This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
On January 26 Sam Huber reviewed My Name is Andrea, Pratibha Parmar’s documentary about the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, for the NYR Online. “The film is most valuable,” Huber writes, “for its conviction that Dworkin’s dual commitment to language and politics constituted a single thread running taut through the length of her life.”
A lecturer in English at Yale and a senior editor at The Yale Review, Huber has written widely about poetry, queer politics, and the history of feminist thought. Their recent scholarship deals with a cluster of American feminist writers who in the 1960s and 1970s turned their attention to questions of empire and international solidarity, finding themselves dissatisfied with the choice between a “masculinist antiwar” politics and an “isolationist feminist” one. When Vietnam broke into Dworkin’s suburban adolescence “through the televised image of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation,” Huber suggests, she found herself confronted with a problem that preoccupied many of these thinkers and writers: “the failure of speech to slow an escalating war.”
Over e-mail, I asked Huber about their first encounters with second-wave feminism, “the wave metaphor of feminist history,” and the importance of teaching trans and feminist theory together.
Max Nelson: How did you come to second-wave feminism as a subject?
Sam Huber: Like many people, I eased backward into history. In college I came first to academic queer theory of the 1990s, which led me to women’s studies courses. In second-wave texts I found the debates that had gripped me in later queer thought—about social construction, normativity, intersectionality—already happening, though of course in different terms. Personally, gender was beginning to feel like a more urgent terrain of inquiry on which to get oriented than sexuality. But I was also taken in by the conceptual reach of second-wave thinkers like Shulamith Firestone, Audre Lorde, and Monique Wittig, as well as by their rhetorical power and formal restlessness.
I’m not sure that reading them would have stuck if I hadn’t also landed in some formative feminist communities. I interned at the Feminist Press, in New York, where I got to work with incredible people (including the visionary editor Amy Scholder, who is one of the executive producers of My Name Is Andrea), and I began reviewing books for Feministing.com. At the time this all felt like one big political education, but some important differences between these scenes have become apparent in hindsight, which I think fed my growing interest in the second wave. Dworkin was recommended and debated by my feminist friends and coworkers, but she was never on the syllabi of my gender studies classes. Some of her contemporaries were, especially Lorde and Adrienne Rich, but mostly at the undergrad level.
When I started grad school, I got the impression that in the academy second-wave writings were treated like intellectual training wheels: sturdy enough to introduce you to feminism and set you moving, but something to leave behind once you could handle the theorists that followed in the 1990s and 2000s. It seemed that the second wave was too old to count as part of the scholarly present, but too recent to appear as a historical period worthy of serious study. I didn’t think that attitude did justice to the rigor, complexity, or even the flaws of these writers—or to the other scholars of second-wave feminism I’ve since learned from, like Clare Hemmings, who in her book Why Stories Matter (2011) analyzes the “progress narrative” of feminist history that I’ve just sketched.
You write that you’ve changed your mind over the years about the relationship between Dworkin’s literary ear—her skill as a “close reader”—and her radical politics. Many of the writers you study share that “dual commitment to language and politics,” like Dworkin’s mentor Muriel Rukeyser, or her rough contemporaries Adrienne Rich and Toni Cade Bambara. How do you approach the relationship between these writers’ politics and their literary projects?
A lot of criticism about activist literature treats it as a repository of intellectual history rather than as its own kind of theorizing. I’m sure I’m often guilty of that, too, but it matters to me that these writers were writers. They didn’t merely echo or represent the concerns of their activist peers; rather, they formulated conceptual problems and developed habits of thought that shaped the social movements they inhabited. I want to capture the live drama of that thinking as it unfolds on the page, and I try to notice how big ideas get worked out through style and form. Dworkin aspired to “write a prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilizing than battery”; her sensibility and her uncompromising analyses of intercourse and pornography are hard to prize apart.
The relationship between politics and language isn’t always so direct, of course. My dissertation looked at the internationalist commitments of US feminist writers, and a lot of that research was pretty literal-minded: I would find the short stories in which Toni Cade Bambara mentions Vietnam, for instance, and think about what those references had to do with how she understood gender and with the shape of the stories themselves. But some writers’ political interests are less evident on the surface of their work. Rich’s 1983 visit to Nicaragua inspired some of the most influential essays of her career, in which she confronted her own “North American tunnel vision.” And yet Nicaragua is almost entirely absent from her published poems of the mid-1980s—poems otherwise stuffed with proper nouns and biographical detail.
