What first drew me to feminist Ann Snitow was the way she transcends feminism’s notorious generational divide. When we first met, I felt embraced. Later, I wondered how she did it. Ann was a founding member of New York Radical Feminists, the 1970s radical-feminist group that included Shulamith Firestone; now she’s a professor of gender studies at the New School and an activist who directs the Network of East-West Women, connecting feminists in America with those in Eastern Europe. She also sits on the editorial board of the democratic-socialist magazine Dissent. Ann has spent the last 45 years in a sort of guerrilla war with patriarchy—attacking it through organizing, then circling around and creating academic programs to explore its weaknesses; joining the fight abroad; bringing lessons learned back home. Recently, she published a book collecting four decades of essays. The title seems a wink to today’s too-certain call-out culture: It’s called The Feminism of Uncertainty.
I interviewed Ann about the book in her SoHo loft, which is sunny and padded with Moroccan carpets. Some 20 gamelans line the walls (her husband, Danny, is an avant-garde composer and musician). There’s a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf holding a trove of feminist classics. The top shelf is lined with copies of The Feminist Memoir Project, a book of essays she solicited from her generation of feminists, lest their stories be lost to the next. When we met, a new undergraduate class was on her mind: “Political Sensorium,” which explores gender through readings about sensations like pleasure and disgust. Committed to feminism’s continuity, Ann is equally in love with its evolution. “I would get bored if I didn’t keep moving,” she tells me. “I thought feminism had enormous capacity to turn into something boring.”
One of Ann’s great generosities is her encouraging appreciation of new feminist efforts. She knows that even a theory revisited never works the same over several decades, and sees value in connecting past and present work. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, the young—they’re not going to be doing it!” she says. “I don’t worry that way at all. You can’t put it back.” For her, feminism is a genie loosed from its bottle: powerful, sometimes capricious, a great force for good but occasionally co-opted by villains. The interesting thing is not whether we can compel it to grant every wish, but how we can use it to keep changing the questions before us.
Sarah Leonard: You write in your book, The Feminism of Uncertainty, that feminism in the 1970s in the US was really its own invention. Tell me about your entry into the feminist movement, and what drew you in. It occurs to me that in this conversation, we’re creating continuity that you didn’t have at the time.
Ann Snitow: Very true. Well, I was doing my PhD in literature at the University of London, and it was 1968. It was obvious that to sit in the British Library while the world was exploding was not the right thing, so without finishing my degree, I came home. From the minute I arrived, it was sizzling here. “Political” doesn’t capture it. Even during Occupy, I’ve never experienced anything like that. You couldn’t control it. It went all over the place, but it was thrilling, and I thought, “My God—what is happening here?” My friend, Cellestine Ware, told me: “There’s this thing happening, this women’s movement.”
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And she took you to your first meeting.
At the meeting I went to were Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt and a bunch of other people who were disaffected with Redstockings. [Redstockings was a women’s liberation organization founded in 1969, which pioneered consciousness-raising circles and was in dialogue with both the New Left and liberal feminists.] Cellestine took me to what turned out to be the founding meeting of New York Radical Feminists. I can’t tell you what they all said, but it was incandescent. It shaped reality in a new way. And it gave me new arms and legs. That meeting was it.
Next week we met again, and some of us kept meeting for the next 15 years. The small group that started New York Radical Feminists only lasted a year, and that history is written very beautifully and carefully by Alice Echols. We had the job of going to other little groupuscules to get them going. I think the big controversy was that Shulie [Firestone] was very strict. She wanted people to study feminism before they entered the organization fully.
How successful was that?
Susan Brownmiller and others said, “This isn’t democratic. There’s no reason the founding cell should be able to screen who’s ready.” And I think that that was right. It’s also true that Shulie was serious about feminist theory and history in a way that didn’t get replicated by all these groups. So it’s a trade-off. Anyway, there was a terrible split by the end of the first year, but by then there were all these different little groupuscules all over New York that we had seeded, and they were just some of the many groups that grew. The speed at which this happened was amazing.
In that first meeting, was there a particular connection you made, an “aha!” moment?
There’s no question that introducing the idea of being a woman as a condition of damage and difficulty and therefore a right place to struggle was earth-shaking. I had never had such an idea. And that’s the genie you can’t put back in the bottle. In the last 200 years since the French Revolution, you can’t really put the idea of women’s damaged rights back in the bottle. This kind of insight is a central condition of modernity.
You certainly can say that the start and stop and restarting of feminist activism seems to have a pattern. At a certain point, a generation of women say, “Oppression? This is not what we want to concern ourselves with”—like the flappers. Freedom, smoking, you know… that is not the same thing as women’s liberation, but in many ways those personal freedoms were relatives of the larger project.
We do seem to have moved on from the smoking question. You write that the new freedoms felt erotic.
I write about how people have assumed that feminism was a hit against heterosexual sex—but for a lot of us, it was exactly the opposite, especially for heterosexual women like me. Feeling powerful, feeling alive, feeling in possession of my own life was so sexy, and it made me able to represent myself to men and imagine relationships with them that were completely different from the kind of abjection that was typical. It said to you that the typical structures of female shame—and humiliation—were unacceptable and indeed anti-erotic.
We are currently awash in trend pieces about female friendship. It’s apparently cool right now. People have talked a lot about it through the Elena Ferrante novels. Have you read those?
Yes, I have. I adore them. And I have to say that my husband adored them too. There’s a way in which they give access to women’s lives like hardly anything else I know.
Female friendship, though—I’ve always been a female-friendship person. It wasn’t the women’s movement that gave me that. I want to talk about experience, and men are not often up for that. Other women whom one meets and then loves, and whose lives one shares and follows, are interlocutors from heaven.
And a big feature of the early feminist movement was women-only groups. It seems like they created conversations that would have been impossible if there had not been female-only groups.
It was a revelation that women could have so much to say to each other. For some women, some people who hadn’t had intimate female friendships, this was earth-shaking. The Feminist Memoir Project, this collection I made with Rachel Blau Duplessis, starts with the article “The Gang of Four.” Four women describe how they met each other, and the thrill of contact with other women who are struggling, recognizing the problem of being female, and refusing to accept this as a limitation. This sense of breaking out—with company.
It’s hard to explain now that feminism wasn’t individualized in the way it is now. It was a group experience—and that is hard to get back. My dear students say, “Thank you for what you did for us.” And I say, “What did I do for you?” And they say, “Now we’re free to have a life on our own terms and do whatever we want to do.” And I say, “No, you’re not free to have a life on your own terms at all. So sorry!”
Just because certain kinds of individual freedom become possible for a very small percentage of the women in the world—which I don’t discount, by the way—this is not the same thing as a feminist project that has the utopian yearning that things would be organized differently. It’s not just “Now I’m free to work here or there, marry this person, defer childbearing.” The original meaning of “The personal is political” was that these structures were much bigger than an individualized life, and there are no personal solutions.
