At the Fourth Annual Conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, the first plenary on the evening of November 17, 2011 was on U.S. Women’s Intellectual Traditions; a panel instigated by conference chair Mike O’Connor and organized by Louise (Lucy) Knight of Northwestern University.
The session was well-attended and the discussion interesting and lively. The panelists impressed me with both their intellectual dexterity (having to speak on a wide range of topics) and the strength of their prose. Following the session, I asked Lucy Knight for a copy of the talks with the intention of posting them on our blog. In light of the recent debate over women, politics, and power, the comments of the panel ring with immediacy.
The panel included: Lucy Knight (moderator and presenter), Megan Marshall, Philippa Strum, Sherie Randolph, and Maria Cotera. Lucy Knight began with introductory remarks, framing the session, and then followed Megan Marshall with a presentation on her specific research projects. Knight, Marshall, Cotera had written remarks that they could submit for this post; Strum and Randolph had spoken from notes. Enjoy!
Louise W. Knight
Thank you, Andrew [Hartman], for the introduction and thanks especially to you and your conference committee for proposing this topic for a plenary. We are delighted to take it on, even though it is much bigger than we can do just justice to.
As it turns out, and as some of you know, women and intellectual history has been a hot topic on the USIH blog recently. Lauren Kientz Anderson started the conversation by asking how we should interpret the fact, as she observed it, that relatively few women had posted or commented on the blog. She also raised questions about the place of women scholars in the field. As so often happens in blogs, topics began to ramify. Some asked, and even answered, that perennially thorny question – do women in the field, or even in general, argue or think or analyze differently than men do? Others wondered if the question itself was a red herring left over from antediluvian times, to mix my metaphors.
Reading all this, Bill Fine then posted a guest blog to share some facts. He analyzed the content from 1979 to the present of the Intellectual History Newsletter, subsequently transformed into the journal Modern Intellectual History. He reported on the number of articles by women scholars and listed the articles and the authors that addressed how the field has dealt with women’s intellectual history, mostly in the context of cultural studies. His Nov. 15th post is a great resource for those wishing to know about the work of women scholars and the history of the field’s interest in this topic.
The concerns probed by the blog about women and the field remind us that the issues and ideas dealt with in women’s intellectual history are far from passé. They inform our lives as professionals and shape the directions that our field takes. As for the role that this brand new society will play in all of this, there are some great signs that it will break new ground. The lively debate in the blog is one sign. Another is the fact that the society’s leadership proposed this plenary. Whatever the past has been, the present is our chance to do things differently.
Tonight’s topic is women’s intellectual traditions. We’ll be considering, impressionistically, the 200-year history of American women as sources of influential ideas. Thus we will look at: the history of women’s ideas about women and the history of women shaping the intellectual debates of their times. And, while the roundtable participants happen to be women, we might easily have had men as well. The focus here is historical intellectual content, not what gender is doing the scholarship.
Let me begin with the first topic. To state the obvious, women’s ideas about women are diverse and contested across all of American history and the origin of many of these ideas has been women’s rebellion against the status quo. When the nation was founded, women were denied most of their rights, from voting and jury duty, to preaching, popular lecturing, and holding political office, and most roles other than housewife, shopkeeper, servant, farmer, slave, teacher, or charity volunteer.
This situation was supported by a thicket of arguments about women’s limited capacities. Every time a woman embraced a new role, she had to marshal the arguments to justify her unorthodox behavior. Thus Anne Hutchinson and Sojourner Truth had to justify preaching God’s word, Maria Stewart had to justify becoming the first woman to give a public lecture to a mixed audience, Lucy Stone had to justify keeping her surname after marriage; and Jeanette Rankin had to justify serving as the first woman elected to a seat in the U.S. Congress.
We are not yet done with this process. In the near future, when a woman finally receives a major party’s nomination for the presidency, she and her supporters will have to justify that, although it will not be so obvious at first. In our modern enlightened era, she will face the seemingly respectable question, “Is the country ready for a woman president?” when in fact the real question will be whether she, as a woman, is capable of being president. This will become clear when the innuendos about women begin to fly thick and fast.
