Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·What is "Postfeminism" and Are We In It?
·What do We See in Performances Today?
·Where Do We Go From Here?
·Works Cited

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States of Play:
Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance

Janelle Reinelt

In a recent book, Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy, Wendy Hesford writes about the relationship "between self-representation and historical realities and the implication of this relationship for understanding 'the complexity of the momentarily situated subject'" (4). Her emphasis on the importance of integrating the personal into an exploration of how identities are "negotiated among conflicting and multiple discourses and how power is constituted and claimed rhetorically" (35) poses a pedagogical challenge to anyone teaching material from a past time that one has also lived through. Hesford's challenge demands a response to the knowledge that personal narrative inflects historical narrative. She recommends a mode of critical pedagogy that displays to students the process of identity-negotiation concurrent with a critical representation of the subject matter being treated.

This book is on my mind as I consider the history of two decades of feminism through which I lived, and its relationship to the field of gender studies as it is currently constituted and to theatrical performances both then and now. I cannot avoid the deeply personal background of this topography, nor the inevitable ways in which my historical account will be marked and shaped by my subjective positioning in it. So following Hesford, perhaps I'll start with a few autobiographical comments. Like many women of my generation, I came to feminism in the early 1980s, drawn by the combination of political objectives, female community, and an intellectual critique of patriarchy. For me, this meant forming a collective with seven other women to start the first Women's Center for the city of Stockton, California, while simultaneously pursuing graduate studies in theatre at University of California Berkeley where I was reading for the first time Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and very soon, Michelene Wandor, the British feminist who was also a playwright and who chronicled the first phase of Women's Theatre in Britain. What I want to stress is the continuity of purpose and lived experience between my everyday life, political practice, scholarship, and art. If many of us are nostalgic for the early days of Second Wave Feminism, it is for that sense of wholeness and possibility, and for that I do not apologize. If there is any one way to characterize the current period, whether one uses the term "post-feminism" or not, it is that the continuity between scholarship and activism has been disrupted, and that the sense of a feminist community is exceedingly hard to preserve for most women - in and out of the academy.

In seeking to understand this present moment, I think it is important to acknowledge that "times have changed," that an analysis of feminism as it exists today in relationship to theatrical performance cannot signal an attempt to return, but rather to forge ahead toward an as yet unforeseen future. Yet there will also be in this essay a stubborn insistence on the necessity to hang on to those parts of feminist history from second wave feminism that establish the context for the present, and in some cases the basis for its critique. In that sense, I am an unreconstructed second wave feminist, a nag and a scold, perhaps even a crone, to invoke the old sexist terms that feminism tried to reclaim, much as "queer" has been reclaimed positively in recent years.

To begin with a definition of terms seems appropriate, because "feminism," particularly in the popular press in the U.S. and the U.K., has often been defined in sensational ways to mean man-hating and bra-burning. Even within feminism itself, a great variety of nuanced understandings of what it means to be a feminist exists, and for my young students who today often want to admit to an interest in women's studies, or gender issues while simultaneously insisting they are NOT feminist, the question is, what understanding of feminism do they so strongly reject? So, for the purposes of this discussion, here is what I mean by feminism:

Feminism is a political commitment to three things:
    · to women's issues
    · to a way of life
    · to an intellectual critique

Each of these three may be defined differently at different historical moments, but I believe this definition will stand up to transhistorical usage. For example, if equal pay, abortion rights, and childcare were and in some ways remain women's issues to be struggled for politically, other issues may emerge as more important or more central over time. (In part, I shall be arguing that something like a supercession of these issues by global issues and issues of technology marks the present state of feminism.) The second commitment, to a way of life, is also highly malleable and culturally constructed. I think for North American women, to a greater degree than for British women, the way of life to be struggled for includes great personal freedom, independence in terms of both financial security and emotional autonomy, and access to power in the workplace and in the public sphere. These aspects of personal life can be shared by heterosexual women, lesbian women, women of color, and women of all ages. Note however, that the ideal is heavily marked by the entrepreneurial capitalism that defines U.S. socio-economic organization, and the great focus on individualism that defines so much ideology and tradition in the U.S., and to a degree, in Canada. In a radically different context, for example, in India, the way of life to be struggled for may be significantly different. A United Nations report on the status of women in India (1975) found the key issues of the average Indian women's existence to be female infant mortality, child marriages, illiteracy, and dowries. Aspects of personal life to be struggled for may not focus on independence on the American model, but may be concerned with protection from domestic violence, financial security for widows or after divorce, and educational opportunities. The third commitment, to an intellectual critique, is perhaps most strong among highly educated women, but the early premises of second wave feminism included the necessity to analyze life under patriarchy, to come to understand how women are socialized into certain roles and how they come to internalize their oppressions. Consciousness-raising groups among a variety of women, not only white middle-class women - although criticisms about the early days of the Movement are justified - carried out this specifically conceptual critique as well as shared women's lived experiences in a climate of support. Today, to be a feminist with a political commitment to intellectual critique means following and analyzing the changing context of women, and the political and personal modifications of all three of these areas. It is, in short, to develop a feminist critique of the present, even as it transforms into the future.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.