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  • Activating Archives in Women's Studies 101:New Stories about Old Feminism and the Future
  • Jen McDaneld (bio)

One of feminist theory's oldest and most productive critiques has been its analysis of women's erasure from the historical record and its insistence that what has stood in for the past has in fact been a male-centric version of history. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the history of the feminist movement is likewise often similarly erased, but it's something that I encountered anew in my Introduction to Women's Studies course this past year. I had begun the term concerned about reifying the "wave" construction of feminist history, not wanting to create tidy narratives of the past that obscure more than they reveal. Indeed, I had developed my syllabus and many of my lesson plans with this problem in mind, spending ample time complicating common narratives of feminist history and asking students to discuss their own commonplaces and stereotypes of the movement's past. I was still surprised, however, by the response I got when I asked students to write down what came to mind when they heard the term "second-wave feminism." When it came time to debrief their writing, students were at first reluctant to share, but as we got going it became clear that this reluctance was borne out of a frustration: they didn't have any solid conceptions of what the second wave was. A few ventured comments about bra-burning and one mentioned civil rights, but the class discussion quickly turned to students venting their frustration that they had never really been taught anything of note about the history of feminism. One joked that the movement hadn't even received one of those sidebar graphics so often used to represent groups considered "outsiders" in American history textbooks.

But just because students were aware of, and frustrated by, the fact that they hadn't been taught much at all about the history of the movement isn't to say that they still didn't come to the class with their own stories about how the feminism of today relates to the past. A case in point: we had spent the better part of the first month of the course discussing intersectional feminism and the ways that identities construct, and are constructed by, the social world in which we live. As we grappled with this material, it became clear that students were operating with a kind of unstated but powerful sense that today's brand of progressive feminism, [End Page 53] the type that many had been immersed in via social media and in the liberal West Coast city many students were from, was far more progressive, far more intersectional, than anything that had preceded it. These historical comparisons were not stated directly or specifically, but instead were made in the offhand way that students would refer to the "bad old days" when feminism only took white women's ideas and needs into account, or when a student would suggest that issues of sex and sexuality were only now being raised in an environment of heightened awareness and sensitivity. If the students didn't feel that they had any solid education on the history of feminism, that didn't stop them from putting forth these subtle yet significant narratives about the differences between today's feminism and yesterday's.

The dissonance between students' self-aware proclamations that they didn't know anything about feminist history and their confidence in suggesting that that history, nonetheless, contained certain toxic qualities that the present day had shed, offers an opportunity to consider larger questions about feminism, historical representation, and pedagogical practice. The loaded way in which my students insisted that their present didn't have much to do with the past is nothing new, nor is it confined to the undergraduate classroom; feminist scholarship of all stripes has not only sought to recover and use feminist history, but also to repeatedly move past it, unfettered, into the future. This process is commonly defined in starkly negative, generational terms, as in Susan Faludi's 2010 lament that each new generation of feminists throws the movement's history...


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pp. 53-71
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