- Feeling Women’s Liberation by Victoria Hesford
In Feeling Women’s Liberation, Victoria Hesford hones in on the women’s movement in and around the year of 1970. Frequently cited as a watershed moment, Hesford contends that the meaning ascribed to this historical juncture has been overdetermined within narratives of the political success or failure of the feminist movement. This popular scripting of women’s liberation as a coherent ideological project, which can be repudiated or reclaimed in a contemporary context tends to elide the complexity of what the writer describes as “an array of rhetorical devices that sought to persuade and enact a new political constituency and world into being” (2).
Although in synopsis Hesford’s project seems wholly feminist, she situates her work as a contribution to both queer and feminist studies. A central stake of Feeling Women’s Liberation is in fact Hesford’s effort to reconcile what she identifies as a “profoundly disorienting” rift between these two fields of study (6). The operative impact of this chasm in the context of Hesford’s argument is the dearth of analyses of the so-called “second-wave” era in relation to the increasing attention to affect and temporality in queer theory. Feeling Women’s Liberation asks why has queer theory bypassed the women’s liberation movement, and what interpretive insights could this field of study bring to light on this topic?
In sharp contrast to queer theory, there is no shortage of critical work on second-wave feminism within feminist scholarship. Following the 1989 publication of Alice Echols’s pathfinding Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, feminists have assembled an impressive body of personal, autobiographical, and scholarly accounts focused on this historical moment.1 Hesford’s intervention, then, is two pronged. Feeling Women’s Liberation almost without question comprises the first extended analysis of the women’s liberation movement that is methodologically aligned with the contemporary state of queer theory. This in turn opens up new possibilities for more theory driven research [End Page 169] within what is already a thriving body of interdisciplinary literature on the women’s liberation movement.
Hesford constructs her argument by closely reading mainstream media coverage and widely distributed movement literature that make up the ephemeral and scattered archive of women’s liberation. Throughout the text, Hesford’s use of both textual and visual evidence is compelling as is her suggestion that much of the early coverage of women’s liberation belies a striking “uncertainty and ambivalence” about the movement and its meaning (31). Masterfully constructed, the writer utilizes a kaleidoscopic range of references to move back and forth in time, circling around 1970. Hesford returns on two occasions, for instance, to a well-known issue of Time magazine published in the final month of the year. Time’s coverage of the women’s liberation movement is most famous for publicly reporting Kate Millett’s statement that she considered herself a lesbian, which Time asserted was “bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause, cast further doubt on her theories, and reinforce the views of those skeptics who routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians” (26). In a careful and multilayered analysis, Hesford exposes the incoherence of an argument that simultaneously contends that liberationists are routinely dismissed as lesbians while maintaining that Millett’s revelation is a shocking discovery. Hesford further suggests that the organizing logic of this attack rests in the constitutive and emotive power of “the lesbian” as a symbol within the mainstream media’s effort to forge a representational frame in its coverage of the women’s movement.
Feeling Women’s Liberation takes as one of its primary concerns the durability of this constructed linkage between lesbianism and feminism, which Hesford is quick to emphasize has no intrinsic connection. With convincing force, Hesford denaturalizes what she terms the “feminist-as-lesbian” and considers the forces at play that led to the hypervisibility of this figure within cultural conceptions of feminism. The coinage of this...