Why is it so difficult for feminism to sustain itself as a movement
and transmit its lessons to the next generation so that we can
build on what we have achieved in the past rather than be fated
to engage in the same battles over and over again? (1)
The term was always controversial, in part because of its
association with radicalism and in part because proponents
themselves disagreed about the label ... The term feminism has
never been widely poplar. (2)
The word feminism continues to provide a shorthand too
convenient to give up. This shows how stubborn a problem we
face. There seems to be no convenient substitute. (3)
Over the past century and before, what feminism has meant, what it might mean and who its allies are has been a complex and contradictory history. Who claims its name in current conjunctures of major events and realignments, both new and seen before, remains problematic and complex. There have been cycles of loss of memory and knowledge. The phenomenon of the failure of transmission of lessons through generations can be traced back for at least a century and, as Marx famously commented, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. Second Wave feminists in the West from the 1960s reinvented many wheels in trying to formulate a Marxist or socialist inflected activist feminism. There was a suspicion that the old projects of women's liberation were finished, irrelevant. We had to search to rediscover Alexandra Kollontai or Klara Zetkin or Inessa Armand or Sylvia (and Adela in her good phase) Pankhurst or Jean Devanny. Woolf and Beauvoir were more accessible and findable. (4) While the more 'political' texts of these writers were rarely familiar, some of us were, however, encountering these feminists and theorists through the fiction they produced. Alexandra Kollontai's Love of Worker Bees and Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth, for example, offered an introduction to political activists and theorists who, we discovered, had encountered many of the questions we were asking in the 1960s.
Thirty years before x968, Virginia Woolf had pronounced the death of the term feminism. Thinking of the early New Women whom she found old fashioned, she wrote in Three Guineas (1938) that she considered 'the old names ... futile and false. "Feminism" we have had to destroy. "The emancipation of women" is equally inexpressive and corrupt.' (5)
In Second Wave times, in 1971, we find another dismissal of feminism, in the new preface Doris Lessing wrote for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, suggesting that the concerns of feminism looked 'small and quaint' in relation to huge surrounding issues that could sweep them away. Christina Stead earlier, was another who did not want to be 'boxed' into a feminist camp. Janet Frame saw herself as becoming consciously political only late in life; after writing about her mother in her autobiography, she suggested of feminists, 'they have converted me'. (6) Yet the literary writing of all three has impacted upon the growth and development of many feminists who found the novels to be complex interventions into cultural politics; as Terry Eagleton suggests, 'culture as sign, image, meaning, value, identity, solidarity and self-expression is the very currency of political combat', (7) and the terrain of culture was one of the main battlegrounds on which we fought.
European theory's influence on anglophone feminism is complicated by its processes of importation. It is very much French theory, and a selective group, that is translated and circulated. We find Christine Delphy in the 1990s insisting that what is widely received in anglophone theory as 'French feminism' does not exist, that it is in fact 'an imperialist invention'--merely a selection of a few women who 'purge their theorisings of gender of any taint of concern with class and economics'. All influential French feminists are not of this cast, any more than they are all aligned with Psych et Po who copyrighted the name of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes back in the 1970s. …