First Project: Statement of Intent

THE SHORT VERSION

The Horizon project seeks to explore women’s resistance to feminism in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. This study will, primarily but not exclusively, focus on the USA and the UK. The forms of women’s resistance to feminism may vary from privately-expressed doubts and unease (“I am not a feminist but…”) to full-blown collective movements of moderate (Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League) or radical (womenagainstfeminism.com) public opposition. In order to start work on these phenomena, we will begin by organising a series of seminars that will take stock of the theoretical concepts that have been developed to make sense of them across a plurality of disciplines, particularly sociology, history, psychoanalysis and art. Our aim is ultimately to organise conference(s) and several publications that will help us make sense of this central paradox at the heart of the history of feminism.

THE LONG VERSION

What is it that drives young women to upload selfies where they are seen holding up a sign reading, “I don’t need feminism because…”, a sign they complete as they choose? If womenagainstfeminisim.com can be regarded as an extreme form of women’s hostility to a movement whose original foundation is the promotion and protection of women’s rights, its very existence stands as a stark reminder that feminism has always been the target of attacks and oppositions from women themselves. As specialists of the “first wave” of Anglo-American feminisms, we intend to explore the genealogy of the hostile, or at least ambiguous, relations that some women have with feminism in the UK and the USA, and start with a specific look at the crucial period between 1830-1930, when modern feminism emerged and developed. We want to study the many different ways in which women resist feminism from a historic, political and cultural perspective, but also the literary and artistic representations of these forms of resistance.

From a historical point of view, women’s fight for their rights, which included but was not limited to the question of Suffrage, has always triggered critiques from ideologically competing backgrounds. Some anarchists such as Emma Goldman in the USA or Dora Marsden in the UK denounced the battle for the right to vote as a myth destined to perpetuate women’s oppression, a myth that hindered the “true” revolution. In Conservative and/ or religious circles, “women’s rights” were perceived as incompatible with the persistence of the “privileges” that women had been given in the private sphere, as well as a threat to some cherished feminine specificities. This is why the first-wave feminists had to face the full-on oppositions and subtle resistance of numerous women, such as Sarah Hale and Catherine E. Beecher in the USA, or Mary Ward and Eliza Lynn Linton in the UK. The latter saw many advantages to be gained from the cult of domesticity, and the identification of women to the private sphere, advantages that were personal, social, economic and cultural. This did not mean that those opposing the fight for women’s rights promoted submissiveness or stasis, but they did not see the right to vote and the invasion of the public sphere as ways of improving women’s conditions. Similar arguments live on in antifeminist thought, for instance in the work of Phyllis Schlafly. In spite or because of the argument in favour of a universal, egalitarian ideal, or the advent of the notions of gender, the essentialist and the differentialist approaches have continued to appeal to women, and the frontiers between sex and gender keep being renegotiated and recast in ways that contribute to blurring the distinctions between both terms, through the use of competing definitions.

One of our objectives will thus be to re-think the meanings of the words “feminism” and “antifeminism” for these women and their contemporaries, as well as how historians have used these notions since (Offen, 1988; Cott, 1989; Akkerman and Stuurman, 1998). This will lead us to explore the recently forged concepts of gender conservatism (Bush, 2005) and patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti, 1988), whose relevance and efficacy will be put to the test. Our aim is not to limit ourselves to individual responses to a collective movement. Indeed, another fascinating aspect of this work will be to raise the question of how and to what extent antifeminist ideas circulate in and between the UK and USA, through the community they create: interestingly enough, if feminist studies have often pointed out the collective dimension of the movement (see L. Delap’s work for instance), very little has been said so far on the collective dimension of women opponents to feminism.

It could be argued that the question of women’s resistance to feminism is only a political, ideological battle, akin to the tensions emerging within all activist groups that publicly wish to rally people. This however is not the only way this ambiguous response to feminism can be found amongst women. It will be useful to analyse the way feminism has been portrayed and how this representation leaves room for some resistance and opposition. Some authors, despite their arguably political engagement, produced works of fiction that haven’t always perfectly corresponded to the feminist doxa and ideas. For instance, Virginia Woolf endorsed feminist ideas with the publication of A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, and attempted to theorise gender in a certain way through these two works. She publicly expressed her disapproval of patriarchal prejudices that set women aside and prevented them from accessing some professions, especially the writing profession, and thus deprived them of a tradition to which they could have identified, by which they could have formed a community and gathered their forces. For all this, her work as a novelist, even in Orlando where she imagines a character who changes sexes, reveals forms of resistance to the feminist movement that must be interrogated and rethought. Is it necessary to recall that the only novel that stages a feminist character, Night and Day, is the weakest novel of Woolf’s, by far, and the one critics have neglected? Although the question of feminine identity prevails throughout her work, and even if Woolf is often considered to be a figurehead of feminism, her literary production is a lot more ambiguous and hasn’t always been praised by feminists because it highlights some paradoxes that do not go hand in hand with this type of political engagement.

In other words, if women oppose feminism, whether it be publicly and frontally, or in more imperceptible ways, in the guise of partial, or total resistances, it may be because the category women itself is not defined clearly enough, or that it strives to encompass the experience of femininity of all women. This also points to the fact that feminism continues to be considered as monolithic and essentialist. Thus we’ll be able to ask ourselves whether, like sexed identity itself, the question of a “feminist” identity instead of being raised in the traditional terms of “to be or not to be”, should not rather be defined as ways of being and the endless negotiation of each subject to try and fit in.

Tracing the spectres of feminism in women's lives, public spaces and scholarly discourses in the English-speaking world (and beyond)

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