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  • Historicizing Body KnowledgeWomen's Liberation, Self-Help, and Menstrual Representation in the 1970s
  • Jennifer Nelson (bio)

[Woman] is simply what man decrees; thus she is called "the sex," by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less.

—Simone de Beauvoir

Many feminists who embraced Women's Liberation grew up in a culture saturated with messages like the one captured by Simone de Beauvoir in 1953.1 They criticized this monolithic representation of woman as "the sex" and exposed a historically and socially hegemonic tradition of Western art and visual culture that affirmed heterosexual men's pleasure in looking at women's sexed bodies.2 According to Laura Mulvey, narrative cinema, in particular, represented heterosexual male desire and point-of-view as a universal and disembodied truth that affirmed men's power over women. She termed this universalizing perspective "the male gaze" in an influential essay published in 1975, which exposed gendered power relations rooted in a visual system based on a phallocentric understanding of the meaning of sexual difference. Mulvey argued (via Freudian psychoanalytic theory) that the "patriarchal unconscious"—and the roots of women's oppression—rested on the representation of woman's "real lack of a penis."3 Mulvey also maintained that transforming patriarchy depended upon both exposing the patriarchal system of representation that rested on interpretations of women as the "other" and inferior sex and constructing new feminist self-representations rooted in women's own experiences of their sexed bodies.

This essay focuses on feminist activists and artists of the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s—women's health movement feminists and two experimental feminist filmmakers, one of whom also took part in the feminist women's health movement—who criticized the hegemony of the [End Page 39] "male gaze." These activists and artists created self-representations of their own embodied experiences, or what I have termed "body knowledge." As the women who populate my essay were similarly situated as white, I also explore how white 1970s feminist activists and artists grappled with how to represent women's textured and heterogeneous experiences. The women I write about in this essay struggled to forge a feminism that represented common experiences of oppression among women but also revealed the complexity and heterogeneity of women's experiences of oppression. I believe that a failure to recognize the 1970s feminist effort to attend to women's similarities and their differences has set the stage for popular critics of Women's Liberation of the 1970s to mark the movement ahistorically as "white" even though many white women addressed differences among women. Furthermore, women of color, working-class women, and lesbians were active as feminists in the 1970s and critical of racism, classism, and heterosexism within Women's Liberation during the same period.4 Thus I use this essay to understand Women's Liberation activists' representation of their bodies as politically powerful for them in their historical context, although their politics had both empowering and marginalizing effects.

The charge of essentialism, the idea that women's shared female biology is more important than their differences and should form the basis of feminist politics, has long been associated with both the creative and activist expressions of white feminists of the 1970s. Furthermore, essentialism often has been provided as an explanation for white feminists' inability to tackle the "dilemma of difference" to address racism, classism, and heterosexism. In many ways essentialism has come to define contemporary feminism and has been used as a foundation for its dismissal.5 Art historian Amelia Jones points out that the dismissal of 1970s feminism as essentialist has had a damaging effect on our understanding of what feminism meant in the context of the movement. She explains, "Younger generations of feminists have little access to the wealth of insights that were painfully developed in the art and theory of this period and waste time reinventing what has already been extensively theorized."6 Furthermore, Jones argues in her work on feminist artist Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party that "a certain 'essentialism'—that is, the claiming of identifiably similar experiences among particular groups of people...


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