The traditions that held women back, of course, had their deeper justifications in the canon of (white, male) Western intellectual thought, in which women’s nature was sweepingly and confidently characterized. Women rebutted these arguments too.
When Kant asserted in 1764, “The fair sex has . . . a beautiful understanding [based on sense], whereas ours [men’s] should be a deep [sublime] understanding [based on reason],” Sarah Grimké rebutted. She wrote in 1837, “[Women’s] creator . . . prepared her . . . [to make progress] towards . . . [a] state of high mental cultivation.”[i]
When Hegel argued in 1821 that “[w]omen can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy or certain of the arts, [lacking] . .. a universal faculty,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton rebutted. She wrote in 1892: “Women are already the equals of men in the whole realm of thought, in art, science, literature, and government.”[ii]
And when Sigmund Freud argued in 1933, “[W]omen must be regarded as having little sense of justice,” Gloria Steinem rebutted. She proposed in 1994 that we imagine that Sigmund had been replaced in history by a woman named Phyllis Freud and that Phyllis had written, “Men must be regarded as having little sense of justice.”[iii] Actually, Steinem did not so much rebut as mock Sigmund’s claim, revealing it to be ridiculous by practicing gender reversal. Sometimes wit persuades better than reason.
Finally, women’s ideas about women (as well as about society) have diverged according to distinctions of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other differences. In each of these areas, men’s experiences were, and are, not the same as women’s experiences and women’s experiences differ among themselves. Some women carry the burden of double or triple oppressions. This has led them to incisively deconstruct institutionalized prejudices no one else has noticed. They have particularly unpacked the prejudices that white upper middle class heterosexual women have held, and hold, against those women they considered Other. This is important work, since it shows the error of embracing “universalism.” We have called this panel, “women’s intellectual traditions,” in the plural, to stress that no one group of women can speak for all women. We honor Audre Lorde’s insight that the category of woman is itself full of subdivisions. Tonight we will learn more about the intellectual legacies of women of color from two of the panelists, and perhaps about a few of these other differences as well. Hopefully you in the audience will take up some of these other topics, to help fill in what we do not cover in the panel.
So far I have focused on women rebels’ ideas about women. But conservative women also have an intellectual tradition. Their arguments have generally centered on family and the individual virtues of self-sufficiency and respect for gendered social roles. Often they have built a bridge between an emerging status quo and traditional values. One thinks of antebellum northerners Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon, two groundbreaking educators of women whose actions were bolder than some of their arguments. Or of the antebellum southerner Louisa Susannah McCord, who, in the words of one intellectual historian, “managed to fend off radical feminism, while still carving out a claim for the intellectual independence of women.”[iv] Or of the turn of the century writer and activist Anna Julia Cooper, who, in the words of one scholar, embodied “the classically southern virtues of home, religion and proper public conduct,” and also became of one the “most widely recognized symbols of the new black woman.”[v] The ideas of conservative women are certainly relevant to our conversation. [During the discussion, panelist Maria Cotera noted that a particular woman may hold views that are a mix of liberal and conservative, making it difficult to characterize her as one or the other.]
Women’s ideas about women also deal with many female-related controversies. These do not define women’s intellectual traditions, but they have certainly generated much thought. Some of the issues – which are all actually more than a century old — include
·whether biology is destiny,
·whether there is such a thing as feminine thinking and what it might be. And if there is, which many doubt, is it the way all women think? Or is it the way women have historically been encouraged to think? Or is “feminine thinking” a way to refer to a kind of thinking that men and women can both do?
·what constitutes reproductive justice,
·What the place of sexuality is in advancing women’s status,
and, at least among conservatives,
·whether pursuing self-development is selfish, and
·how to define women’s duty.
Women and men have thoroughly debated how these issues apply to women. One waits hopefully for men and women to take up these questions with equal thoroughness as they apply to men.