Of course, this has a tragic aspect: “There are no personal solutions” means that it’s the revolution or nothing—and since we don’t have the revolution, there are only personal solutions, you know? There are the relationships we make, the struggles we choose. Personal solutions are what we all have to do. But what was intended when “The personal is political” was first said was really interesting: It was the idea that individual adjustments were not the main thing that feminism was about. I still feel that way. I want my students to have big personal solutions. I say to them: “Unfortunately, you have to struggle and make your own personal arrangements with life. On the other hand, you could consider including in that model ideas of collective action—possibilities for change that are not simply conditioned by the terms of your own life.”
Can you talk about some of the changes that you were advocating, early on, on a society-wide basis? Many people are familiar with consciousness-raising circles and the process of recognizing oppression, but something we certainly lack right now is a feminist program for which we’re advocating.
I actually agree with you that at this moment, it would be really hard to say: “This is the feminist program.” It’s partly because feminism is fragmented in very complicated, sometimes very rich ways. There’s nobody now who would say, “All we need to do is seize the means of production.” Nobody’s producing that kind of program. So what does “program” mean in this postmodern sensibility we live in, and the kinds of exaggerated individualism which neoliberalism feeds so successfully? What is a political program?
I can talk about our current political program in Poland most concretely, because all my feminist organizing since 1991 has been in East-Central Europe. Not exclusively, also in the university and various other places, but I’ve really been working on what feminism is going to be in the postcommunist era. This question of “program” is urgent there: Do we want to be part of the project of building new governments, new democracies, or is feminism like the dissident movements, a withdrawal from all that—enclave-building, a sense of outsider-dom and marginalization as a value in itself. That’s a big tension in the work I do in Poland! Feminists know the kinds of world they want—signs of collectivity, creativity, etc.—and one of the things they say is, “Let’s just do it. Let’s do pre-figurative structures where we live the way we think we should live.”
Of course, I’m very sympathetic to that, but I also feel feminists in Eastern Europe now can’t afford that kind of marginalization. I mean, these are proto-fascist governments that have come in Hungary and Poland. A friend of mine from Poland said it doesn’t matter what the government does: Communism was terrible, the neoliberal government was terrible, and now there is this horrible right-wing government. None of these groups give us anything, so who cares? And I’ve been in the position of saying, “I care.” You can’t just say, “We meet underground”—which is what the dissidents were forced to do. I mean, living in truth was a great idea when you couldn’t do anything or you just went to jail. But now, in these faux democracies—which are really very flawed—you actually do have to figure out your relationship to public institutions and the state, and what pressure points there might be to change them.
Especially now in Poland, it’s very obvious what a feminist program would be. They’re about to take abortion away—not like in 1993, with exceptions, but 100 percent… the Catholic Church’s line. [This plan was recently halted by women’s protests.] So when you’ve got dramatic things like that, the feminist program clarifies. There have been thousands upon thousands of people in the streets. What is their feminist program? They want autonomy and independence and self-realization for women—less discrimination, more representation in the government, a division between church and state. In Poland, I can give you a list of things that I think are the feminist program, and that’s because a proto-fascist government has just been elected by a landslide.
But here, what is the feminist program? I get all these newsletters. They all have specific projects—stuff about reorganizing work and leave and demanding support from the public sphere for child-bearing or child-rearing. Support for reproduction is a universal demand on feminist programs. But the thing is, it’s a demand from the government, and we have not had many victories in that regard. The victories we’ve had haven’t cost the government any money. So yeah, I mean, I could come up with a bill of desired programs—but in a way, they’ve been out there a long time, with only a few victories.
Do you think today’s program is very different from the program that you would’ve advocated in 1970?
I think it’s very similar, though material changes have affected the circumstances of these conversations. Take All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, about how half the women in America are living solo. A thing like that is definitely a sign of possibility, but to what extent has feminism presided over changes that we like or don’t like? It’s always mixed. I don’t think feminism said women should live alone. That wasn’t the program. But there was the idea that women can live alone without abjection or disgrace.
I guess the question will always be: With whom will you cast your lot, as Adrienne Rich asked, and toward whom are you making your demand? Are you making it to men: “You have to do housework”? But obviously, you have to have big structural changes for them to be able to do that. Are we saying that there should be much, much more public day care? Well, they had it under communism, but it was inadequate. You have to say, “We don’t want day care—we want quality day care!” The program mushrooms, but I do think the essential things were and remain: structural changes in work, leisure, care of children, changing the division of labor between men and women. Queer theory suggests a basic change in the boundaries of gender itself, a flexibility and chance for invention that galvanizes my feminist work.
Dorothy Dinnerstein laid it out in The Mermaid and the Minotaur in the 1970s. [Dinnerstein, a feminist activist and professor of psychology, argued that while Freud was right about the formation of mental structures in infancy, he didn’t go far enough. Dinnerstein argued that gender dynamics in society could be changed by altering caregiving in infancy, ensuring that men did half the caring. Without a shift in infant care, Dinnerstein felt, feminist activism would always run into “buried foundations.”] Without a fundamental shift that changes the unconscious of everyone about our relationship to each other, it’s very hard to just come up with a little program that tightens one knot and loosens another. That’s where the utopianism of feminism always comes in: It’s a big vision of a different state, but you have to start somewhere. We’re discussing, in New York State, extended family leave 40 years later. I don’t even know if we’ll get it. And if we do, how will it really function? Again, will feminism preside over this shift in a meaningful way? Perhaps in part.
Do you think the feminism of Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton is so popular because they’re offering a feminism that feels powerful in the face of a totally implacable system?
Such a good question. My feeling is that the deep emotion, which is rarely expressed, is: Better than nothing. That’s it. I mean, there’s so little chance that Hillary has the idea of restructuring society in a feminist way. She’s a nuts-and-bolts person. She possibly could do some things, depending on the disposition of Congress, and she might have the will to do some things depending on whether or not another war comes. She might. And she’s certainly more likely to work toward feminist change than anyone on the Republican side. So, you know, low expectations. At the moment, and annoyingly, Republicans all seem openly and unapologetically to be the enemies of women’s autonomy.
Which brings us to abortion—it’s so fundamental to female autonomy, yet seems to spark less enthusiasm as an issue among people my age than it did in your generation. I wonder if you could talk about how that struggle felt then, and how you think it has changed.
