- Documenting First Wave Feminisms. Volume 1: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents ed. by Maureen Moynagh and Nancy Forestell
The history of feminism is often dominated by the contributions of white women, usually British or American, propelled by the socio-economic accoutrements of the well educated. In contrast, this collection seeks to “decenter” and “reorient” the scholarly focus, to borrow the editors’ language, by handing the microphone to the cacophony of forgotten voices in the first-wave feminist movement – and it does so successfully. The editors declare early on their commitment to documents that uncover the international and minority-based network of first-wave feminism rather than privileging the wealthy, Western, and white, a commitment they honour. Some very famous names, like Amelia Earhart, appear alongside virtually unknown figures as equal parts of a greater whole, tracing first-wave feminisms across the globe. Several old standbys are represented, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s various vindications, while others, like Mona Caird’s 1888 article declaring marriage a “vexatious failure,” are omitted, but such omissions are forgiven when weighed against the enlightening inclusions of less canonical feminist texts. Instead of Western women speaking on behalf of their Eastern sisters, the problematic dynamics of which are noted by the editors, women from other parts of the world are given the opportunity to speak for themselves – and what they have to say is definitely worth hearing.
The volume is separated into eight sections, organized by themes representing central issues of the first-wave feminist movement. Each section begins with a brief introduction expounding on the connection between feminism and the respective theme, priming the reader for the chosen texts. The sections proceed as follows: part 1: “Slavery, Abolition, and Woman’s Rights”; part 2: “Imperial Feminisms”; part 3: “Suffrage”; part 4: “Nationalism/Internationalism”; part 5: “Citizenship”; part 6: [End Page 481] “Moral Reform, Sexuality, and Birth Control”; part 7: “Work”; and part 8: “Peace.” Each document is prefaced by a short description of its signifi-cance and biographical information about the author(s), when that information is available. The volume is not especially stylish (with the exception of its thought-provoking front-cover photo, which is a perfect fit), but it is well organized and easy to navigate.
Editors Maureen Moynagh and Nancy Forestell are careful to acknowledge certain exclusions, such as the lack of oral sources (a difficult path to trod when putting together a book), and they deftly sidestep anticipated ideological criticisms like their application of the word feminism and adherence to the concept of separate “waves” with discernible beginnings and endings. These acknowledgements come into sharp focus in selections like “A Girls’ School in West Africa” by Adelaide Casely Hayford: the author is truly poetic in her vision and transnational in her reach, and yet her desire to “train the African girl of today for the highest vocation of all – the vocation of motherhood tomorrow” reflects the very problematic ideologies regarding feminism and positions of privilege that the editors address in the general introduction. Similarly, the striking “Letter from Keetmanshoop,” written by eight Namibian women each representing an area of the country, protesting the colonial authorities’ declaration that they would introduce forced vaginal examinations of black women, is well chosen. It brings to light some potentially (or chronically?) overlooked areas of feminist history; it contributes significantly to the collection’s transnational focus; and it establishes links across space and time: the same storyline echoes in nineteenth-century Britain under the Contagious Diseases Acts and in the treatment of Native American women in twentieth-century North America.
It would have been interesting to see the inclusion of fiction from this time period, reflecting how these political movements emerged in literature; many of the chosen authors were fiction writers themselves, and this perhaps would have opened up space for experimentation with translating oral storytelling traditions to the printed page – but perhaps that would make this a different collection altogether.
This volume covers significant ground, and it’s well worth the trip.