OK. So women’s ideas about women are what first come to our minds when we think of women’s intellectual traditions, but we cannot stop there. These traditions have also included how women have shaped the general intellectual debates of their times. They have taken part in the long discussions in this country about transcendentalism, liberalism, individualism, socialism, conservatism, democracy, lesbianism, classicism, anarchism, imperialism, internationalism, the role of the state, racism, civil rights, and about constitutional interpretative questions, to name just a few. The panelists here will be providing us with plenty examples along these lines, and I am sure those of you in the audience can supply some more. One thinks of how Mercy Otis Warren wrote eloquently about federalism; Emma Goldman on anarchism, Maria Stewart on racism, Audre Lorde on homosexuality, Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights, and Rachel Carson on environmental ethics. If I have one wish for tonight, is that we all leave here with a fuller sense of the ways that women in history have engaged with and influenced the dominant discourse.
This panel will have a biographical focus. James Kloppenberg noted at the Organization for American Historians meeting last March that in the field of intellectual history, the study of individuals and biography has been and will continue to be very important. In keeping with that observation, each of the panelists here has in-depth knowledge of one or more women intellectuals whose contributions will form the basis of our comments.
To further focus our conversation, we have chosen six questions to address to get started, though we may not each address all of them. They include questions about
·a particular figure’s intellectual courage,
·her contributions to feminist thought,
·a large idea that she made persuasive and
·her influential arguments about, central concepts, and
·her ability to communicate her ideas.
We also will take up the conference theme and consider how our particular figure used narratives in her work or what narratives about that figure we are revising in our own work.
[i] Immanuel Kant, “The Interrelations of the Two Sexes,” from Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, reprinted in Rosemary Agonito, comp., History ofIdeas on Woman: A SourceBook (New York: Perigee Books/G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 130-31; Sarah Grimké, Letters on Equality of Sexes, Letter X, “Intellect of Woman,” in Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, ed. Sarah Grimké: Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 65.
[ii] Georg Hegel, “Marriage and the Family,” in The Philosophy of Right, reprinted in Agonito, History of Ideas on Woman, 167; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self,” in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, comp. Man Cannot Speak for Her, Vol. II, Key Texts of the Early Feminists (New York: Praeger, 1989), 382.
[iii] Sigmund Freud, “Woman as Castrated Man,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, reprinted in Agonito, History of Ideas on Woman, 321; Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 35-36.
[iv] Michael O’Brien, ed., All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1982), 329.
[v] Charles Lemert, “Anna Julia Cooper: The Colored Woman’s Office,” in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan, eds. (NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 4.
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism
It’s a great honor to have been invited to participate in the S-USIH’s annual conference, particularly as my training is in American Literature rather than history, and I publish as a biographer. But this year’s conference theme–narrative–is one that comfortably includes a scholar like me, and is also especially appropriate for the two female public intellectuals I’m going to briefly introduce. Narrative was a device both of them relied on for conveying their ideas and for making certain that those ideas were remembered.
Lucy asked us to mention an example of our subjects’ “intellectual courage.” I can think of many examples for both Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. But one that they shared, really a trait more than an instance of bravery, bears mentioning here, because such courage may not be so necessary today. That was simply daring to talk their way into an intellectual scene–the Transcendentalist circle of the 1830s and ‘40s in New England–that was dominated by men, men with credentials these women could never attain.
To digress a minute, I mentioned that I hadn’t trained as an historian–a significant reason for that was the feeling of intimidation I experienced as an undergraduate when I stopped in at history classes in the 1970s at Harvard, then still a predominantly male institution, and with a history department populated almost exclusively by male faculty and students. I couldn’t make myself walk through the door into those classes.
Fortunately, I took one class, relegated to “Social Studies,” in women’s history, taught by the late Barbara Miller Solomon–herself a pioneering female intellectual–in which I learned about both Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, women who would readily have crossed the thresholds that I would not. I made myself a student of these lives over the following decades, and I learned how narratives had helped these women step forward.
