Clio Talks: with Astrid Henry

Clio Talks: with Astrid Henry

Today we have something a bit different: an interview with Professor Astrid Henry by Nursing Clio blogger Carolyn Herbst Lewis. Astrid is the Louise R. Noun Professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Grinnell College. She recently co-authored Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) with Dorothy Sue Cobble and Linda Gordon, which Carrie Pitzulo reviewed for us earlier this week. Astrid also is the author of Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism (Indiana University Press, 2004), and her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. She received her Ph.D. from the Interdisciplinary Modern Studies Concentration of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s English Department and has been a member of the Governing Council of the National Women’s Studies Association.

You are not a historian by training. How did you come to co-author a history of feminism?

Linda Gordon contacted me in the spring of 2012 with an invitation to co-write a book with her and Dorothy Sue Cobble. Linda’s goal was for the three of us — as experts in different periods of U.S. feminism — to write a book that described the last one hundred years of feminist history to a general reader. Linda had read my first book, Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, and as she told me during our first phone call, “I know you’re not a historian, but you’ve written a great history of the contemporary period.” Needless to say, I was thrilled to be contacted by Linda and to get her invitation to be a part of this project, which eventually became Feminism Unfinished.

You’ve told me that you each wrote your sections independently, but you all wrote the preface, prologue, and afterword together. How did you find your voice, as a group, for those parts of the book?

Writing this book with Linda and Dorothy Sue was the first time I’ve ever co-written anything for publication, so it was a new experience for me. We began our writing process by meeting together — at Linda’s apartment in New York — to talk about the project as a whole and to outline what we might want to say in our individual and group sections. After this initial brainstorming session, Linda compiled our ideas about the prologue into a rough draft, which we then began adding on to and rewriting—and rewriting some more. We followed a similar process in writing the preface and the afterword. There was a lot of discussion — online, on the phone, and on the notes we made on the documents themselves — about what we wanted to say and, equally important, how we wanted to say it in these jointly written sections. When I read these three sections now they do sound like they are written in a unified voice, but during the writing process we definitely debated a lot of things, from major ideas to where commas should go!

The book is titled Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. Why did you choose this title? Will feminism ever be finished? What is surprising in this history?

I came up with the first part of the title — “feminism unfinished” — during one of our conference calls. Throughout my research for my chapter, I kept encountering the phrase “the unfinished business of the women’s movement” in people’s descriptions of what still needs to be addressed in order for us to achieve true gender equality and an end to sexism. When we started talking about titles, I thought of this phrase and thought putting together “unfinished” with “feminism” would be catchy. There is also something about the word “unfinished” that captures a shared feeling among the three of us that social justice movements, like feminism, always have work to do even as progress is made. What I mean is, one day feminism as we currently think of it may be “finished” — in the sense that we’ve achieved goals that currently seem out of reach, that we’ve moved more toward the world we want to live in, etc. — but undoubtedly new feminist goals, new feminist visions will emerge that will keep the project of feminism “unfinished” in the sense of still needing to do the work, still needing to fight the fight.

"Women picketing outside Alaimo Dress Mfg," c. 1940, by Harry Rubenstien. (Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr CC BY)
“Women picketing outside Alaimo Dress Mfg,” c. 1940, by Harry Rubenstien. (Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr CC BY)

We chose the word “surprising” to signal that we were trying to tell a different history of U.S. feminism than the one usually told. For example, our book starts with a chapter on the decades after the Nineteenth Amendment passed (1920s-mid 1960s) but before the women’s movement of the 1960s begins to take off. This is a period that often gets left out — or glossed over — in dominant (read: mainstream) narratives of U.S. feminism, which tend to focus on the decline of women’s rights activism during this period. Similarly, our book goes up until the present, thus suggesting the ongoing, continuous, and “unfinished” movement of feminism: it doesn’t die out and then get resuscitated only to die out again! Part of our “surprise” is also the group of activists and the types of activism that we address in the book; in arguing that feminism has a long history of addressing issues beyond just white, middle-class women’s issues, such as economic inequalities and racial justice, we are also trying to de-center a certain narrative of feminism that focuses exclusively on highly visible white women leaders, like Betty Friedan to give one example.

