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  • Changing Times
  • Helen Cafferty (bio)

Looking back to 1987 when I became co-editor of the Women in German Yearbook with Jeanette Clausen, it appears to me as a distant time in a different world—before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, before the watershed of 9/11, before the election of Barack Obama. Like a misty horizon lost in fog, that time feels remote, as though we have all moved on to other things. I had felt a lot of isolation in my job at Bowdoin since my arrival as one of four women faculty in 1972, which had coincided with the college’s ambivalent embrace of co-education. For me, WiG had created an environment that supported my rejection of careerism and the obligatory Seilschaften (a patronage system, which at that time was almost completely male). It had informed me in my engagement in affirmative action politics on my campus and had compensated me for the persistent feeling of being marginalized as a woman at an all-male college transitioning to co-education. At the same time, I wanted to succeed as a scholar: I felt a strong conflict as I went about my career in those days. WiG was itself a lifeline; I was eager to support the organization that had supported me and confident that Jeanette Clausen and I could further the goals of feminist scholarship.

Of course, I had an activist bent; for example, in the seventies, I had participated in a WiG letter-writing campaign addressed to male panel organizers at MLA and AATG, which pointed out to them that no women were represented on their panels and questioned their judgment as to the importance of gender balance. We activists were interested in changing the power relationships between men and women in the profession, in making women visible as scholars, and above all in opening the profession to them. Feminist scholarship had directly paralleled our own marginal position in the field. Four years before I became co-editor, the Women in German Yearbook had been founded with the intention of making those women writers visible who had been excluded unfairly [End Page 1] from the canon and of interrogating the power relationships in the representations of the sexes in German literature. (German Studies was in the distant future. We were just beginning to use the term “gender.”) Above all, we were intent on creating a respectable place for a broad range of feminist scholarship to be published.

All of these aims were alive at the annual conference in 1988; I remember distinctly the tension-filled drama that engulfed us, the intensity and the uproar in the lounge of the YMCA Camp in Wisconsin, as we responded to a panel “Theory—which Theory?” Suddenly ours goals for the profession seemed at odds. Feminist theory, at the time often referred to as “continental” or “French Feminist Criticism,” exposed contradictions that shot fault lines through the solidarity we identified with and needed so much. In my breakout discussion group, we tearfully accused each other of essentialism. Was it feminist theory’s very academic respectability, a sure way into the establishment, that seemed to threaten feminist politics and activism? Were we, could we be inside and outside at the same time? In our essay, “Who’s Afraid of Feminist Theory?” Jeanette and I tried to come to terms with these growing pains by embracing an emphatic and forward-looking pluralism. Before we could take a breath after the publication of our first co-edited volume in 1989, the Wall came down signaling the end of the GDR and with it an entirely new crisis engulfed us. We devoted the postscript of our next volume to positing questions about what the unification of the two Germanys would mean for East German women, for East German Studies, and for feminist scholarship and expressed our solidarity with East German women.

It is perhaps interesting for the younger readers of Women in German Yearbook to contemplate the material conditions of co-editing in the late eighties. There were no e-mails, no attached documents, no electronic submissions. We worked by fax and telephone, discussing the manuscript before us and the...


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