Rather than concluding that Nicaragua was important to her activism but not to her art, I tried to ask: How might that trip have shaped even these poems from which it seems to be missing? Nicaragua sensitized Rich to the complex interplay between personal history and present-tense positioning—what she called “location”—which together shape what and how one sees. In the poems she wrote after returning to the US, her past and the places that formed her have been recast by her experiences in Nicaragua, though Nicaragua itself remains at the poems’ edges.
Your first piece for the Review was on the playwright Alice Childress. You’ve returned repeatedly in your writing to her generation—to which Rukeyser also belonged—and the one that came after, that of Dworkin and Grace Paley and others. What are some of the most important political or cultural differences between those generations of feminists? How did they understand (or misunderstand) one another?
I’m interested in this relationship between midcentury leftist women and the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s partly because it’s been so effaced: second-wave feminism is often imagined to have arisen in reaction to the conservatism of the decades that preceded it. There’s of course some truth to this, but that story leaves out figures like Childress and Rukeyser who began making politically engaged art in the 1930s and 1940s—at the tail end of what Michael Denning named the Cultural Front—and kept going. (My thinking here is indebted to Cheryl Higashida, Dayo F. Gore, and Kevin Gaines, who link Black feminism’s 1960s–1980s iterations to early and mid-twentieth century Black radicalism and Communist internationalism.) These women served as mentors and models for feminists of Dworkin’s generation, and that influence went both ways. Rukeyser’s final published poem was dedicated to Alice Walker, whom she’d taught at Sarah Lawrence. In it, she writes, “Bring me my next poem!/Here it is, to give to all of you./To do what we mean, in poetry and sex,/to give each other what we really are.”
I should be careful not to overstate this continuity: Childress and Rukeyser made art in the 1940s and 1950s that we can appreciate as feminist, but they weren’t doing so as part of a self-consciously feminist activist culture. Paley, who was closer to Rukeyser’s age than Dworkin’s, wrote brilliantly (and with characteristic humor) about the push and pull between her older peers in the peace movement and younger feminist friends. When generational conflict arose among activists, it was as often about style as about analysis or strategy: how should a radical speak, dress, and conduct meetings?
The wave metaphor of feminist history caught on for a reason. But the midcentury left was more feminist—and the second wave had deeper roots in anticapitalist, antiracist, and anti-imperialist organizing—than is popularly assumed.
You end your discussion of Dworkin’s “ambiguous relationship to transgender politics” by suggesting that you yourself have “always found 1970s feminist writing about androgyny,” by figures like Dworkin, Bambara, and Carolyn Heilbrun, “enabling of rather than threatening to a trans-affirming political vision.” What specific aspects of these writers’ approaches to androgyny strike you as particularly enabling for current trans politics?
It’s a big, important question that I’d like to eventually take up in writing; for now I’ll answer by way of teaching. Students often enter my classes thinking of feminism primarily as a fight for women’s rights—a politics that aims to shift the balance of power between men and women but leaves binary gender difference intact. Gender transgression and nonconformity, if they’re on students’ radars, are mentally filed under the rubrics trans and queer. One reason I think it’s important to teach trans and feminist material on the same syllabus is to show students that gender transgression has also always been central to feminism. For many feminists, the task has been to denaturalize or even refuse womanhood, not to affirm it.
When we put someone like Dworkin or Monique Wittig in conversation with contemporary nonbinary discourse, it helps us see both the political desperation and the political optimism underwriting their analyses: male supremacy structures everything, including our most valued relationships and deepest senses of self, and yet we could be otherwise, and even in this lifetime. At the same time, I try to acknowledge how such a project might come into conflict with trans self-determination. Dworkin was fighting for a world without gender, and not just for the relative minority that didn’t want it. She couldn’t recognize womanhood as a potentially positive source of meaning—as something one might fight for rather than against.
Wherever my students land on a given writer, I want them to understand that so-called TERFs weren’t the natural, inevitable inheritors of the radical feminists whose name they’ve absorbed. (Finn Enke, Emma Heaney, and Cristan Williams have done valuable scholarly work recovering a trans presence in 1970s radical and lesbian feminisms.) I feel very strongly that we shouldn’t cede even the knottiest corners of feminist history to transphobes. Feminism, to my mind, names the richest, most sustained body of thought we have about gender as both a constraining imposition and an uncontestably personal language through which we describe and express our most intimate selves. Trans and gender-nonconforming people need that history. It belongs to us, too.