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  • Making Waves:Opening Keynote for the Twentieth Anniversary of the Feminist Theory and Music Conference
  • Susan McClary (bio)

It is a great honor to have been invited to deliver this keynote. When we first launched the concept of such an event in Minneapolis twenty years ago, no one could have anticipated that it would still be going full blast in 2011. We all owe its continued existence to the intellectual commitments of thousands of participants and the dedication of colleagues who have committed their efforts and resources to host the biennial events in their home institutions. So before we go any further, let's thank Jill Sullivan and her colleagues for throwing this splendid anniversary party—and also all those who have shouldered the responsibility of arranging Feminist Theory and Music Conferences every two years since 1991.

In our various academic and political enterprises, we like to imagine that we can produce an unbroken upward trajectory, whereby breakthrough succeeds breakthrough, all pointing ever forward. When that process seems to stall in a holding position or even to lose ground, we sometimes complain that it was all for naught. A kind of pessimism sets in: if we didn't manage to realize all our ideals, then we may as well not have bothered. So then the sixties failed, the civil rights movement failed, maybe Barack Obama has failed.

The problem with this model is that it demands all or nothing. The world rarely changes once and for all in response to idealistic agendas, but that does not mean that they were futile. More often than not, it's two steps forward, one step back—over and over again. If we take time to notice, we'll find that many elements of our present-day world bear the marks of all those movements; they did in fact make a difference. And once we've recovered from the inevitable setbacks, we buck up and take the two steps forward again. Let's call this wave formation—a metaphor, to be sure, but one that has been widely adopted to describe this process. [End Page 86]

For a variety of reasons, feminism may be more prone to successions of waves than other movements. When women my age began to organize politically in the 1970s, most of us did not know that our issues had served as rallying points for previous generations. Some vague recollection of the suffragists who fought for voting rights at the turn into the twentieth century led us to call ourselves second-wave feminists. But, in truth, it was difficult to relate to those pictures of frumpy-looking battle-axes, known to most of us by the patronizing name given to them by their mocking opponents: suffragettes. Looking back, it seems quite remarkable to me that we made any acknowledgment of kinship whatsoever. After all, we had just emerged from the excitement of the sexy 1960s.

Over the course of the seventies and eighties, historians undertook an extensive archaeology, which revealed layer after layer of no-longer-remembered feminist movements. And a pattern began to emerge: alternating generations had to reinvent the wheel—the same arguments, the same grievances, the same strategies for organizing—only to fall into oblivion. On the one hand, it was thrilling to learn that we were part of an ongoing series of activists. But on the other, it was deeply depressing. Why had those accomplishments left behind so few traces, even among other women? Why did each generation of feminists believe itself to be the first of its kind in history? What accounts for the erasure of those aspirations and achievements from memory? Why did we need to do it all over again?

Let's return to our suffragists. I think it's safe to say that no other groups of social activists at that time found themselves so roundly derided, the great triumph of their movement—suffrage—turned into a silly diminutive. Their achievements for women (the extension of the right to vote, the opening up of higher education and jobs) came to seem natural, as if they had always been thus. Despite those truly remarkable accomplishments, their lasting image was reduced to those clusters...