"Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History

"Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History

"Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History

"Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History

Synopsis

"Writing about changes in the notion of womanhood, Denise Riley examines, in the manner of Foucault, shifting historical constructions of the category of women in relation to other categories central to concepts of personhood: the soul, the mind, the body, nature, the social. Feminist movements, Riley argues, have had no choice but to play out this indeterminacy of women. This is made plain in their oscillations, since the 1790s, between concepts of equality and of difference. To fully recognize the ambiguity of the category of women is, she contends, a necessary condition for an effective feminist political philosophy." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Desdemona: Am I that name, Iago?

Iago: What name, fair lady?

Desdemona: Such as she says my lord did say I was.

(William Shakespeare, Othello,
Act IV, Scene II, 1622)

The black abolitionist and freed slave, Sojourner Truth, spoke out at the Akron convention in 1851, and named her own toughness in a famous peroration against the notion of woman's disqualifying frailty. She rested her case on her refrain 'Ain't I a woman?' It's my hope to persuade readers that a new Sojourner Truth might wellexcept for the catastrophic loss of grace in the wording – issue another plea: 'Ain't I a fluctuating identity?' For both a concentration on and a refusal of the identity of 'women' are essential to feminism. This its history makes plain.

The volatility of 'woman' has indeed been debated from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory; her fictive status has been proposed by some Lacanian work, while it has been argued that, on the other hand, sexual identities are ultimately firmly secured by psychoanalysis. From the side of deconstruction, Derrida among others has advanced what he calls the 'undecidability' of woman. I want to sidestep these debates to move to the ground of historical construction, including the history of feminism itself, and suggest that not only 'woman' but also 'women' is troublesome – and that this extension of our suspicions is in the interest of feminism. That we can't bracket off either Woman, whose capital letter has long alerted us to her dangers, or the more modest lower-case 'woman', while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent-sounding 'women'.

This 'women' is not only an inert and sensible collective; the dominion of fictions has a wider sway than that. The extent of its reign can be partly revealed by looking at the crystallisations of 'women' as a category. To put it schematically: 'women' is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other . . .

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