Women's History Has Many Points of View
With the question "who gets to write history?" at its center, RE/VISIONIST is an online publication started by a handful of graduate students at Sarah Lawrence College who study women's history. Many historians push to catalog the discipline of history as a pure science, but this group is instead interested in critiquing the supposed objectivity of their discipline, and giving credence to subjective perspectives. Even more, the editors aim to analyze history through the lens of multiple feminisms. I opened a dialogue with one of the editors of RE/VISIONIST, and in true feminist style, she responded to my questions by conducting a roundtable discussion amongst the staff.
How did RE/VISIONIST come about?
Thea Michailides: Sarah Lawrence has a creative, vocal, and lively undergraduate community but—outside of the writing program—there really wasn't a space for graduate students to exchange ideas and feature our work. Roz's idea of establishing a blog or online journal gave us the opportunity to put what we were learning in the classroom to practical use.
Roz Hunter: As students, RE/VISIONIST offers us the opportunity to use an historical lens to examine contemporary issues and serves as an outlet to discuss how gender plays out today. We come from a multitude of educational backgrounds—including Women's Studies, Anthropology, English Literature, Political Science, and Fine Arts—and we aim for an interdisciplinary approach to current events.
Kate Wadkins: I find myself surrounded by a lot of entrepreneurial women who are pursuing their dreams of creative and scholarly work. For a long time, I wished I had access to some kind of publication to pull all this work together. RE/VISIONIST provides a resource for feminist voices.
What pnline spaces embody aspects of what you are trying to achieve?
Nydia Swaby: Racialicious is definitely an example of the kind of work we want to be doing. I also like Paradigm Shift; their tag line—"Use the 'F' word. Discuss. Evolve. Grow with Us. Change NYC. Change the World."—made me feel powerful, and I really enjoy their blog. Equal Writes, which was started by a group of students at Princeton, aims to do something similar to the work we do in saying that Feminism is not a dirty word.
Your publication features issues you see as absent from the larger discourse on women or feminism. How are you attempting to revise, revisit, or re-imagine the historical and contemporary issues you write about?
Nydia: We are reclaiming the notion of revising history not because we want to erase the things that happened in the past, but because we want to build on them. The name was inspired, in part, by a course that all first-year Women’s History Graduate students are required to take at Sarah Lawrence called "Visions/Revisions: Issues in US Women's History.”
Victoria Sollecito: Right, it was an historiography course, and it really pushed us to think about how history gets written and why and by whom and how it changes over time. So revisionist is a dirty word and feminist is a dirty word and we are both! How awesome is that? And we are using feminism as a framework for this re-visioning of history and culture and the media and politics and everything else.
Roz: The discipline of women's history aims to create a re/vision of the past and tell the stories of groups who have been written out of history books. Women's history can serve as a tool to uncover the lost social histories of remarkable individuals and groups who have been previously ignored. We believe that you cannot study history without critically analyzing the roles race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, age, and class have played, and still play, in it. We strive to make sense of the social hierarchies that have and do exist, and how complex systems of domination (whether it be male domination, racial domination, or class domination) all work together to continue to oppress and marginalize. We aim to uncover lost histories.
Nydia: I became interested in writing about Amy Ashwood Garvey because it really shocked me that she was such an integral part of the Pan-African movement (many have suggested that she was the co-founder of the United Negro Improvement Association), yet you hardly ever find references to her in history books. Writing about her work seemed fitting for RE/VISIONIST because we aim to uncover these kinds of lost histories.
Kate: An exciting discovery I had was reading an excerpt from bell hooks' Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center where she describes challenging the notion of gender-as-the-ultimate-oppression by radical women of color and their White allies as "the basis of revisionist feminist theory." Reading this crucial starting point for intersectional feminist theory as revisionist was both inspiring and solidifying for our mission.
What you think about the term feminism? Is it an important term to use, to interrogate, to dismantle, to celebrate?
Roz: Many of our staff writers and contributors are wary of the term. We do celebrate the word, but we purposely pluralize it in our mission statement. It is very common to hear (White) women criticize the younger generation for not embracing the term, but we have many reasons to reject it. Feminism has had a history of exclusion and many feminist writings, speakers, and activists have used feminism to reinforce the status quo of race and class oppression. Feminism has often meant the promotion of the rights of White women at the expense of the rights of people of color, immigrants, queers, and the poor. We recently posted a quote from Barbara Smith that articulates some of our thoughts on feminism:
Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women—as well as white economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism but merely female self-aggrandizement.
Thea: The word feminism is important to preserve even though it has the power to be both divisive and galvanizing depending on the characteristics of the audience. I see feminism as a tool for unifying women in an era that encourages individuals to focus on relationships with those who share their unique experiences of oppression along—for example—racial, ethnic, and generational lines. This tactic may aid in revealing spaces where history has been negligent, but it also undermines the potential for unity. Women need to seek appreciation for their shared experiences while learning about those that are specific to their contexts. Feminism, as a word and an idea, offers a means for describing this coalition of sorts.
How do you overcome the exclusionary aspects of academic discourse?
Victoria: We want to move away from a definition of history that restricts the writing of history to senior tenured faculty members in history departments and restricts the subjects of history to dates of battles and the lives of the presidents. It isn't that those things aren't important; it's just that we feel like a twenty-first century visual artist's reflections on gender norms and expectations about sexuality are as important as any textbook.
Kate: Pop culture has its claws on the emerging minds of youth, as well as our psychic selves, and if we don't recognize its importance, we're just limiting our critique. This is a problem that exists in history, in pop culture, and in our lived experience—hence our aim to discuss all of those arenas and not privilege one.
Thea: We cannot avoid that we are engaged in the academic world and are, therefore, privileged no matter how vigilantly we may examine our work and the work of others in RE/VISIONIST. I feel our aim should be to recognize that, even as we try to illuminate the people and experiences traditional history has overlooked, we too are a part of an elite and, as such, may perpetrate similar acts of negligence.