The Heisenberg of Feminism

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 [1998])—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 [1928] 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.

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