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  • In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism
  • Christina Brooks (bio)
Margaretta Jolly. In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. ISBN 978-0-231-13792-8, $40.00.

Between 1970 and 1990, British and American feminism surged, expanded, and gained the momentum that qualified it as a “second wave”; despite such energy, or perhaps because of it, feminist theory and activism was fraught with internal paradoxes and anxieties. Margaretta Jolly’s study of the letters between friends, lovers, family members, and colleagues excavates the consolidation of feminist values and communities in these “intimate archives” of the period (2). Documenting the efforts to define clear channels between private experiences and political needs, and drawing out the internal tensions with which the movement was charged, Jolly carefully analyzes the letters as “symptoms as well as causes” in an exciting moment of flourishing feminist culture (52).

Jolly’s is the first book-length study of this significant portion of the movement’s literature. In Love and Struggle builds on Jolly’s own body of published work on women’s letter writing, interweaving women’s cultural history, feminist theory, and a study in the epistolary genre. Evoking the historical associations between letter-writing and femininity, Jolly roots women’s epistolary production in the sexual division of labor (42), making clear that the letters of the second wave are ironically mobilized within and against those very patriarchal constraints, particularly domestic isolation from other women and from men, that continually initiated women’s letter-writing in English-speaking middle classes. Marshalling a mass of correspondence alongside a handful of novels and poetry written in the epistolary form (including Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gillian Hanscombe’s Between Friends), Jolly distinguishes among a set of subgenres that emphasize the formation of new sexual, familial, and professional relations for women: love letters between women, aware that same-sex relationships embodied a politics; pedagogical and nurturing letters between mothers and daughters; open letters to wide audiences published in feminist magazines; and impassioned political letters calling for meetings, protests, and petitions. Jolly combines close readings of the rhetoric of intimacy, desire, and outcry with careful attention to the specific context [End Page 761] of each correspondence, and the overall effect is as much literary as it is historically rigorous.

Particularly striking is Jolly’s sustained ambivalence toward the material. While emphasizing the themes of hope and community-making, and underlining the importance of high optimism to the movement’s achievements, she pursues the disturbing results of failed connectivity, of loneliness and political despair, and of the anger among feminists as they sounded out their sometimes conflicting ideals. Reading the letter “as a personal and informal kind of theory making” (52), Jolly enunciates some of the key contentions in English feminism’s struggle to articulate itself between 1970 and 1990. Particularly, she traces the tensions over differences in sexuality, race, and class that subtend the generalized category of “women” and interrupt theories of universal sexist oppression (see especially chapter 3, “Velvet Boxing Gloves”); and thematizes the dialectic between separatist and inclusive impulses that emerged as women attempted to mobilize defined communities, principles, and futures (for example, in chapter 6, on the letters that consolidated the women’s peace movement).

Jolly insists that white, English, middle-class feminism proved ill-equipped to unify communities across social and geographical contexts (66). Although somewhat cursory on the politics of race and class, Jolly is persistently skeptical about the universalizing rhetoric of global sisterhood. To stress the complexities that disunite feminism, Jolly tests the “ethics of care,” a philosophy grafted by Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice [1982]), Nel Noddings (Caring: A Feminist Approach to Ethics and Moral Education [1995]), Sara Ruddick (Maternal Thinking [1995]), and Ruddick in collaboration with Pamela Daniels (Working it Out [1977]). Writing against abstract social theories of identity, care ethicists emphasized practices of community-making, relational rather than autonomous selfhood, and nuanced applications of social justice based on the roles historically ascribed to women in mothering, nursing, and teaching. Jolly summarizes care ethics as replacing “human equality” with the principle that “no one will be hurt” (87), a code perhaps...