Well, you know, when something is illegal, it’s much clearer. In the early days, you have no idea the things men used to say: “Go back to the kitchen and shut up.” Open sexism. Abortion? No—it was illegal. And women died. This is something important to remember: Women died. Once we won abortion, the right brilliantly decided in 1973 to nibble away at it. They got in charge of local structures where they made little rules, statewide or locally, which women then had to oppose. Texas had 200 or something abortion clinics, and now it has six. Mississippi has six. They succeeded in making this right very difficult to use. That’s a very different thing to organize against state by state. They attacked clinics so that it was really very hard to go into the clinic. I don’t know if you’ve ever done clinic watch, but it’s unforgettable. People with horrible signs…
I worked at Planned Parenthood in high school, on the political side. People were often protesting outside, and they would assume I was going in for an abortion and would tell me they could take me to a safe place.
I really honor the feminists—and there was a significant number of them—who seriously tried on the ground to push back.
You described the tension in Poland between becoming intentionally marginal and engaging the state, and I’m wondering if that tension felt equally present in the early ’70s?
I’ve thought a lot about this question. Feminism didn’t only have to approach the state directly in America, because it was such a rich, fat, varied society that you could approach power nodules in many, many places. America had a vast civil society with many crank points where you could put your pressure.
What’s an example?
You could work on the schools, or in the courts, or in local governments. You could work on the local hospital. There’s a way in which American political activity can be much more dispersed than in Poland. You can decide to raise people’s consciousness as a separate activity—no more all-male panels, judges, leaders, etc. There was this huge amount of space: psychological space, institutional space, civil-society space. The state has consistently refused financial support for structural change—very frustrating—yet feminists have found ways to shift things.
A lot of recent conversation about the feminism of the 1970s has reacted against it as a sort of non-intersectional moment. It seems to me not that this is totally wrong, but rather that it’s also reacting to the current failures of feminism by projecting them backward onto the 1970s.
Clare Hemmings, who wrote a book called Why Stories Matter, sees this narration, either from inside the feminist movement or from beyond it, as an effort to clarify what we do now—a throwing-off of what you’d like to blame for what you don’t have now. She sees this narrating as an extremely poor representation of the complexity of what happens. She just doesn’t believe in the single narrative line. She looks at hundreds of feminist articles and says, “Well, here you can see the narrative of decline. Here you can see the narrative of improvement: ‘The original feminists didn’t do anything about race—but now we do.’” Unfortunately, that’s not true. There was a huge amount about race even as there was still the problem of racism in the women’s movement. Racism was there, for sure, but the idea that we went from non-intersectional to intersectional is such a gross selective project with an interest in a particular endpoint. And feminism—I say it in the book—feminism is polyglot…all over the place. Extremely variable in its sensibilities. Takes very different forms under different terms of necessity or pressure. It just hasn’t really lent itself very well to any of these narratives.
Is this something your students raise as well?
Yes. I teach a course called “Introduction to Feminist Thought and Action,” which is meant to introduce feminism to people who have barely heard about it. And in the early days I taught it, I used to include a lot of historical material from the ’70s. Students would complain to their section heads: “What is she doing? This is old.”
Well, I’ve tried a number of different ways around this, and they’ve become more and more successful. Sometimes I start with something current—for example, Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision, the sense of the new queer mixtures that are now popularly available, etc. I start with that. But then, at various points, I insert—like a dipstick—a sense of how this discourse has emerged…and if I trick them enough, it works. But basically, I’ve moved toward more and more contemporary materials—not just in capitulation to my students’ foolishness about the recent past, though there’s that, but also because I don’t think feminism is a coherent body of stuff that you can hand over: “Look, here are these early pieces; now you can see what this is.” I like what I’ve done, because it shows that feminism moves around. You know, does it matter that Beyoncé sang a song with the word “feminism” behind her? Well, actually, yes. You know, students of color were thrilled, and they said, “This changes everything for me.” I said, “It does?” They said yes. And I said, “Great!” Why not?
Did you try to link Beyoncé up historically?
I don’t know whether I would have done that successfully. The main point I’m making here is that feminism can’t be encapsulated as a subject, so I let it go all the places I see it going. I do a lot of internationalism—I tell them, “You know, Indian women are doing something revolutionary: They are taking back the night, taking back the streets, in a movement called the Loitering Movement.” And so then we talk about it. What is it to loiter? Can you imagine living in a society where women aren’t allowed to be on the streets alone? What would it be to imagine that? But on the other hand, yes—we’re afraid alone on the streets at night too. So there are continuities and discontinuities. I do a lot of comparative stuff now.
I wonder if you could talk a little more about internationalism.
Internationalist feminism is very vexed and complicated.
I guess you know the feminist philosophers have introduced this term, “both/and,” which I love. I use it all the time. Some man in the room says, “Blomph.” And another man in the room says, “Blrrr.” And I say: “Both!” Both of those are good. You know, the idea that these things aren’t mutually exclusive—I do think that internationalism is a very important part of feminism. You have to really think about global flows and consider all that interesting work that feminists have done, about how this woman lawyer in New York hires this woman who came from Puerto Rico who then hires this woman who’s going to take care of her children back in Puerto Rico. The essence of intersectionality would be to see these chains and how they work—and how one might change how they work.
The UN is a player here, frustrating as that bureaucracy can be. “Women’s rights are human rights”—UN activists said that for 10 years. Nobody believed it. Everybody felt there’s the status of women, and there’s human rights—completely separate subjects. So heroes like Charlotte Bunch kept saying, year after year: “Women’s rights are human rights.” And actually, the rhetoric shifted. I honor this work, the extraordinary patience of the feminists working with the UN—and the same thing with the EU. The EU has a lot of progressive positions, and I support it, but since most of the member governments are conservative, what does internationalism mean? Well, it turns out to mean collection of data—the endless collection of data. We’re going to prove to these recalcitrant governments that women are disadvantaged, discriminated against, violently attacked. We’re going to give them the numbers, and I always say, “Gee, you know, call me up—I’ll tell you how it is. You don’t have to spend the next $3 million asking those questions again.” So internationalism can get stuck in a lot of ways. But I still think that thinking across is easily as important as historical genealogies.
Right. In your book, you talk about the challenges you run up against teaching in Poland, in a very different social context. And the challenges it actually creates for your students to be thinking about the ideas that you’re offering, and the sort of anxiety this causes them and you. How do you know that it’s important to offer certain ideas to women who might not want them?
This is one of the things for which feminism has been attacked in recent years: “You’re not sensitive to the woman who wants to wear a head scarf.” I’ve followed the head-scarf fight very closely, and I often engage my “both/and” sensibility. I say to people, “Just don’t tell women what to wear, OK? Nobody tell women what to wear.” Then people come back at me and say, “They’re being forced to wear this by their male relatives.” And I say, “Well, that’s a struggle that they’ll have to engage—but I’m not for banning the head scarf.” It’s a fantasy about how cultural change happens.
So the issue that you’re raising is: “Who wants feminism?” My position has always been: “Here it is—take it or leave it. Change it.” Feminism is not a doctrine, an ideology.