Margaret Fuller, born in 1810, was simply an unstoppable force–until her tragic drowning in a shipwreck in 1850 at age 40. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously tweaked Fuller for possessing a “rather mountainous ME”–an enormous ego. Maybe that’s how her contemporaries had to see this unusually assertive woman, whose conversational skills both men and women recognized as superior. Fuller did think pretty highly of herself too, though. Here’s her own description: “a woman of tact & brilliancy like me, has an undue advantage in conversation with men. They are astonished at our instincts. They do not see where we get our knowledge, &, while they tramp on in their clumsy way, we wheel, & fly, & dart hither & thither, & seize with ready eye all the weak
points, like Saladin in the desert.”
Fuller led with her “I”–as a writer. Her first book, a travelogue based on a journey to America’s western frontier, Summer on the Lakes, drew on her first-hand accounts to protest the plight of the Indian and the wasting of natural resources; later her reform-minded journalism for the New York Tribune relied on her personal investigations of prisons, mental hospitals, and orphanages. She did the same with her coverage of the desperate conditions of mineworkers in England, and through the heady days of the first wave of Italy’s Risorgimento.
Fuller once noted that Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman she’d read early on, “was a woman whose existence better proved the need of some new interpretation of Woman’s Rights than anything she wrote.” Fuller’s life was to become so dramatic that the same could be said of her–but that’s another story. Fuller wrote this sentence in her great feminist treatise, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845. The book’s most famous line–“let them be sea captains!”–speaks for only a small part of Fuller’s insightful analysis there. One instance of Fuller’s “intellectual courage” in that book, for which she got much grief from reviewers and readers, even from women she’d once counted as friends, was a passage in which she theorizes about the problems of marriage, although she was not herself a
married woman. But Fuller’s disinterested perspective on marriage, her “I,” was what allowed her to point out that “in the majority of instances, the man looks upon his wife as an adopted child.” It took “intellectual courage,” in the same book, simply to write: “Woman can express publicly the fullness of thought and creation, without losing any of the peculiar beauty of her sex.”
Fuller wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, but she died halfway through that 100-year span. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, born in 1804, lived almost ninety years, until 1894. The narrative that inspired her as a child, was one she’d “self-created,” as she later said. As a girl she listened to her mother’s stories of the family’s pilgrim ancestors. The little girl mis-heard her mother to say “Ann sisters”–she thought she was descended from a hardy race of women. And Elizabeth Peabody was frequently frustrated by the women she encountered in real life who didn’t share her own enterprising spirit. As a teenager attending women’s Bible study groups led by Rev. William Ellery Channing, she was appalled that no one spoke up. Later she would support herself by teaching college-level history classes for women, encouraging them to form opinions and speak their minds, the precursor of the famous “Conversations” that Margaret Fuller led in the 1840s.
Education was a lifelong interest, and Peabody ran what we might call progressive schools today, organized on principles of Socratic dialogue rather than rote learning. Later she was America’s foremost exponent of the kindergarten movement. But as a writer, Peabody didn’t have a “mountainous ME” like Fuller, rather the opposite. Her memoir has to be extracted from a book she published late in life called The Reminiscences of Rev. William Ellery Channing, which happens also to include accounts of Peabody’s own work as a teacher, as proprietor of a Boston foreign language bookshop where the Transcendentalists met, as publisher of their journal The Dial, as promoter of the group’s utopian community Brook Farm.
So–two different 19th-century New England women, two approaches to personal
narrative. Maybe we’ll consider in our discussion tonight whether it is a particularly useful practice for women, in a patriarchal intellectual climate, to turn to narrative, first-person testimony, as a means of establishing authority when no credentials can be had, and of conveying ideas from a vantage point of relative powerlessness.
