, both of which denied the relevance of the private sphere to politics. In bringing to light the fallacy of the public/private split, feminism offered (and continues to offer) a paradigm-shifting critique of liberalism that does not have as its logical outcome the nihilism of terrorism, but rather that opens the door to a productive reworking of the Enlightenment project. Scribner locates this possibility not only in political practice but also in such aesthetic artifacts as the films Marianne and Juliane (1981), by Margarethe von Trotta, and The Edge of Heaven (2007), by Fatih Akın, which transgress the public/private divide to critique RAF terrorism and suggest a postmilitant but not postpolitical subject.
The legacy of the RAF has hardly faded into history, and scholars who write about it confront difficult questions about their own positioning. Melzer, who interviewed movement veterans and plunged deeply into their writings about such personally painful matters as their separation from their children, emerges as more sympathetic to the RAF women than does Scribner. Does this matter for the authors’ evaluation of RAF’s actions? Perhaps it is Scribner’s relative distance from RAF that sensitizes her to artworks that tally and name the RAF dead while leaving their victims uncounted and anonymous. Scribner appears to accept the notion that RAF support for the Palestinian national project was necessarily anti-Semitic; Melzer challenges the conflation of anti-Semitism and a pro-Palestinian position. But then, Scribner also notes the attempted bombing of Berlin’s Jewish Community Center in 1969—an act far harder to describe as anti-imperialist, and one which Melzer does not mention.
Both authors acknowledge the difficulty of writing about far left terrorism in an age of renewed worry about terrorism, although in very different contexts. Both offer incisive feminist readings of a past that is far from past. Taken together, Death in the Shape of a Young Girl and After the Red Army Faction signal a necessary rereading of feminism, liberalism, and radical violence.
Elizabeth Heineman is professor of History and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is author, most recently, of Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (2014), and editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011).