The clearest example I have of that is when I was in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is a very interesting place because they were a nomadic society, and women had enormous power in that society. There’s quite a bit of matriarchalism—once you’ve had your first son, you get to a certain age, you get quite a bit of power in the family and in the world.
There was a Soros worker there who asked me what I was going to say in my talks to students. And I said, “Well, one thing I’m going to do is talk about virginity, and how this fetish with virginity stops everything.” You can’t do anything if you have to be a virgin—you can’t go on the street, you can’t have a male friend, you can’t do anything. And women are still kidnapped there, and they have to marry the person who kidnaps them—because even if they didn’t have sex, they are presumed to have had sex, and then that’s the end of it: You have to marry that person. And that happened to my translator, this extremely elegant young woman. I asked, “Is it really true about this kidnapping thing?” She says, “Oh, yeah—I was kidnapped.” I said, “Well, how did that work for you?” She says, “Well, luckily for me, he was a nice guy—I knew him slightly, he’s a nice guy, and within the first year I had a boy, and we’re pretty happy.” OK… so, on the other hand, she was very interested in feminism—she was translating for me and very into it.
So I said to this Soros worker, “I’m going to talk about virginity.” And she said, “It’s a taboo here—you mustn’t talk against the culture. The culture is that women have to be virgins, and you’re being an insensitive feminist who comes from outside and vulgarly suggests that this is bad.” I said to her, “Why not have more respect for these women?” Let them decide if this interests them or not. They live in the world; they have TV now. The idea that they’re in this sort of enclosed cultural enclave that one mustn’t interrupt—it’s over. First contact is over. They’re very sophisticated, these students, very knowledgeable. I see nothing wrong with telling them my analysis of why virginity as an absolute value is deeply repressive and discriminatory and keeps in place a gender system that is very, very harsh. I see no reason not to say that. And then the room is full of lively young women: They can say, “Fuck her—she’s from America. She doesn’t understand us.” Or they can say, “Hmm… it’s true that I’m having problems with this, or I secretly lost my virginity, and this woman is suggesting that maybe that’s not so terrible.” You just absolutely don’t know how it’s going to be used—and what’s more, you don’t want to control that.
In some way, you modify the feminist position as you talk to people and learn more about what would be liberatory for them—you don’t just give your position like some sort of fixed iron mask. You constantly find out how it reads and what it means and how to thread it. It’s not a body of knowledge you can hand over, ever. But why not say, “Gee, coming from America, when I see these sexual rules, I see enormous inequality and unfairness”?
So I said it. Nobody died, you know? Nobody said, “You don’t understand our culture—get out of here.” People had very different reactions. Some people were interested in it, other people tried to explain to me that women really are different from men. One woman told me that in the womb, you can see that a female fetus has her hands in front of her crotch. Even as a fetus, she is ashamed. And I said, “Where did you read that?” And she said, “It’s science. They can see in the womb, and girl babies hide their pudenda even in the womb.” This is her belief system—that women are naturally more modest, desire a more reclusive sexuality than men do, and this is the ultimate truth. Do I know what the difference is biologically between men and women? Absolutely not. This is completely on the table. Not to be known. I learned from that exchange the humility to recognize that I don’t have some counter-science to hand her: “Girl fetuses in the womb are waving their arms in revolution!” I don’t have anything to say, so I just said, “OK.” This is where we are in the conversation.
This is the difference between going abroad as an individual and going abroad as a state, right? Internationalism can be easily conflated with colonialism, but it’s states that colonize.
Exactly. I mean, we have this little NGO, the Network of East-West Women. How many times have we been told: “We don’t want your American feminism”? Or “You don’t understand us”—particularly in the Czech Republic in the early ’90s. They said, “We don’t like American feminism, with its man-hating.” OK, so you try to take that apart a little bit. But basically, they feel it’s a foreign element—and, finally, after 1989, they get to be themselves. Postcommunist countries get to have their own cultures again.
And I thought, you know, that makes sense to me—that you don’t resonate with the American feminist experience. On the other hand, the minute I got there, all the fissures that happen in a capitalist society between men and women were taking form. Everything was becoming like us. So I said, “Maybe you’re right, and you really can take a different path.” For example, the Czechs were very eager to say that men were the main sufferers under communism, and I said, “I see how you come up with that.” Men aren’t used to being humiliated and told they have no authority, and so they took a real hit. Women don’t expect to have authority, so they didn’t take the same hit, and they actually were able to shape a huge amount of their families’ daily lives.
And there is a whole other realm of concern with imperialist feminism at this point, where the justification for the war in Afghanistan drew heavily on the argument that women were oppressed by the Taliban, and therefore we had to liberate them with this war.
But, Sarah, that was one of the most hypocritical moments that ever happened in the Bush administration. We all howled when they said that—thanks, but no thanks. I mean, it was cynical, hypocritical, downright pitiful.
But it would seem to create a solidarity problem, and a problem of trust between women here and abroad once that reasoning has been used.
I’d love to actually interview a bunch of women in Afghanistan and find out the degree to which they believed that America was there as this paternalistic presence to help them. First of all, I don’t believe they thought America was there to help them. I think we can assume that a lot of them saw through this—that these statements were so ersatz, so obviously a cover story for crap that’s still hard to believe. But I give women in those countries more credit—that they would know that the US couldn’t offer them liberation.
I can see that. I want to return to Dorothy Dinnerstein: You have a couple of essays about her and, in particular, The Mermaid and the Minotaur. Her argument as you cite it is that the walls that activists keep running into have “buried foundations,” and that those foundations are psychological: They’re created by being cared for in infancy exclusively by the mother, and this produces a set of gendered reactions psychologically that are then both difficult to undo and in which we women and men are invested, which makes them even harder to undo—so it’s not just social policy. And so I wondered: It seems that Marx has made a comeback, but psychoanalysis has not made a similar comeback in feminism, outside of literary criticism.
I’m not sure you’re right about that. People like Jacqueline Rose, Jessica Benjamin—there are a lot of people who are writing feminist theory that engages questions of the unconscious in various ways.
Could you start by describing your first encounter with feminist psychoanalysis?
What I try to describe in the book is the discovery that there were deeper structures that made me distrust or dislike other women. It wasn’t just me, and that was deeply helpful to me. I already knew all the vocabulary—I knew Freud. What made it resonant for me as a feminist activist was that it reflected the indeterminacy I talk about all through my book. All kinds of variables structure what happens, and what people can imagine doing, and with whom they can imagine connecting. That there’s a kind of aesthetics of politics, a sensibility of politics—all kinds of things that are hard to describe that are lodged in various parts of oneself. Once I had the idea that one could use such a complex model to describe the political, I felt very freed.