Because the theme about this conference is narrative, I would like to start with the topic of the narratives I am revising about my subject, Jane Addams, a leader of the settlement house movement and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The narrative most people know is that she was a philanthropist who cared about the poor; the image they have is of a sentimental, naïve do gooder. It is obvious why this narrative has dominated both academic and popular impressions of her: it fit the gendered stereotypes about an admired woman. Those stereotypes have less dominance now, but the portrait established in print lingers forever. This is especially true in Jane Addams’s case. My new biography of Addams, published in 2010, is the first full life written in thirty-seven years.
The narrative most people don’t know is that she was a labor activist, a major political figure, a feminist, a radical visionary and a public intellectual
In these remarks, I will focus on the last three of these.
Addams called herself a feminist and by that she meant she supported women’s rights. In fact, nearly her entire reform agenda was shaped by that commitment. She was seeking to empower women not only when she worked on women’s suffrage and women’s trade union organizing but also when she worked on general labor and immigrant legislation and free speech. In 1915, she became the founding president of the Woman’s Peace Party and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and both of these groups’ platforms were about women’s rights as much as they were about peace. And she had incisive observations to make about the patriarchy.
Addams did not come across to most people as a radical visionary and for good reasons. In politics, she believed in seeking “the best possible” and while her vision for society’s future was radical, she was very skilled at presenting these ideas gently, sort of easing them into people’s minds. However, when you read her work, you s come across fierce sentences that show the radical thinking that behind her positions.
For example, in her famous speech about the Pullman Strike, “A Modern Lear,” she wrote, “Nothing will satisfy the aroused conscience of men short of the complete participation of the working classes in the spiritual, intellectual and material inheritance of the human race.”
And in a commencement speech she gave at a woman’s college in 1895, she rebutted the traditional view of women’s superior moral purity: “Women have not made politics impure, have not corrupted legislatures and wrecked railroads, only because they have not had the opportunity to do so. They have been chained down by a military code whose penalty [for violation] is far worse than the court martial.”
A MAJOR PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
To illustrate Addams’ standing as a public intellectual, let me discuss Addams’s thinking about two ideas central to her thought: democracy and militarism. She wrote a book about each.
Her book about democracy, Democracy and Social Ethics, was published in 1902 when she was 42. It was her first book and was developed out of a series of lectures she gave at several universities.
The way she presented her ideas were characteristic. The book’s apparent argument, captured in chapters about different types of hierarchical personal relationships, is that the ethic of benevolence was becoming old-fashioned. The introduction discusses democracy opaquely; otherwise, the words democracy and democratic are scattered across each chapter as rare passing references. The effect is of a woven tapestry, rather than a linear argument.
In her second book, about militarism, she does something similar. This book, too, is a collection of lectures. Entitled Newer Ideals of Peace, it was published in early 1907, when she was 46.
Despite the title, the book’s apparent argument is about the dangers of militarism. Her original contribution is the meaning she assigns the term. Like Herbert Spencer, she thought militarism was a worldview, but to Spencer it meant barbarism while to her it meant the belief that one group of people was superior to another group, and were willing to use almost any means, including force, to establish and maintain that superiority.
Most of the chapters were either about how militarism influenced city governments in the United States or about how militarism undercut efforts to achieve legislation on behalf of working adults and working children. Yet throughout the book she is also writing about the underlying attitudes that make war possible.
Her other point, strung across the book in passing references, was that the ethic of humanitarianism, the anti-militarist ethic, was spreading around the world and would eventually make war impossible. But by humanitarianism she did not mean having a kindly, helpful attitude towards those who suffered; she meant an ideal that fully honored the “great reservoirs of human ability” of those usually seen as inferior.
Addams can be fairly charged with avoiding linear logic in Newer Ideals. And others noticed. Some did not like it. Her friend George Herbert Mead, the sociologist, wrote, “One does not feel, in reading Miss Addams, the advance of an argument with measured tread.” But William James loved the way she made her case. After reading Newer Ideals he wrote to her that he found it “hard to express the good the book has done me in offering new view points and annihilating old ones. Yours is a deeply original mind and all so quiet and harmless! Yet revolutionary in the extreme.” I think that James, as usual, nailed it.
