Teaching Women's Organizing and the Women's Movement: The Question of Arts and Culture within Feminism

Article excerpt

In sum, for one who loves it, culture will always be more free, more complex and more mysterious than any political or historical reflection on it.

- Dacia Maraini

Introduction

The main question addressed in this article is quite simple. How did we come to marginalize the influence of arts and culture within feminism? Why did we dismiss the political dimensions of arts and culture as a means of enhancing feminist political struggles? I do not pretend to have a definitive response to this intriguing problem. My contribution is more modest since my academic background is distant from arts and culture. I am a social scientist and my research and teaching interests are the women's movement and social movements. I also study the relation between the state and civil society, public policies in the areas of health and social services but most importantly, I am interested in the dynamic of feminist discourse formation within the women's movement. My question originates from this last aspect - feminist discourse formation.

For the purpose of this article, I choose to place this problem within the context of teaching the women's movement to Women's Studies students: its development, its emergence and recurrence in contemporary society; the mapping of its grass roots organizations within localized communities; the synergy and connections with all of its segments and with other social movements. Women's Studies is interdisciplinary. The fact that there is no human activity that escapes its questioning creates the strengths of Women's Studies as well as its weaknesses: all human activities cannot be integrated in each and every Women's Studies course. Moreover, it is one thing to say that most, if not all Women's Studies programs should bridge the gap between the social sciences and humanities, it is quite another to teach Women's Studies courses with all disciplinary expertise and scholarship in mind. What interests me most in this debate is not exactly what is at the centre of a movement - its dominant discourses and practices - but what is absent or rather what is not there but whose traces and influence are felt nonetheless.

Indeed, instead of political arts and culture, I could suggest other questions more related to my field such as, "Why is it that we are more likely to retain the feminist liberal theoretical frame, among all political theories of the state, when it comes time to assess the gains and achievements of women and feminism within the political sphere?",' or "Why did we forget the importance of other social and economic issues as well as political organizing around race and class during most of the 19th and the 20th century?" "Is it because those issues were fought within different political terrains (the work place, the family, the neighbourhood), than the terrain of mainstream politics; is it because these struggles were led by different feminist actors with different feminist theories (Marxism, socialism, anarchism)?" Within feminism, there is a discursive centre which has a strong tendency to forget that without the presence and action of what gravitates around its margins, this centre simply will not be.

There is an advantage in trying to answer the last series of questions: the way they are phrased links them to the kind of problems the social sciences - my discipline - are dealing with. That does not mean that social scientists are dealing with them on a regular basis. However, I want to focus this article on the issue of political arts and culture and the place they occupy within the women's movement as well as Women's Studies teaching. The divide between the social sciences and humanities - one may suggest - can perhaps be resolved by asking social scientists to recognize that arts and culture, and most importantly their political dimensions, are integral parts of the women's movement and social movements or by demanding that specialists in the Humanities recognize that, after all, feminist organizations specializing in feminist artistic performances and other cultural events exist with the purpose of achieving social change. …