At the current moment, I’m teaching a course called “Political Sensorium” with Vicky Hattam, a political scientist. We’re having a fascinating time, and we’re trying to dial down the rationalism of the left—pull it back a little, not reject it. I’m a great fan of the Enlightenment, but let’s recognize that it threw a lot of things out—the woman, the body, the baby—that in some sense are all part of political life: how people feel and what they think they can do, and what they can tolerate too. And let’s take seriously that people have fears that are irrational. I mean, there’s no other way to explain this turn to the right except irrational fear. These countries in Eastern Europe are expressing hysterical fear that once again they’ll be overrun, even though there’s really very little chance of that. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s really running the show now—and how would you talk about that? How would you think about the inner life of what people feel they want, and can do and can’t do or shouldn’t do?
And so Dorothy opened up this door that said: “We are ambivalent creatures.” Human ambivalence is at the core of the understanding that comes from psychoanalysis. We want to be free and we don’t want to be free. We want to be grown up, but we’re very infantile. This constant struggle to be an adult, and also the downsides of being an adult—the loss of pleasure and immediacy and jouissance and all the rest of it. What trade-off are we going to make between jouissance on the one side, and rational political behavior on another? For me, it just explained misogyny like nothing else. Why do we all hate women?
Including women. I used to have this creepy feeling, and I describe it in one of the essays: Maybe it’s right, true—maybe women really are horrible, inferior creatures. And I read Dorothy, and it was like this glorious explosion of light. I thought, “Yeah, of course we hate women—they have inordinate power and scare us to death, and in some sense they are the representatives of death.” And that’s not rational. But it’s real.
Representatives of death how?
They give birth to you, and that’s the end of it. They are responsible for you in the flesh. They’re the ones who try to keep you alive, and it’s a touch-and-go matter. If they fail, you fall into the pit. There’s the delicacy of the negotiation to keep a child you’ve birthed alive, but you know what the end of the story is? No matter what, it’s going to die. And it’s all your fault.
There’s a really fantastic quote from Angela Carter in your book where she says: “I’m from that generation that believed if you could actually find some way of making a synthesis of Marx and Freud you’d be getting towards a sort of universal explanation.”
Isn’t that charming?
That is so optimistic.
One of the tragedies that happened to us is that she died at 52 of cancer. I can’t bear it. Like Ellen Willis and other people, you know, who had all this work to do. She was saying, “I have a working model that gets me through the day.” Marx described the way in which capitalism shapes us and our beliefs. Understanding that social construction is the beginning of being able to be critical, to pull back from one’s own belief system. And then, on the other hand, there are all these psychological motifs—ways in which we don’t want to pull back from our belief, that we want to be at one with it, that we want wholeness of a kind that can never be had. We are divided creatures, and we suffer for it.
Do you think that’s part of what creates some of the anger that I feel characterizes a lot of contemporary feminist debate? A lot of other debates as well, of course, but it’s especially visible because of the Internet: the ways in which internal fights in feminism—”you’re doing it wrong” fights—really escalate and can be quite brutal.
It doesn’t happen among men in the same way?
It does. It’s probably true that there’s no expectation with men that they won’t do that…
There, you see: You’ve got the double standard that almost structures your question, because I think men are unbelievably competitive and crazy about each other’s claims, though they seem often to have a cover story that’s different from ours. They definitely have a tradition of collegiality and shared power as a way to increase their own power—call it apprenticeship. I think men are often better organized to consolidate power through sharing, that there are lots of social structures they can use. And we are more scrappy, because we’re new to the game. But I actually think men are totally murderous, right along with us.
You referred before to utopian thinking in the context of Dinnerstein. Her book argues that we will change the ways that the genders relate to each other—or even change gender itself—by adjusting the nature of infant care, which I might argue is optimistic.
“Optimism” is hardly enough to say about Dinnerstein. She is utopian, and at the same time deeply skeptical about our capacity to rewrite the gender bargain, deconstruct maleness and femaleness, identities which she knows are unstable and changing—yet hard to change!
A lot of the people who criticize me for loving Dinnerstein say, “You know, it’s really very different now. People have all these different relationships. Things are being deconstructed.” I always say back, “It looks different in very many ways, but the depth sense of women as not quite as human as men persists.” I’ve given up on hoping that her book might have the same effect on others that it had on me. But I have to tell you that when I teach a short piece that summarizes her argument, the students light up. They see it. They say, “It’s true, I hate my mother—maybe more than she deserves?” Or “I love my mother, but she’s powerless—and that makes me feel powerless too, and angry at her.” They just leap on it.
I had a similar response to the Ferrante books. I cried during every one of those books, because I realized I felt like they understood me—or that Ferrante did. I also realized that all their lives, men have had this experience as they read books and experienced culture, and it took me 26 years. Reading psychoanalysis can have a similar effect, where you think: “Oh my God—someone gets something about me that I thought was unique, and it turns out it’s not particular to me.”
Yes. The Mermaid and the Minotaur is a literary text—she just sinks into example after example, and every one of them lights up with the familiarity of the dynamic she is describing. And, you know, she has an animal-poetic relationship to the kind of stuff that goes on between men and women, and that’s what Ferrante has too, and it’s amazing in both instances.
You’ve been teaching at the New School for 30 years, right?
1986. Oh my God…I wouldn’t have said that. I wouldn’t have said “30 years.” I would have said “twentysomething.”
And my understanding is that the process of getting the sort of gender studies there that you want has been a 30-year war of attrition.
And the New School is not the most traditional of universities. I don’t want to make you rehash the entire history of the New School, since you’ve recorded an excellent oral history for the New School archive. But I wondered if you could speak to two things. One is why you think it has been that hard at a progressive institution. The other is about the relationship between academia and activism for you, and why it doesn’t make sense to separate them.
One of the great things about feminist theory and intellectuals is the way they keep redefining the nature of our problem. For me, this is bread and butter—I need it and want it. But it’s not the same as activism, and I think it’s worth maintaining a distinction. One of the issues would be: What kind of dialogue is possible between these different manifestations of feminist work? The dismissive thing of “That’s just theory” or “That’s just liberal reformism”—those two snobbish positions are very unhelpful. They’re different ways of being and needing each other, and lots of people choose one path or the other partly because of where they’re placed in life—what their education is like, what their temperament is.
Relatively few people have done this crazy thing that I did, where I decided to be a full-time activist and a full-time professor. How did I do that? It points to my incapacities. I’d love to say, “Magnificent me! My energy is endless.” Unfortunately, that’s not true. It had to do with a need to dance around and not stay in place, to have the adventures I wrote about in the book, in the section on the picaresque. I would get bored if I didn’t keep moving.