“Short” was a word we had in mind in order to help market the book to a broad audience; we intentionally wanted to produce a book that any reader might find useful as a short introduction to the history of women’s rights activism and feminism in the United States.

Most scholars agree that the waves metaphor doesn’t really work; yet so many of us continue to use it in our classrooms. How do you teach the narrative of feminism or the history of feminist movements?

That’s a great question and one that I grapple with every time I teach my course Introduction to Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. The waves metaphor leaves so much out, yet it is also so useful as chronological shorthand, one way of capturing historical periods or differences in ideological perspectives or modes of activism. Yet, even as I am saying this I want to problematize it! The waves metaphor flattens out differences and too often forces us into a singular narrative (with a small cast of characters) of any one wave. What I like to do in my Intro course could perhaps be described as a “both/and” approach: I talk about the waves (and use terms like “first wave”) as we move through historical time, but I also try to constantly critique the waves metaphor by highlighting what might get left out if we only focused on one particular narrative. I’m starting to think, though, that even this mode of teaching — “here’s a common way that this history gets told and here’s what troubling about it” — doesn’t always work: students seem to like the easiness of clear breaks that the waves metaphor provides even when they’ve spent a semester examining what’s problematic about it.

Your section addresses some very recent events. It must have been very difficult to draw a line and stop writing. What events since that moment do you wish you could incorporate into the discussion of contemporary feminism?

We finished the book during the very beginning period of what has since become a very large, national campus movement against sexual assault. If I were to revise my chapter today, I would want to spend time on this movement and write about specific examples of campus movements and forms of protest. One such example would be Emma Sulkowicz, the rape survivor, campus activist, and artist at Columbia University who has been staging a performance art political protest by carrying a mattress with her everywhere she goes on Columbia’s campus.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.
Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.

The three of you position this book as being “a much-needed counterpoint to the contemporary corporate-backed ‘lean in’ feminist philosophy,” which you suggest is a “trickle-down” feminism. Can you say a little more about this? Is there a need for the “lean in” style of feminism? Why has it gained such cultural currency?

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg makes a lot of important points about women’s individual behavior and how important it is to claim one’s place at the table, to “lean in” to the opportunities that surround us with confidence and authority. I think the book speaks to a lot of people because, unfortunately, girls and women are still too often socialized to “lean back” and take themselves out of the running. Her book is valuable as a kind of business-manual-meets-self-help book aimed, primarily, at women in white collar jobs. Where we take issue with “lean in” style feminism is that it doesn’t do much to address the majority of women in the U.S. who work in jobs that pay less than $15 dollars an hour and have few opportunities to “lean in” at work.

One of my favorite points in your section is when you describe young women coming to college campuses in the 80s and 90s for whom feminism was not “like flouride,” and who instead were discovering it for the first time. This was very much my own experience as a first generation college student from a small town. Do you still encounter this sort of delayed or late-blooming feminism in your students?

People enter into feminism and begin to identify as feminists at different periods in their lives and for different reasons, so in that sense “delayed” or “late blooming” feminists will always be one form of feminist identity. It’s true that there are more and more people—girls and boys, men and women—who have the experience of growing up with feminism in the home. That began to be a common experience with people of my generation (Generation X) and has only increased over time; yet even with the progressive changes in family arrangements and gender roles, many people still grow up in conservative families and/or communities where feminism is either unspoken or remains a dirty word. Invariably in my classes, I always teach a mix of students in this regard: some are life long, self-identified feminists, eager to take a course on feminism, others are entirely new to the subject and even a bit nervous about what feminism is all about.

Thank you, Astrid, for pausing during our campus’s “hell week” to chat!

Feature image: Book cover of Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2014).

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.

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