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Dialogue What's So Feminist About Women's Oral History?' Susan Geiger There's a long running review in Minneapolis called "Whaf s so funny about being female?" While the cast of comedians changes, the show usually features six or seven women whose routines are as diverse as their ages, sizes, delivery styles, and material. On the occasions I've seen this review, I've found some of the sketches to be very funny while others don't tickle me at all. Among the women I consider very funny, some do what I and they call "feminist humor." But others who don't identify themselves as feminist make me laugh anyway, and not all of the self-identified feminist comics seem funny to me. Nevertheless, all of them think they have something funny to say about being female, and Dudley Riggs, who hires them, thinks so too. But when I'm in the audience, I make up my own mind as to whether the words, the process, and the presentation are funny, feminist, both, or neither. I have certain guidelines and standards for doing this, of course; and I can usually tell by their responses whether others in the audience agree with me. Just as there is nothing inherently feminist about women comics talking about women, neither is there anything inherently feminist about women's oral histories or women doing women's oral histories. What, then, makes their gathering, production, and publication a feminist act? To answer this, we need to consider a set of prior issues including the objectives of the researcher, the questions addressed in the research, the evidence against which oral data are verified or evaluated, the character of the research relationship, the intended audience for the "product(s)" of the research, and the potential beneficiaries of the transformation of oral into written history. In addition, of course, we need a working definition of the term "feminist," which I offer under "objectives" below. Objectives It is important to begin with the issue of objectives precisely because oral history is not a new activity or concept; nor is it a new research method. As an activity, it predates writing and transcends research institutions. Women's oral histories are not inherently feminist nor is the telling necessarily a feminist act. Moreover, the gathering of oral histories began long © 1990 Journal of Women's History, Vol 2 No. 1 (Spring)_________________ * I want to thank Margaret Strobel, whose critical comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this essay informed my final revision. The gaps and inadequacies remaining are obviously my responsibility. 170 Journal of Women's History Spring before the current wave of feminist movement and cannot be considered, automatically, a feminist research method. Nor is the activity of the listener /recorder feminist simply because she is a woman researcher. Oral history only becomes a method in the hands of persons whose interests in it go beyond the immediate pleasure of hearing/learning the history being told. As scholars, we use information derived from oral history, and, in that way, it becomes a method,and methodological questions arise about it. But it can only become a feminist methodology if its use is systematized in particular feminist ways and if the objectives for collecting the oral data are feminist. Feminist objectives include at least one of the following characteristics: they presuppose gender as a (though not the only) central analytical concept; they generate their problematic from the study of women as embodying and creating historically and situationally specific economic, sociaLcultural, national, and racial/ethnic realities; they serve as a corrective for androcentric notions and assumptions about what is "normal" by establishing or contributing to a new knowledge base for understanding women's lives and the gendered elements of the broader social world; they accept women's own interpretations of their identities, their experiences, and social worlds as containing and reflecting important truths, and do not categorize and, therefore, dismiss them, for the purposes of generalization, as simply subjective. According to Gelya Frank and Elizabeth Hampsten, feminist objectives emphasize understanding rather than controlling the material or information generated and conceptualize the interpretive task as one of opening rather than closure.1...


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