There had to be the theorizing that goes with trying to construct a course, which is always a theoretical process. You’re trying to think, “How can I construct these materials to bring them into the lives of people?” I could never have sat in the library long enough to be a full-time theorist—I immediately jump out of my skin. So it’s temperament. I needed to do the next thing. I’m writing a book now about my experiences in Eastern Europe, but at the same time I’m planning this big birthday party for the Network of East-West Women in Gdansk and Krakow. It’s our 25th anniversary, which is something I can’t even believe. I love this work, even though it makes me very anxious and exhausted, and I like working on the book also. There’s definitely a problem—that thing they call in the European Union a “life-balance problem.”
They call it that here too. There are feminists who were first active in the ’70s who have chosen not to evolve. And I’m thinking particularly of TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] and the fight over whether trans women can be included in women’s spaces. It seems like they just got stuck at some point. Let the record indicate that Ann is hanging her upper body over the side of her chair and making an agonized face, suggesting that TERFs are not even worth discussing. One of the reasons I was already so interested in your work is that, in your feminism and your temperament, there’s a real interest in what’s next and in what “the kids” are doing. And that seems like a source of delight for you, as opposed to some sort of threat. This is not necessarily a common temperament.
I write about this a bit in the book: Rigidification when you fail to get the kind of deep change you want is, I think, very common. This huge, vast vision of Elizabeth Cady Stanton spiraling down to just: We want suffrage. This huge, vast, utopian dream that Shulamith Firestone had spiraling down to: Abortion, abortion, abortion. Or now into this idea that women are unique—they have experiences no one else can have; we are a kingdom unto ourselves. This idea that the boundary between women and all others is so clearly demarked—which is what the resistance to trans people is. They should be much more excited that gender is breaking down! I wish it were breaking down more than it is.
One can’t overestimate the pain of not seeing any of the things you want happen, as happened for feminists of my generation. It makes people dig in. The antipornography movement was like that too.
Early in the book, you ask: “Why do I decide (again and again) that being a women is a liability, while others I know decide (again and again) that a separate female culture is more exciting?” I wonder if you could speak a little to what you mean by that question, and whether you feel like one answer is winning out culturally right now.
When queer politics got started, I was thrilled. I thought: “Absolutely—this is what’s next.” This has to be. Feminism had to say: Woman, woman, woman, woman… except what’s a woman? What are we preserving here? Is this identity an actual solid entity that we’re working for? And the paradox, always—this is now a cliché of feminism—that you have to build up the identity “woman” to form a constituency and bring the fight, since you’re going to be thought of as a woman by the people who oppose you, to be sure. So, at the same time, skepticism about what “femaleness” is versus what they think you are is absolutely at the core of feminism. Feminism needs to be skeptical about “woman.” So when “queer” came along, I was like, “Ah, this is exciting. This actually represents another stage.”
And by “queer,” you mean the activism and academia?
Yes, exactly. The idea that gender is a construct, a performance, moved to the center of feminism rather than being one insight among others. It was opening up the whole question of why we have organized the world in this rigid way. And, you know, I love that. That’s part of my yearning for a different set of relations, so it was wonderful.
But then I had a real setback because, for example, a wonderful young man said, “We’re having a conference about queerness,” and I said, “Well, I’m having a big conference around the same time about feminism at the New School—maybe we can put these things together?” And they said, “No, no, no. We’re not feminists—we’re queer.” And it was like somebody poleaxed me. I thought, “How could you think of queerness as a rival, antagonistic, other identity from feminism?”
First of all, I think of feminism as all kinds of things, so it easily encapsulates queerness. Feminism is so various, very loose—for better or worse. To define themselves so sharply—you’re feminist, essentialists about being a female, rigid about a women-specific place, angry at men, on and on—they were saying: “That’s you. We are completely different.” And I was horrified. I was actually angry. I thought, “If you can’t see that this is part of what feminism was able to produce in its multiple voices, you’re really dead to genealogy, and to the rich and unfolding ideas that feminism has enabled.”
So I’m very excited about queer thinking. I think it’s very brilliant and useful. I think it’s completely in keeping with feminist interests. And the idea that you would say, “These people haven’t been female since birth, therefore they can’t come to our meeting” is really a step backwards.
Let’s move on to the sex wars, so-called, the big battles over pornography that took place in the ’80s.
What I argue in my piece in the book is that we underestimate how deeply demoralized feminists were once the backlash really set in in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I can’t think of a deeper expression of impotence than “Let’s go after male sexuality.” You know, let’s chase the wind around the world while we’re at it!
To me, this is just the most useless project. Are you going to repress them? Are you going to put them in jail? Are you going to take their toys away, so they go underground? Then are you going to… what? The idea that sexuality changes in that way seemed to me to be antediluvian. How can we even still believe in such police solutions? I would love it if male sexuality changed, whatever that means. There are aspects of what I’m told men often feel that I would certainly like to discuss—discuss in general people’s sexual tastes, where they came from, how they got formed. Carole Vance was the great spokesperson for this. She said, “Can we just talk about this for a while? Can we just say what our actual likes and dislikes are?” And then it would turn out, in a room of feminists, that people had completely different sexual tastes, desires, proclivities, what they could tolerate, what they couldn’t. No community of sexual feeling. And you think, “Wow—it would be nice to know more about this.”
Gayle Rubin, the great leader in this, looked at it as an anthropologist: These are different life modes with different genealogies, and the idea that there’s a sort of hierarchy from good to bad is very strong, but also strained in modernity. I mean, I don’t know how people even maintain it. So the sex wars had to do, I think, with rage. And rage against men. And I often feel it too. So it’s not like I don’t think that emotion is appropriate when you see how well the right has taken apart the things we hoped to do. It could just, you know, make you want to kill Ted Cruz.
Or at least take away his pornography.
Take away his pornography! So I think the sex wars were fueled by female rage, and I respect female rage. What we had was truly a strategic disagreement about what would give us more power and more possibility of intervening in the culture.
Right. And you cite a couple of additional possible causes of the anti-pornography movement. One is, the state had proved so powerful against women that women hoped they could use the state for something that the state and feminists might agree on.
But which state? Because only the conservative state was ever going to give us these restrictive laws the anti-porn feminists were asking for.
But the conservative state was what’s powerful, so maybe there’s a way that, within our range of tastes, we can ally with power. Another reason you give is: if you create the dichotomy of women who are oppressed by porn—which is all women, in the anti-pornography analysis—versus men who abuse us through porn, it creates another way to not have to deal with the differences among women.
And a third reason—which I found really provocative—you say that women had uncovered the pervasive, systemic nature of previously undiscussed problems, things like domestic abuse, rape. And you write that essentially women scared themselves and felt: Jesus, it’s everywhere—what do we do? Women scared themselves. I was fascinated by that construction, because it resonates with some of what I see today. Especially with rape and sexual assault, where, on the one hand, it’s actually true—it’s true that it’s pervasive. On the other hand, it so scares the shit out of us that it limits our mobility. It strikes me as troublesome that part of being a good feminist seems to be being afraid—and I don’t want to be afraid. No one does, right? It seems disempowering. It’s a way of telling ourselves we can’t go certain places.
