- Sisterhood Revisited During the Second Wave of Feminism
On August 27, 2008, a month after Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic presidential primary contest to Barack Obama, Neal Conan’s NPR series, “Talk of the Nation,” asked: “Where Does Feminism Go from Here?”1 Farai Chideya, Susan Faludi, Lizz Winstead, and Amy Richards all weighed in on the merits of Clinton’s campaign, on the politics of gender and race, and on the significance of her defeat for white women, for African Americans, and for feminism. Not one of them imagined, however, that feminism would go from “here” to Sarah Palin or, put differently, that a nascent heroine of the far right would so quickly usurp the feminist center stage. Two weeks later, on “All Things Considered,” Jacki Lyden asked historian Estelle Freedman if Palin, the apparent “new face of feminism,” was, indeed, a “feminist.”2 “That really gets to the heart of what is a feminist,” Freedman argued, “and it’s a very malleable term.” Stephanie Gilmore does not speak to contemporary feminist politics in her new edited collection, but she does address the implications of deploying a restricted understanding of what it means to be a feminist. “We must embrace a more capacious definition of feminism,” Gilmore argues, if we are to appreciate fully the “complexities and nuances” of women’s activism in the past (p. 5). The solid team of authors assembled by Gilmore in Feminist Coalitions, a volume addressing the second wave of feminism, exposes the tangled roots of women’s alliances that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, including those entrenched in conservative traditions.
Gilmore hints at her “capacious definition of feminism” with sentences such as the following: “feminists have historically sought to eradicate all forms of oppression, even if assigning priority to particular forms of discrimination” (p. 7). In another passage she quotes Dorothy Sue Cobble to make clear that she and the authors in her collection “explicitly or implicitly agree that feminism ‘need not require an unwavering single focus on gender, nor does gender-conscious reform reside only in all-female organizations’” (p. 5).3 Yet [End Page 140] I longed for Gilmore to say explicitly what she means by the term feminist. Would Sarah Palin’s libertarian ancestors qualify? I am not advocating for one strict definition, nor for an ahistorical umbrella that embraces all activists agitating for women’s rights. But I am advocating for more precise definitions by scholars engaged in histories of feminism or feminists. Like the term queer, the “f word” has an activist and scholarly life of its own, with varying meanings in the past and present. Despite the amount of critical theory produced about feminism, or perhaps because of it, academics of all stripes still benefit from careful ruminations and explanations of how they are deploying such loaded terminology.
Perhaps Gilmore intentionally refuses a stable definition of feminism so that historians will expand their inquiries into women’s lives and movements in the past. This logic is consistent with one of her central arguments, that by focusing only on self-identified feminists and the divisiveness within their organizations, historians have overlooked both the number and the diversity of activists who fought, often in coalitions, to improve women’s lives at home and in the workplace. Gilmore believes that by unhinging the historical imagination from a strict definition of what a feminist might be and by focusing on alliances rather than separations, historians will gain a better understanding of what some scholars believe is the most significant social movement of the twentieth century: the second wave of feminism.
Gilmore’s concern for historians’ lack of knowledge regarding this momentous time in American history is well founded. We need to know more about the diverse array of women and men involved in the fight to improve women’s lives before, during and after the 1960s and 1970s in order to analyze the significance of the second wave judiciously. Scholars such as...