The Female Academic’s World of Love and Ritual: Women’s History and Radical Feminism

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This post is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, April 17 2015, St. Louis, MO. The panel honored the 40th anniversary of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” Signs vol 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975). Organized by Marc Stein, the panelists included Farah Griffin, Mary Frances Berry, Suzanna Walters and Smith-Rosenberg herself.

I first encountered Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in 1978. I was twenty and a junior at Yale. My teaching assistant in a course on the history of the American West had passed it on to me, suggesting that I write a paper using diaries that women had written while traveling to California on the Oregon Trail.

I was an English major and had never been in an archive. When the archivist at the Beineke Library brought me these documents, part of the massive Coe Western History collection, she told me that I was the first person to have asked for them, a situation which is almost unimaginable in women’s history today. That afternoon, I experienced for the first time a sensation that returns with the same intensity every time I begin work in a new collection: the thrill of reading other people’s private thoughts.

I recently re-read “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” first in a .pdf, and then, searching through my own archives, a copy I had marked up as a young lesbian feminist in 1978. In addition to its path-breaking argument, the article maps, very clearly, what you must do to write good history. First, you must clearly state your epistemological stance. “I would like to suggest an alternative approach to female friendships,” I had bracketed these words in pencil and put two exclamation points in the margin, “one which would view them within a cultural and social setting rather than from an exclusively individual psychosocial perspective.”

Then you must characterize your data, and say why you have chosen it: ideally, your archive would be manageable, but heterogeneous enough to produce a generalizable conclusion. Writing against expert knowledge produced by men about women, Smith-Rosenberg proposed an intervention that was familiar to me from my radical feminist reading group: in this article, women would speak for themselves, teaching us something entirely new about the nineteenth century, and perhaps about ourselves. Letters and diaries “which were never intended to be published,” I underscored this with two lines, “permits the historian to explore a very private world of emotional realities central both to women’s lives and to the middle class family in nineteenth century America.”[1]

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg made the project of women’s history legible by weaving feminist insights into a well-known humanities practice. The article also spoke to me, as it did to many women, because I was coming out as a lesbian in a university where, except for my radical feminist friends, I was completely invisible as a sexual person and as a feminist, except to a small group of women who were struggling to understand our relationships with each other, and to feminist knowledge production, in the context of a male institution. Suddenly, after reading the article, I understood that the quasi-subterranean, erotic, often unfulfilled intensity of our intellectual and social relationships as young feminists was not exceptional, nor was it a sexual detour in need of correction. Our emerging identities were historical, in the most precise sense of the word: “The question of female friendships is peculiarly elusive,” I underlined on page three of the article; “We know so little, or perhaps have forgotten so much.”[2]

I cannot describe to you what a relief it was to be able to reconfigure my fraught intellectual present in relation to a known past. “Certainly Molly and Helena were lovers,” I circled, with more exclamation points; “emotionally if not physically.”[3] Of more importance in the long term, however, was that “The Female World of Love and Ritual” explained to me in plain English, as no one ever had, how good history was written. It caused me to “see” women in history, women who were already there.

This requires emphasis because I had embraced the task of this essay on the American West in the first place because I had partly grown up there. I had been raised on annual celebrations of Manifest Destiny, which erased people of color but featured white women quite prominently: Pioneer Days parades, monuments to missionaries wiped out by indigenous people, or memorials to migrants who took the wrong mountain pass, got stuck in the snow and, sadly, had to eat each other. As I spent one afternoon in the archives, then another, and another, I realized that the women on the Oregon Trail were, as Smith-Rosenberg wrote, “an excellent example of the type of historical phenomena which most historians know something about, which few have thought much about, and which virtually no one has written about.”[4] This is about as elegant a statement of the women’s history project, as it was conceived within 1970s radical feminism, that you will ever find.

I was, of course, a small fish in the feminist sea; the intellectual impact of this article, even when misread or over-interpreted, was already enormous. My work in the archives of radical feminists has revealed that nearly every activist kept up with the work of this first generation of women’s historians. I found an annotated copy of Claudia Koonz’s dissertation in the Kate Millett papers. I have found copies of “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in five separate radical feminist collections, as well as other articles published in Signs and Feminist Studies. Smith-Rosenberg’s insights were crucial to Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” As importantly, when feminist scholarship began to move definitively away from a movement context and women’s history became a multi-generational project, this article traveled in a way that few have. In a fall 2000, issue of The Journal of Women’s History, Leila Rupp spoke to its significance as “certainly the most cited article on women’s relationships.” She was guessing, of course: Google scholar did not launch in beta for another four years. But as of last week, this valuable online tool lists 1,670 citations. Remarkably, for an article published forty years ago, 49 of these are in in articles published in the last year.[5]