In the world we live in, fear is an enormous tool of reaction. Fear is what’s driving all this right-wing stuff in Europe, fear shut down feminist questioning. Because at the beginning of feminism in the ’70s, believe me, fear was nowhere. There was excitement, sexual feeling, erotic thrill—you know, take back the night. There was a feeling that we would fear no more.
And then comes that horrible discovery: Yes, we’re finally driving our own car, but there is a guy in that other car, and he’s going to hit us. The information that came with backlash was the immensity of the resistance and the power of the resistance. To have uncovered in this excited phase how oppressed women are and how we weren’t going to take it anymore—and then, when the backlash really took hold, we thought, “Oh my God… we’re forced to keep taking it, because it’s not changing anytime soon.” And I think that was very hard.
However, I think that knowledge of violence against women has now become this kind of separate discourse, isolated from everything. Violence against women—every time I open my computer, there is another action for violence against women, and it’s become in some sense fetishized. It’s become sort of reified, as if that’s the central truth about women’s situation rather than a dynamic along with so many others, like women’s poverty, their second-class citizenship, their debilitating contact each day with sexism, etc.
I think one reason some antifeminist women look down on feminism is that they know they have various kinds of power and control of their lives, and the idea that there are a bunch of women squealing that there’s violence everywhere doesn’t appeal to them as a description of their lives, which are embedded in various structures of protection or safety or commonality or habit. They sort of look down on the hysteria, and I think that that hysteria comes from trying to create the idea of crisis. I taught a whole course critiquing the concept of crisis. People say, “Crisis! These rape numbers are going up and up and up!” And I always want to say, “Probably not.” We have no idea. Women used to be considered property. The idea that it’s much worse now than it used to be? You can’t sell that to me. We’re trying to clarify that violence against women is unacceptable, trying to make it visible without terrifying ourselves. Tough trick.
The thought that we were victims was never the construction in the ’70s. We were oppressed—and this was complex, pointing to multiple injustices.
Is there a way to imagine a direction feminists could take that is not fearful?
Right away, when these things were discovered, we got the anti-domestic-violence movement and the shelter movement. And these were powerful feminist organizations that started shelters, changed police work around sexual assault, and produced new laws about how you prosecute domestic abuse. I mean, we made huge gains.
The problem is that shelters and reorganizing hospitals and retraining police is an endless process, and we lost momentum and we also lost money. Shelters have been taken over by institutions like hospitals, and at first that looked great. But because feminists no longer preside over those institutions, very unfeminist things can happen in them.
Or consider marital rape, which is illegal, I believe, in every state now. It took years. Feminists worked on that. Laura X was one of the leaders. She said you can be raped in marriage, and she went state by state. Feminists worked very hard on this, and I think very effectively. So it isn’t simply that we heard about it and collapsed, but our institutions have a very ragged history. They are not well-funded, or they’re coopted and therefore no longer run by feminists. These are some of the things that happened.
I do wonder if a sort of victim mentality is facilitated by women not having their own power base. That’s where I feel the real lack of a feminist movement—something that’s quite broad and maybe disagrees to some degree internally, but has a program and is moving forward. You automatically feel less like you’re asking someone for something and more like you’re in battle.
I think that’s just perfect, Sarah. I agree with that, and I would add this little piece, which is: I’m not interested in asking for respect…Only the weak ask for respect.
I’ve always hated that construction, you know? “I’ve been a victim, but what I want is respect.” No. What I want is not to have to ask for respect. People who ask for respect are the people who don’t have anything, and it’s a sort of bleat of unhappiness and powerlessness.
And that whole thing about respecting women, this was a big part of the sex wars, you know—women are degraded by pornography. No, they’re not! Who can degrade me? The idea that this thing, pornography, can degrade a person shows abjectness and powerlessness, so I love how you put it: that if feminism was a more embodied, institutionalized presence, there might be less of this asking for respect. Some parents don’t want to send their daughters to college now because it’s not safe. Imagine! It’s like the people who didn’t send their children to day-care centers because of that sex panic: Day-care centers are in the outside world, and we keep our kids at home and our wives at home to take care of them. That sense of contracting and asking for protection and respect, I don’t think it’s ever a winning card—at least not in my political experience.
What types of movements or institutions would be vehicles for more effective politics in the United States right now? There are a lot of women doing a lot of feminist work in this country—doing a lot of on-the-ground organizing around questions of abortion and child care and domestic violence and everything else. And I try to do my piece of the work, and everybody tries to do their piece of the work. But there isn’t a thing that is connecting all of it—and maybe I’m being sort of myopic historically here: “There was once a movement that encompassed everything, and it was awesome.” Of course that’s not the case, but I think we all feel some connector is missing. It’s almost hard to articulate what that is.
You know that this is a question that obsesses older feminists. We meet and talk about it endlessly: “Is there still a movement? Did we have something and now we’ve lost it?” You’re asking how much feminism is there in America now. Is it deeply enough embedded and far enough distributed that one could say, “We have a feminist movement that works differently than that revolutionary period for everybody”—not just feminism, but civil rights, everything. Is there an antipoverty or antiracist movement? When Occupy came along, or Black Lives Matter, I felt, “Yes! We have something to coalesce around.” We really do need that—it helps, it changes things. I think Occupy has changed things immensely, and I have high hopes for Black Lives Matter as well. We want that crystallization. It’s not clear to me that this is the only way to measure a feminist existence and activity and even success. There’s this new book by three feminists—Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry—called Feminism Unfinished, and Vivian Gornick wrote a scathing review of it.
They see feminism as having never stopped. It was going on the whole time, and Vivian says, “Don’t be ridiculous. That wasn’t feminism. That was women’s auxiliaries, individual women, women working sub rosa”—she doesn’t accept that those were all feminists. But it doesn’t necessarily interest me to ask feminism to always be at the revolutionary burning tip of what’s going on in the culture. I had that experience once—goodie! We’ll see what happens in Poland. I hear women are walking out of churches when the priest starts to read the new bishops’ letter. That feeling of a burning tip—who knows? But I don’t know if you can always get the degree of saturation that you want, and you can’t know what’s in the womb of time here. I don’t know how much enduring feminism there is in America, but I have great faith in the value and strength of feminism in the longue durée.
In an interesting way, it’s sort of pervaded the left in ways that we like, of course. I mean, take BYP100, the Black Youth Project, which started in Chicago and is a central organization in racial-justice organizing right now. The backs of some of their T-shirts say “Organizing Through a Black-Queer-Feminist Lens.” And that’s just their baseline.
