Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975
Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975
Edited by Barbara J. Love (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 616 pp. Cloth, $80.00. ISBN 0-252-03189-X).
Reviewed by Greta Rensenbrink
While I was researching the feminist movement of the 1970s I was gently, and fairly, chastised for my attempts to separate activism into distinct strands. I was told repeatedly that feminism was an enormous, sometimes self-contradictory, but always interconnected tangle. Barbara J. Love's comprehensive new encyclopedia, Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975, makes that point effortlessly, providing a rich sense of the interrelatedness of feminist engagements through the multiple commitments of over 2,000 women and men. Feminists involved in all aspects of political organizing, as well as in social and cultural arenas, are represented here. It is rather like the infamous relationship chart on The 'L' Word, only political and historical.
Reading the encyclopedia is a rush. On every page a reader can find familiar names along with previously unsung heroines. For example, randomly opening the book, I discovered for the first time Laura Suzanne Gordon, who was a member of a women's liberation collective, helped set up a women's garage and automotive school, promoted women's events on her radio show, and was a founding grandmother of the women's spirituality movement. The next entry is Linda Gordon, the well-known activist and historian.
Although Love helmed this project, it had enormous support from the Veteran Feminists of America, a group of Senior Editors, an Advisory Board of feminist luminaries, and numerous volunteers. Nancy F. Cott provides an eloquent and concise introduction to feminism in the period. The labor that went into this work is clearly prodigious, complicated by the author's determination to stick to feminist practices. For example, every effort was made to involve subjects in their own biographies, preferably through direct interviews. Most entries are followed by ABS (Authorized By Subject). According to the introduction, the process of asking subjects to vet entries extended the completion date by two years. Over two dozen participants wrote biographies, and this in combination with the active subject participation gives the entries an uneven feel. Some are personal, lively, even humorous; the entry for Dorothy Allison is an example. Others are more formal and staid. I don't see this as a detriment; rather, it is emblematic of the multiple voices and participants in this project.
As with any project of this scope, there are going to be disagreements over inclusion and exclusion. Some will be specific to individuals; I was disappointed, for example, by the entry for Audre Lorde, whose contributions surely call for greater elaboration than they received. The larger framing of the project also raises questions. The requirement for inclusion was that feminists were active by 1975. This stems both from what has become an accepted historical periodization of a "second wave" of feminism, and from the author's recognition that the years 1963-75 represented the overall height of involvement for the activists represented in the volume. As Love herself acknowledges, the focus on feminist "waves" has been challenged by recent scholars and activists who argue that feminism is better understood as a continuous whole spanning several decades. Focusing on waves can create artificial distinctions; it can also take focus away from in-between periods. In the case of this project, the potent activism of the late 1970s, in particular aspects of cultural feminism and the conflicts over pornography and sexuality, are underrepresented. For example, Laura Lederer, who was a (or possibly the) critical figure in forming Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPM), the first feminist anti-pornography organization, is not mentioned (and the entry for WAVPM theorist Diana Russell had the group's name wrong). WAVPM, one could argue, was formed in 1976, but the two women who in 1972 founded the influential cultural feminist journal Amazon Quarterly, Laurel Galana (Holliday) and Gina Corvina, are also not included.
I don't mean to quibble; there are reasonable arguments for the periodization represented here. Rather, I am suggesting that this periodization reflects and perhaps encourages a continued feminist discomfort with cultural feminism and the anti-pornography movement as aspects of feminism in the 1970s. I should also point out that in other ways feminists active in these movements are well represented. Many leaders of the anti-pornography movement, dissenters from it, and significant cultural feminists who became active earlier in the decade in other threads of feminist organizing are included. This brings me to another of the delights of this volume: tracing the trajectories of individual feminist activists through sometimes decades of work toward feminist goals, often embracing several strands of feminist work or activism.
Another decidedly feminist aspect to the encyclopedia is that it exists not as a final word but as part of a process. True to its origins as a database, the project has a website (http://www.edouglass.org/pfp/) that includes subject questionnaires and encourages new submissions.
This book is an invaluable resource for students, academics, and feminists. An impressively well-conceived encyclopedia, it demonstrates extraordinary efforts toward inclusivity, aspiring to be true to history and to the feminists whose critical efforts it seeks to record.
Greta Rensenbrink received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2003. An assistant professor of history at Marshall University, she is revising her dissertation, titled "Reshaping Body Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Cultural Politics of the Body, 1968-1983," for publication.