“The Female World of Love and Ritual” underlined the central commitment of women’s history to a feminist transformation of the discipline. “Is it not the historian’s first task,” Smith-Rosenberg asked, “to explore the social structure and the world view which made intense and sometimes sensual female love both a possible and an acceptable emotional option?”[6] The answer was yes. Those first fifteen years of citations reveal an all-star cast of historians or, as we graduate students called them in the 1980s, The Big Girls: Mary Ryan, Linda Kerber, Estelle Freedman, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Leila Rupp, Nancy Cott, and Ellen DuBois. Cook, Freedman, Rupp and anthropologist Esther Newton, like Adrienne Rich, took up Smith-Rosenberg’s invitation to write the history of lesbians as well. As Molly McGarry has written, “before the history of sexuality was fully constituted as a field of study, Smith-Rosenberg offered a deceptively simple but stunningly productive insight into same sex relationships.” Its arguments about white, middle-class women had even remained powerful for McGarry’s own twenty-first students “across boundaries of race and class, as well as time.”[7]

It is fascinating to me that this article, born in a radical feminist moment in which a great many women were contemplating sexual, political and social independence from men, has remained relevant in a way that the lesbian feminist politics that it emerged from have not. But I would like to note that, important as “The Female World of Love and Ritual” was to the emergence of LGBT history, that was not its only work. In fact, as radical feminism began to founder, it was used against that task: I would argue that Adrienne Rich, in attempting to make a transhistorical argument about the repression of lesbian relationships, undervalues Smith-Rosenberg’s most important claims about space: that women not only carved their relationships out of spaces constructed by patriarchal law, but were expected to maintain them as distinct homosocial realms. Similarly, in 1996, sociologist Mary Jo Deegan misunderstood the nuances of Smith-Rosenberg’s central claims when she argued that the women associated with the rise of the settlement movement and the birth of sociology at the University of Chicago in the Progressive Era were not erotic partners, but only loving friends.[8]

So while its significance to women’s history, to LGBT history, and to the emergence of queer and gender theory within history has been vast, in conclusion, I want to make another claim about “The Female World of Love and Ritual” and the political work it did to bring the insights of radical feminism into the historical profession. To paraphrase Deborah Gray White’s important review of sources in African-American women’s history in 1987, the creation of interest in historical subjects spurs the creation of archives; conversely, the assertion that there are no archives justifies a lack of interest in marginalized, or deliberately forgotten subjects.[9]

Prior to 1975, the work of feminist history – not infrequently done in a consciousness-raising context and enacted in the first women’s studies courses, had been to uncover and curate a lost women’s past and read it through a feminist present. Much of this work consisted of reinterpreting the central myths of women’s existence: witches, the Madonna-whore or Mammy-Jezebel complex, religious or racial beliefs that stigmatized women, or the structural theories of Marx and Freud. Productive as these inquiries were, they were often not evidenced-based, presentist, and speculative. They rejected “men’s knowledge” with a “women’s knowledge” that was perceived as true because, through their consciousness raising, women felt that it was.

In that context, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” was a kind of manifesto, and a template for how feminists could literally make history. Smith-Rosenberg signaled that feminist scholarship had matured enough to venture outside its interdisciplinary environment and make a claim on the disciplines themselves. It made a strong argument that women’s history would not just emerge from upending patriarchal ideology and false consciousness, but from feminist archival labor, applied theory, and historiographical method. Finally, with its rich citations to materials that had lain unused in manuscript collections, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” threw down a major challenge to those who said that women’s history lacked the archival basis to be a field at all.

The success of that challenge is why many of us do this work  today.

______________________________________________

[1] Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” Signs vol 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975), 2.

[2] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 3.

[3] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 7.

[4] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 1.

[5] Lila Rupp, “Women’s History in the New Millennium: Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s ‘The Female World of Love and Ritual’ after Twenty-Five Years,” The Journal of Women’s History vol. 12 no. 3 (Autumn), 8.

[6] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 8.

[7] Molly McGarry, “Female Worlds,” The Journal of Women’s History vol. 12 no. 3 (Autumn), 10.

[8] Mary Jo Deegan, “`Dear Love, Dear Love:’ Feminist Pragmatism and the Chicago Female World of Love and Ritual,” Gender and Society, Vol. 10, No. 5 (Oct., 1996), pp. 590-607.

[9] Deborah Gray White, Mining the Forgotten: Manuscript Sources for Black Women’s History,” The Journal of American History vol. 74 no. 1 (June 1987), 237.

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