Feminist literature of the 1970s

The 1970s are often considered the most important decade for feminism in terms of political action. Yet the feminist literature of those times is often overlooked. Here is a description of that literature, arranged in order of the author’s birthdates. I hope it will be of use, or at least of amusement, to you.

Carol Hanisch (birthdate unknown) is an American activist best known for coming up with the idea to have a feminist protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant (which first brought feminist concerns to the attention of the mainstream media) and for writing The Personal Is Political, which was published in 1970 and coined the phrase. In this paper she argues that women and other oppressed people should stop blaming themselves for their problems and realize that those problems are often caused by oppression and have political solutions. You can read The Personal Is Political in its entirety http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html”>here.

Del Martin (1921-2008), an American activist, is best known as an LGBT rights activist (she was openly lesbian), but she also fought for women’s rights. She was active in the National Organization for Women, and wrote Battered Wives, showing how institutionalized misogyny contributed to domestic violence. In 1970 she wrote If That’s All There Is, an indictment of the sexism in the LGBT rights movement. It can be read in its entirety here (scroll down).

 Adrienne Rich (1929 –2012) was an American poet and essayist, called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”, and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” In her 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Rich, herself a lesbian, posits that many women are forced into heterosexuality through women’s dependence on men for money and status, violence, denial of knowledge about lesbianism, and so forth. She further declares that sexual repression of women has also stifled women’s creativity and economic advancement through rendering them dependent on men. Whether one agrees with all this or not, this is an important document in the history of feminism, and its concept has been accepted and embraced in many college classes and by human rights activists. As one example of its scope, the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Brussels, March 4-8, 1976, named compulsory heterosexuality (in the form of discrimination against and persecution of lesbians) as a “crime against women.” The essay can be read in its entirety here: http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm

Luce Irigaray (born 1930) is a Belgian writer and philosopher. She is best known for her works Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) and This Sex Which Is Not One (1977), which are widely available in English. Speculum of the Other Woman is a landmark work on the status of woman in Western philosophical discourse and in psychoanalytic theory. For the profession of psychoanalysis, Irigaray believes, female sexuality has remained a “dark continent,” unfathomable and unapproachable, for its nature can only be misunderstood by those who continue to regard women in masculine terms. In the first section of the book, “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” Irigaray rereads Freud’s essay “Femininity,” and his other writings on women, bringing to the fore the masculine ideology implicit in psychoanalytic theory and in Western discourse in general: woman is defined as a disadvantaged man, a male construct with no status of her own. In the last section, “Plato’s Hystera,” Irigaray reinterprets Plato’s myth of the cave, of the womb, in an attempt to discover the origins of that ideology, to ascertain precisely the way in which metaphors were fathered that henceforth became vehicles of meaning, to trace how woman came to be excluded from the production of discourse. Between these two sections is “Speculum”-ten meditative, widely ranging, and freely associational essays, each concerned with an aspect of the history of Western philosophy in its relation to woman, in which Irigaray explores woman’s essential difference from man. In This Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray elaborates on some of the major themes of Speculum of the Other Woman. In eleven essays, Irigaray reconsiders the question of female sexuality in a variety of contexts that are relevant to current discussion of feminist theory and practice. Among the topics she treats are the implications of the thought of Freud and Lacan for understanding womanhood and articulating a feminine discourse; classic views on the significance of the difference between male and female sex organs; and the experience of erotic pleasure in men and in women. She also takes up explicitly the question of economic exploitation of women – in a reading of Marx she shows that the subjection of woman has been institutionalized by her reduction to an object of economic exchange. Throughout Irigaray seeks to dispute and displace male-centered structures of language and thought through a writing practice that takes a first step toward a woman’s discourse, a discourse that would put an end to Western culture’s enduring male-centeredness.