As you can see from what I have said, studying Addams’s ideas is not a straightforward matter. At times you wish she had made her arguments with what Mead called a “measured tread,” but more often you are grateful that she did not. She loved mystery, and she creates just enough of it on the page to make studying her a great deal of fun.
That said, the way she communicated her ideas — as William James said, so quietly and harmlessly — has probably contributed to her failure to attract much serious intellectual scholarship until recently. I can report, however, that prodded by several women scholars, philosophy has embraced Addams’s ideas as worthy of close study. It is my hope that the intellectual historians are not far behind.
On Boundary-Crossing and Women of Color Intellectuals
In keeping with the theme of the conference, the story I offer up here is a story of narratives that don’t “fit” — or perhaps more precisely of the ways in which our predominant narratives about intellectual traditions are shaped by the critical boundaries, disciplinary norms, and aesthetic value-systems we have inherited, sometimes unthinkingly. It is also a story about boundary-crossers, women who themselves did not fit and who paid the price, both in terms of their careers and in terms of their legacies. I refer to the three subjects of my first book, Native Speakers, which focuses on the ethnographic and literary work of African American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Sioux ethnologist Ella Cara Deloria, and Texas-Mexican folklorist Jovita González Mireles, all of whom were highly visible, even celebrated, figures in some of the most important intellectual and social movements of the early 20th century, including the Boasian revolution in social sciences, the popularization of folklore studies, and the various ethnic renaissance movements that emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century. Notwithstanding their high profiles in the 1930s and 1940s, these women were largely invisible by the late 1960s, when new cultural and scholarly currents might well have recuperated their legacies. So this is a story, too, of invisibility, and the ways in which the dominant disciplinary and conceptual frames that we use to categorize the past (even counter-hegemonic frames like feminist and ethnic nationalist optics) make capturing narratives that don’t fit all the more difficult.
Deloria, Hurston, and González came of age at a time in the early 20th century when interest in the other was at an all time high. Each capitalized on this interest, becoming celebrated spokeswomen for their communties and engaging in the scholarly and political currents of their time at a very high level. Ella Deloria worked closely with anthropologist Franz Boas, and later, after his death, with Ruth Benedict. For her own part, Hurston had a more contentious relationship with Boas, but she also worked with Benedict and perhaps more felicitously with Melville Herskovits, eventually finding her true home as a folklorist and Harlem Rennaissance writer. Jovita González, though less famous than Hurston, made quite a reputation for herself as a writer and folklorist in Texas, where as a student of J. Frank Dobie, the great white father of Texas Folklore Studies, she rose to become the presdient of the Texas Folklore Society in the early 1930s. While Deloria, Hurston, and González produced innovative ethnographic accounts of their own communities and rose to prominence within the related fields of ethnology and folklore studies, they also turned away from ethnographic meaning making at key junctures in their careers, and explored the realm of storytelling through vivid mixed-genre novels centered on the lives of women. Hurston’s novels, especially Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), are the most celebrated of the crossover works by these women, but Ella Deloria’s ethnographic novel Waterlily (published in 1988), and Jovita Gonzalez’s co-authored historical novel Caballero (1992), are, like Hurston’s work, vivid articulations of ethnographic and historical research in a different voice. This turn to the literary is not as suprising as it might seem. Indeed, as I argue in my book, it was the turn from “science“ to “fiction“ that enabled Deloria, Hurston and González to activate a feminist imaginary that was simply not possible in the social scientific writing of the 1930s, a mode of discourse that was still very much keyed to the self/other approach to “difference” of Objectivism. Unlike ethnographic narratives in which difference is described and delineated by a putatively distanced observer, literary works enable difference to articulate itself from a position of representational centrality. Which is to say that in Hurston, Deloria, and González‘s novels, difference is the authority and not the object. This boundary crossing, and this keying in to the “voice” of difference, through the mobilization of multiple registers of narrative practice, was for me the primary rationale for bringing these three very disparate intellectuals together.