Oh my God. I want this T-shirt! A few years ago, at a long-lasting seminar at Columbia for feminist academics, we had a sort of confrontation between the older feminists and the young feminists. “Let’s talk about how feminism was for us and what’s wrong with you” was the implied direction—irritating from the first. And the older feminists were very disparaging, as if “the movement” were dead. I just don’t believe in that oversimplified narrative. Diffusion, maybe… fragmentation. But dead? And the young to blame for it? No!
Did you read Brian Martin’s new novel, Florence Gordon?
I really loved the book. That scene at the end is exactly the opposite of your seminar: the young feminist is called in to introduce the main character, a legendary feminist named Florence Gordon, who’s sort of an amalgam of Vivian Gornick, Katha Pollitt, maybe other women too—
And she just trashes her.
Yes, by declaring that she knows nothing about sex or fun, modern feminism.
So everybody has their own little monopoly on being truly obnoxious—every generation. But the older feminists were saying, “What’s wrong? Why can’t you make a vital, visible, exciting movement that’s at the center of your life the way we did?” And the answer was very moving to me. The younger feminists said, “Well, what things should we do? Should we do ecology, you know, deal with global warming? Should we do the state? Should we do communal living? Should we work on the left for a better trade union?” In the 1960s, fragmentation wasn’t the central emotion. There was a sense of everything moving, and there was a confidence that these things were connected.
There was a more active left then.
Yes, you had the left as this underpinning, and I don’t think feminists understand how deeply the left was an underpinning. With 1989, it was like all these underpinnings were cut away, and people didn’t know where we were. Often they didn’t think of themselves as leftists, or didn’t think of their work as leftist work, but the whole depth structure of feminism was built on left ideas about the possibilities for a different reality.
And when, after ’89, those substructures crumbled, what followed was a sense of fragmentation. How can the center hold? What is it that connects all this? These young women were saying to us that feminism is all over the place, but nowhere: There wasn’t that sense of flow that brought disparate things together. I thought they were describing a really serious spiritual problem. They were saying, “You keep telling us to do something, but you’re assuming we know just what to do.”
That rings true to me.
And I feel sympathy for that, because I feel it sometimes too. Why do I go to Poland? It’s much simpler for me in Poland. I know just what I’m doing in Poland: Abortion is illegal, women are discriminated against, trade unionism has been smashed. I can line up my ducks much more easily, and I can also align with people who have what is, for them, a new left analysis of the connection among these things.
It’s interesting. I talked about this recently with a journalist who wanted to write about how young feminists are interested in wages for housework again—which we are. Not actually because most of us are doing any housework, but rather because Marxism has had a resurgence.
Did you read Dayna Tortorici’s piece about wages for housework in N+1?
I love that piece. It’s so good.
I have nothing more to say about wages for housework, because I thought that she captured the way in which it should be taken seriously and the way it isn’t to be taken literally—just perfectly.
How does feminism not become some subordinate to what everyone else thinks is important? It’s the old question: feminism or socialism? Which do we put first?
And we know that “both” is the only answer.
And so I think that in that context, do women need their own institutional base on the resurgent left? Not NOW, not Planned Parenthood, bless them even so.
That’s a good question. I don’t seek a left group that would still be women-only. You know, I don’t know if you can go back, partly because, happily, we’ve destabilized the terms “women” and “men,” so the idea that our dear friend Mark can’t come into a feminist meeting is ridiculous. I don’t think you can go back to that moment when women had to be absolutely separate. People say to me, “Well, why did you have those little meetings? Why did you exclude men?” It was so easy for me to answer that, to describe the distorted dynamic with one man in the room. He was this large planet with all the gravity—it would be unbelievable to you now what mixed groups were like back then, and how hopeless they were, and how necessary it was to separate.
I don’t think the dynamic has changed as much as you think. I have an all-female reading group, and we’ve formed not because we all felt horrifically oppressed, but because of that dynamic. None of us felt previously that we couldn’t speak, but we felt annoyed. We felt self-conscious, probably, and separating created a totally different dynamic that has been very productive.
That’s what’s amazing: Men would be surprised to know how totally differently we feel when they’re there.
Absolutely. And I guess this is my way of wondering if a new left resurgence means there will be a sort of concomitant feminist resurgence.
What is the left resurgence like?
Well, that’s a very interesting question—I don’t know if I can answer it exactly. For me, it means there are a lot of people talking about socialism in a way that seemed very implausible five years ago.
Did Occupy and Bernie sort of create the space?
It helped. Occupy arguably created the space—Bernie, I think, benefited from the shift in conversation, and he’s making it more legible to more people. I think the Movement for Black Lives is very diverse internally, and some of those groups would want to say “We are of the left,” and some of them would not. There are a number of different parts of the left that are on the rise.
Do you think feminism is at some level an integral part of these new left formations, or really it’s being left behind?
Often, it is. I think the Movement for Black Lives has done smart work with this. That movement has been very conscious of highlighting women, who are, in fact, leading the movement to a large degree—not that there haven’t been problems. On the socialist left—explicitly socialist—I see less of that. I see more “Don’t distract us with identity politics” than I would have liked to see.
That strand has done us great harm. To think of these as narrow identity nationalisms rather than aspects of left liberation movements—I just hate that. And I don’t know how to counter it, because I see that one of the elements is hurt feelings. That sense among some men that these people have left us: They went off and decided to be black or to be female, and, you know, they’ve left us. People feel that SDS had a golden moment, for example, and the Port Huron statement is indeed great. And they feel that that golden moment has been destroyed—not only from the reactionary stuff, but also from within: You left us. It comes from a sense of being abandoned by women that is a very Dinnersteinian emotion.
Why do those things pull against each other so strongly? Is it a divide-and-conquer coming from outside, or do we ourselves participate in this dichotomizing? I don’t know why the both/and principle doesn’t move in there to lend some of these discussions flexibility and open-mindedness about how people first enter the left: “I came in through one entrance, and now I see all of you and I share this with you, but in other ways you don’t understand where I came from.” Why should that be seen as an either/or? I’ll never understand that, and it distresses me.
I still think there are people at the New School who think it’s a fad to have a course around gender. I might think it was a fad too, if it were as literal as they think! If it weren’t a real exploration of liberation movements and an aspect of experience that’s underexpressed in most discourses. In a certain way, studying gender is compensatory necessarily. It’s like affirmative action. It isn’t exclusionary, but a new lens.
Right. This is expressed in the title of your book, your particular ability to be flexible in this way I don’t think is common. It’s unusual to be able to be both deeply invested in a field and open to the fact that it might fall apart.
It’s a great gift that you say that. Thank you. I don’t romanticize this trait in myself. I admire consistency, actually, but it’s not something that I’m capable of. I wrote another book called The Voice of Uncertainty. I can’t be consistent. Therefore I’m eclectic.