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Gems from the Stacks (March 2004)

Historian Annette Baxter (1926-83), a pioneer in the fields of women's history and American studies, spent her summers in Point O'Woods, New York, a private, family-oriented community that fostered close friendships. In the summer of 1982, Baxter, who spent the better part of her career exploring the new field of women's studies, gave a talk there on Margaret Fuller, entitled "Forgotten Feminist." She began her lecture by providing the following definition of feminism.  --Kara M. McClurken

About feminism I wish only to say that it is a term often misused today, in that it is applied narrowly to such matters as affirmative action, the E.R.A., equal pay for equal work, Betty Friedan and the Second Stage, whether working mothers at Point O'Woods are a good thing, and so on. There are concrete and presentist matters, having rather little to do with the many ways in which feminism has been understood throughout history….

Feminism, as it has appeared in various periods among various peoples, has in fact meant many things: female conspiracy in the interests of peace, as in Lysistrata, but also wifely submissiveness in mid-Victorian America.

It has meant untraditional careers, as with Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt or Calamity Jane, but also traditional careers, as in the early national period of our history when women took official pride in raising the coming generation of American males, a task too risky to entrust to husbands and one on which the future of the republic was said to rest. It has mean[t] an ascetic devotion to duty, whether in female monastic orders or in eastern women's colleges at the turn of the century, but also the adoption of flagrantly permissive sexual mores, as in the 1920s. There have been feminists who have been opposed to suffrage for women, on the grounds that moral superiority of women required them to remain distant from the corrupting domain of male politics, and there have been feminists who believed that only by means of political action could women attain the economic independence essential to sexual freedom.

Just as much variety exists in the strategies considered "feminist." Some women, for example, have believed that feminism and a certain degree of separatism are synonymous. They reason that women can discover their path only in partial isolation from the influence of men and in the greater strength afforded them by association with other women. Dissenting from this position are women who call for immediate penetration of male institutions and enclaves with full co-existence the goal. These are not satisfied with the Ladies' Dining Room at the University Club; they want the swimming pool. Still another group opts for androgyny, not to be confused with a compromise between the two previous positions, but instead a third position, characterized by a willingness to allow social and economic pressures to recast the habitual attitudes of both men and women. Structures which they claim now inhibit the healthy development of both sexes would thus undergo evolutionary transformation. The resulting Utopia would not result in feminine men and masculine women. Rather it would be gender-free in negative ways yet be in full possession of gender in the positive ways….

…feminism is not a political issue, a slogan or a cause. Rather it is a historically recurrent impulse to re-think the meaning of women's relation to man as it affects civilization. As simple, and as complicated, as that.


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