Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Future of Feminist Theory and Eighteenth-Century Studies

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Future of Feminist Theory and Eighteenth-Century Studies

Article excerpt

For the sake of providing some historical context with respect to the topic of this special issue, "The Future of Feminist Theory in Eighteenth-Century Studies" - let me begin by pointing out that, for those of us who entered the profession in the 1970s, as I did, the future is now.1 And I would like to affirm a truth with which I am confident few would disagree: that feminisms and feminist theory are alive and well at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), and that in the last three decades they have transformed the field - as they have the humanities and the academy in general - in profound and irreversible ways.

In the 1970s, as you can imagine, eighteenth-century studies was not exactly a stronghold of feminist theory. I am not sure how many would consider it a stronghold of feminist theory now. But I must say that as I was reviewing the breadth and depth of recent feminist scholarship in the field in preparation for this essay, I was dazzled by the wealth of vibrant, interesting, and challenging work that has been published just since the turn of the twenty-first century - some of it by the contributors to this special issue.

Those of us setting out to do feminist work in eighteenth-century studies three decades ago had the energy that came with a sense of vocation and engagement in a young and heady cause, but we had nothing like the current abundance of stimulating feminist scholarship on which to draw. A visit to the ASECS web site plainly shows, moreover, that changes in the field since the emergence of feminism's second wave have been institutional as well as intellectual. In addition to conference programs brimming with sessions on women and gender, one encounters there the following bit of organizational history: while there was not a single female president of the society during the first ten years of its existence (from 1969-1979), seven of the last ten ASECS presidents have been women (that is, since 1998).2

The case I would like to make here is that, at this point in time, feminist theory and eighteenth-century studies have a mutually constitutive relation to one another - that, in some sense, the one doesn't exist (or to echo a phrase of Luce Irigaray's, "the one doesn't stir") without the other.3

It is not just that modern liberal feminism emerged in the long eighteenth century with the work of Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others (though that is certainly an important part of the story). It is also that you cannot have feminist theory that is nuanced, intersectional, and able to think beyond heteronormative structures of identity without a deep understanding of its Enlightenment legacies - both positive and negative; without, that is, an understanding of feminism's own roots in an emerging modernity shaped by a range of class, national, and imperial projects and the various emancipatory movements that were bound up with them.

As feminist scholars from Mary Poovey to Felicity Nussbaum have maintained, liberal feminism betrays its bourgeois origins in a range of internal conflicts and ideological contradictions. Wollstonecraft's individualism constrains her critique of marriage as an institution; her appropriation of Enlightenment reason for women sometimes leads to her bracketing of the body (or of female homoeroticism) along class lines, or to her displacement of unruly eroticism onto women of other races and other cultures.4

The long eighteenth century represents an extraordinarily complex and heterogeneous moment for women in Europe and its colonies. A period of intense socio-cultural transformation, it witnessed the shifts in class and kinship structures that produced the modern nuclear family, and it saw the consolidation of modern gender ideologies. Occurring within the broader geopolitical context of burgeoning commercial and imperial expansion, these developments had effects on women that were profound and varied across class, national, and racial divides. …

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