 Linda Nochlin (born 1931) is an American art historian, professor and writer, best known for her 1971 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? In this essay, which has become very influential in the field of art history, she argues that general social expectations against women seriously pursuing art, restrictions on educating women at art academies, and “the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based” have worked against women becoming great artists. She also argues that the idea of a lone great artist is somewhat exaggerated, as many have been supported by the help of assistants, patrons, schooling, etc, and have not simply created works of genius alone and unprovoked. You can read the essay in its entirety here: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:RZfpIKWTTd0J:f.hypotheses.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/512/files/2012/01/whynogreatwomenartists_4.pdf+why+have+there+been+no+great+women+artists&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjGUkfMwts_zvVVmrRVRBpoaEgJoAndw6aGG7vzijb_oNvsQ5Rzv016w1GkhAxFDc_9dkRQrRC9whgWqoARL1xwSxeXf3LHbOd-HUOYQsbtktNkX62feDG79eseM4FDh2mTtxfW&sig=AHIEtbR9NeV7QnUHsnDOQXPtQauUrksRIg

Hélène Cixous (born 1937) is a French professor, writer and philosopher. She is most famous for The Laugh of the Medusa (1975), originally written in French as Le Rire de la Méduse, and first translated into English by Keith and Paula Cohen in 1976. This essay is a call for a “feminine mode” of writing; the phrases “white ink” and ” ecriture feminine”, which she coined, are often used to describe this. American feminist critic and writer Elaine Showalter defines this kind of writing as “the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.” However, Cixous’ essay also rejects many kinds of essentialism which were still common in Anglo-American feminism at the time. In the main, the essay asserts, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” because their sexual pleasure has been repressed and denied expression. The Laugh of the Medusa can be read in its entirety here.

Anne Koedt (born 1941), an American writer who was born in Denmark and came to America as a teenager, is best known as the author of The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, first published in 1970. In this essay, building on the work of Masters and Virginia Johnson’s Human Sexual Response Koedt advocated new sexual techniques mutually conducive to orgasm and urged women to insist on their own sexual satisfaction. She noted that penis-in-vagina sex (as opposed to oral sex, etc) that does not involve clitoris stimulation often results in women not having orgasms, and encouraged women to consider sex without their orgasm to be as unthinkable as sex without male orgasm, an idea which mainstream society still has not adopted. The essay can be read in its entirety here.

Julia Kristeva (born 1941) is a Bulgarian-French philosopher and writer who has lived in France since the mid-1960s. Her works are widely available in English. She traveled to China for three weeks in 1974 and wrote About Chinese Women (1974) based on her experiences. In this work she examines her position as a Western woman observing China by first analyzing the Judeo-Christian traditions that undergird traditional notions of femininity and sexual difference. Then, she traces the development of the patriarchal monotheism of Judaism which “triumphed” over the matriarchal, fertility-based early religions, reducing women to the “silent other”. Later, she notes, Christian ideology added the insistence on female virginity and martyrdom. Procreation must be kept strictly subordinated to the rule of the Father. For women, then, access to the symbolic order is through the father, entrapping women in a double bind: If a woman identifies with the mother, she ensures her exclusion from and marginality in relation to the patriarchal order. If, on the other hand, she identifies with the father—makes herself in his image, then she ends up becoming “him” and supporting the same patriarchal order which excludes and marginalizes her as a woman. Kristeva argues that women must refuse this dilemma, neither being traditional feminine nor upholding patriarchy by valuing masculinity over femininity and being as masculine as she can. This balancing act, she noted, turns out to be much too costly for some woman for whom madness and suicide become the only routes out.

Robin Morgan (born 1941) is an American child actor and writer. She edited the 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, which has been widely credited with helping to start the general women’s movement in the US, and was cited by the New York Public Library as “One of the 100 most influential Books of the 20th Century.” It was one of the first widely available anthologies of second-wave feminism. Also in 1970, she wrote Goodbye to All That in reaction to the misogyny of the male-dominated left, in particular a magazine called Rat. The essay gained notoriety in the press for naming sexist liberal men and institutions. It can be read in its entirety here.

 Rabbi Rachel Adler (born 1943) is an American professor and theologian, ordained as a rabbi in May 2012. In 1971 she published The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman, in which she argued that halacha (Jewish religious law) ignored and oppressed women. This essay was considered by historian Paula Hyman as one of the founding influences of the Jewish feminist movement. It can be read in its entirety here.

Carol P. Christ (born 1944) is an American teacher and author currently living on the Greek isle of Lesbos. Her speech Why Women Need the Goddess was presented as the keynote address to an audience of over 500 at the “Great Goddess Re-emerging” conference at the University of Santa Cruz in the spring of 1978, and was first published later that year. It has since been widely reprinted. In this speech she argues in favor of the concept of there having been an ancient religion of a supreme Goddess. The speech can be read in its entirety here.

