Brilliant Together: On Feminist Memoirs

From Public Books:

During my first year of college, in 1991, I experienced a feminist awakening, in my horror at the spectacle of Anita Hill’s public humiliation in front of the Senate and the nation. But I didn’t stop to consider how the compound factor of race made her situation both different and worse. The stories we heard from second-wave feminists—our mothers’ generation—were likely to include Gloria Steinem and Take Back the Night. They were less likely to mention Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective.

My cohort of women was born between 1965 and 1980, the Pew Research Center’s parameters for Generation X. We grew up with the advances won by first-wave feminists (the right to vote, for example) and by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s (widespread access to contraception, civil rights legislation that extended affirmative action to women, legal abortion, and large-scale public conversations about violence against women). The lazy, clichéd view of Gen Xers presumes us to be slackers, cynics, and reflexive ironists; we don’t even merit our own dismissive “OK, boomer” meme.

But we are also women in our 40s and 50s, the inheritors of feminism’s second wave and instigators of the third wave, and we are now in positions of power. With a fourth wave of feminism upon us, what should my generation of activists preserve from earlier stages of the movement, and what should we discard? How should feminist stories be told, and by whom? In particular, what elements of our foremothers’ second-wave feminism still feel essential to us in the 21st century, and how might we consider and address their failures, especially their failures of inclusion? How can we redefine the collective aspects of the feminist movement in a way that will endure?

One of the most important outcomes of the racial reckonings of 2020 is an influx of new feminist memoirs that reexamine the women’s movement from nonwhite perspectives—memoirs that deal explicitly with race and the failings of mainstream white feminism. And even before the events of last year, white second-wave feminists were beginning to engage more meaningfully with these issues, although an enormous amount of work remains.

Recent memoirs by Nancy K. Miller and Honor Moore, white women who are both public intellectuals and active participants in feminism’s second wave, make clear how the gains of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s enabled some women to rewrite their narratives. Instead of stories of birth, marriage, and death, they tell stories about friendship, intellectual and artistic development, relationships between mothers and daughters, political and cultural movements, and, above all, the struggle for women’s voices to be heard (and their bodies protected) in a patriarchal society.

Reading these stories now feels like tapping into a larger ongoing narrative, one that celebrates gains made while reminding us how fragile those gains are. Notably, both memoirs take on more than one woman’s story, suggesting that another way to rewrite women’s narratives is to bring them together, to see the power in what is shared. There is no single narrative of a woman’s life, no universal set of markers that defines women’s experience, and no one retrospection that can answer what feminism will become.

In her foundational Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), feminist literary critic and scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observes that writing the lives of notable women poses a challenge because their narratives don’t fit a heroic masculine mode of storytelling. Heilbrun argues that women can’t emulate or draw inspiration from biographies and memoirs that don’t exist:“Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. … Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”1 In the same way, feminist biographies and memoirs—and scholarship, journalism, and novels, too—can only make sense of their subjects by changing the way the story is told.

Feminism itself has never been an uncontested narrative. Debates over the definition of “feminist,” including the right to use this word regardless of political ideology, or the ability of women to support other women while distancing themselves from the label, take up a lot of space in public discourse. In a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert suggests that:

Whatever the history, whatever the nuances, whatever the charged sentiments associated with political activism, being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic. They should be able to vote. They should have equal protection under the law and equal access to healthcare and education. They should be paid as much as their male counterparts are for doing exactly the same job. Do you believe in these things? Then, you are a feminist.

Link to the rest at Public Books

If PG wanted to become a Public Intellectual, how would he go about doing it?

Is there an exam?

Do you major in “Public Intellectual Studies” in college?

Is it inherited? Do one or both of your parents have to be public intellectuals? Will a Public Intellectual grandparent do?

Is there a fee?

Do you get a Public Intellectual certificate to hang on your wall?

How about a Public Intellectual wallet card for when you’re not in your Public Intellectual Study?

Those visitors to TPV who are more informed about this topic than PG can feel free to enlighten him in the comments.

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