Native feminist Paula Gunn Allen has argued that women of color intellectuals like Deloria, Hurston, and González have been“disappeared“ from our intellectual imaginary because the “border texts” that they produce in their strategic travels in and between different sites of struggle challenge the disciplinary, aesthetic, and ideological norms of both dominant and counter-hegemonic canons. Hurston, Deloria and González’s “ethnographic novels” offer particularly striking examples of the ways in which border texts surpass the disciplinary and ideological frameworks that constitute canons. Indeed, it is likely that their work remained invisible for so many years, precisely because as both formal experiments and ideological artifacts, they tested the conventional disciplinary and conceptual boundaries of the very institutional formations within which they might have found a home. Too literary to be considered credible “ethnographic texts” and too wedded to realism to conform to the aesthetic norms of literary modernism, Deloria, González and Hurston’s ethnographic novels were exiled from both the history of anthropology and normative accounts of early twentieth century high modernism.
Until relatively recently, the prospect of recuperating Waterlily, Caballero, and Their Eyes Were Watching Godwithin either “ethnic” or “feminist” literary canons seemed tenuous as well. Critical approaches to literary studies that arose in the 1960s alongside the establishment of Ethnic Studies programs generally ignored gender in their analyses of resistance narratives, and all too often relied on a binaric understanding of “resistance” and “opposition” that erased the complex and sometimes contradictory discursive and political locations of women of color. It’s worth noting that although Their Eyes Were Watching God was published to some critical acclaim in 1937 (the only one of these novels to be published during its author’s lifetime), the tepid and sometimes hostile reviews it received from the African American intelligentsia consigned the novel to a kind of literary purgatory out of which it did not emerge until Alice Walker and other Black feminists rescued it from the canonical margins in the 1970s. On the other hand, mainstream Anglo-feminist critical approaches emerging in the 1960s and 1970s all to often located “oppression” and “resistance” along an exclusively gendered axis, ignoring the effects of colonialism and racism on the lives of women of color. Waterlily, Caballero and Their Eyes Were Watching God challenge both the feminist and the ethnic nationalist ideological frameworks because they refuse oppositional binaries that center on either race or gender and thus undermine conventional notions of “resistance.” While each undoubtedly illuminates difference–ethnic, racial or tribal–this illumination is complicated by a simultaneous attention to another order of difference, namely gender. And though gendered experience is central to each of these novels, they do not follow the common emancipatory scripts that we have come to desire from early 20th century “feminist” literature.
Deloria, Hurston and González’s body of work defies easy disciplinary and ideological categorization, and therefore, to a certain extent, it also defies recuperation, but only if we allow ourselves to remain bounded by the categories and borders that have, until very recently, relegated their substantial contributions to the margins of intellectual history. Reflecting on my own recuperation of Deloria, Hurston and González’s work, I realize now that my approach to visibilizing their work was not simply a function of my political commitments to intersectionality and women of color feminism, but also a strategic response to the “slipperiness” of their interventions. Put another way, their work forced me to adopt their boundary-crossing ways, and articulate my own “border text”: an intellectual history situated in the borderlands between conventional accounts of anthropology, literature, women’s history, and African American, Mexican American and Native American intellectual genealogies. In this sense, Deloria, Hurston and González reached across the divide of generations to shape their own history in my hand.
Perhaps the most dangerous border to cross for a scholar committed to the careful analysis of the past is the one that divides our theories about the world that has gone before us from the artifacts that give testimony to that world. To be sure, we construct our narratives about the past from these artifacts, but all to often, we approach them as evidence of the world as we already imagine it—a world organized in and through the boundaries of sense-making into discrete and recognizable units: quasi-familial “circles of influence”, canons, traditions and schools of thought that in their very boundedness cannot capture, much less incorporate, articulations of reality that stand outside of their logics like a kind of excess. But this “excess”, if we are open to its own sense-making logic, can reveal new networks of knowing, and new terrains of consciousness that are perhaps incipient, but nevertheless present in the past.