 Alice Walker (born 1944) is an American author and activist. In 1974 she wrote In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South in which she argued that black women’s artistic and literary gifts had been suppressed, and that there was a hidden history of oppressed black women artists. This essay can be read in its entirety here: http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2002/walker.asp Her 1975 nonfiction article In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, published in Ms. magazine, helped revive interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston (a feminist author best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God), who inspired some of Walker’s writing and subject matter. In the article told of her journey to central Florida, where Hurston lived, hoping to find anyone who knew her and thus fill in the missing details of her life. When she arrived, Walker realized that few had heard of Hurston or read her works, nor had they properly honored her after she died. Posing as her niece, Walker made her way to Hurston’s weed-covered grave and purchased a headstone with the engraving: “A Genius of the South, 1901 – 1960. Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist”. This article is widely available in English but is not available online.

Mitsu Tanaka (born 1945) was the most visible individual figure in Japan’s radical feminist movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She wrote a number of pamphlets on feminist topics, the most well-known being Liberation from Toilets (1970), which accused men in the social justice movements of regarding women as little more than repositories of men’s bodily fluids. Tanaka’s first well-known publication was a pamphlet distributed at a rally in 1970, titled Liberation from Eros. In this pamphlet, Tanaka called for a break from the Japanese feminist tradition of working for equal economic rights from within conventional social systems, saying that dismantling of the ie (household system), was more important, “As we continue to thoroughly question ourselves, in the mist of the struggle, we who can be none other than onna [woman], by questioning men and authority, we will deconstruct our own fantasies of love, husband and wife, men, chastity, children, the home, and maternal love. As we design our own subjective formation, we would like to aid in the (re)formation of men’s subjectivity…” She argues in this pamphlet that the liberation of women depends on the recognition of the specific position women hold in society. She claims that liberation for women isn’t the same as liberation for other groups. Tanaka was also a tireless organizer for the women’s liberation movement, helping to lead protests, co-founding the Fighting Women’s Group of activists, and establishing the first women’s center and women’s shelter in Japan during the 1970s. She dropped out of the public feminist movement by the late 1970s, however. Her works are not widely available in English.

Ezrat Nashim (founded 1971) was an American Jewish feminist group. The name refers to the women’s section in a traditional synagogue, but also can mean “women’s help.” In 1972 they took the issue of equality for women to the 1972 convention of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, presenting a document on 14 March that was titled Jewish Women Call for a Change. The rabbis received the document in their convention packets, but Ezrat Nashim also presented it during a meeting with the rabbis’ wives. The document demanded that women be accepted as witnesses before Jewish law, be considered as bound to perform all mitzvot (commandments),, be allowed full participation in religious observances, have equal rights in marriage and be allowed to initiate divorce, be counted in the minyan (religious quorum), and be permitted to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue and within the general Jewish community. Historian Paula Hyman, who was a member of Ezrat Nashim, wrote that: “We recognized that the subordinate status of women was linked to their exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot, and we therefore accepted increased obligation as the corollary of equality.” Eleven years later, in October 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main educational institution of the Conservative movement, announced its decision to accept women into the Rabbinical School. Hyman took part in the vote as a member of the JTS faculty. Today, women are ordained as rabbis and cantors, and can read from the Torah in front of the congregation and be counted in the minyan, have full participation in religious observances, and be accepted as witnesses before Jewish law, in all types of Judaism except Orthodox Judaism. However, women are still not allowed to initiate divorce in Conservative as well as Orthodox Judaism, and are not considered as bound to perform all mitzvot by the Orthodox. But women have assumed positions of leadership in the synagogue and within the general Jewish community within all types of Judaism. Jewish Women Call for a Change can be read in its entirety here.

The Combahee River Collective (founded 1974) was an American black feminist lesbian group. Their name commemorated an action at Combahee River planned and led by Harriet Tubman in 1863, which freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman. In 1977 they published A Black Feminist Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity as used among political organizers and social theorists. It describes the importance of black feminism, the difficulties in organizing black feminists, the realities of interlocking oppressions, and racism in the mainstream women’s movement. The essay can be read in its entirety here.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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