When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think about it—so I write essays. But I also, frequently, want to know what others think about the same idea. If I think enough people might be interested, I try to edit a collection of essays. Editors don’t talk to each other that often. There are organizations of writers, but editors are strewn about, having occasional conversations that are rarely recorded. For this series of dialogues, I’ve tried to gather some editors of nonfiction anthologies to talk together. I fed them a few questions, which they’ve responded to or not. Their conversations are as interesting, as lively, as their anthologies.
This is a discussion with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow on the anthology The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, which they co-edited. This anthology was first published in 1998 by Three Rivers/ Crown Publishing Group. It was subsequently republished with a new preface by Rutgers University Press in 2007 and remains in print.
David Lazar: To what extent do you think anthologizing is a radical act, or can be, and to what extent might it be conservative, the impulse to preserve? Can you speak to these impulses or tensions?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: This anthology had several serious goals. The goals were radical and conservatizing (preservation-oriented)—not conservative at all, except perhaps in an old definition (putting up preserves). The goals of The Feminist Memoir Project were historical, political and insistent. We wanted to collect original essays by women who had (often in their 20s and 30s) played serious roles in the burgeoning women’s movement: as instigators, partisans, activists, thinkers and doers. We wanted them to record their activist efforts and convictions, to discuss their activities with other women, and to reflect on their entrance into the women’s movement—including second-thoughts, problems and analyses. This was a movement that our contributors were (in various ways) creating suddenly and compellingly beginning around 1966. We thought some personal-history writing and presentation would help to counteract some of the erasure of this multifarious and serious achievement, an erasure that was already being experienced, and that has become quite extreme over the past decades (since about 2000). We wanted our contributors to reflect on what they had done, and to count some of the costs and the benefits of this enormous upsurge of social struggle. The goal was to document, in people’s own words, their grassroots activism.
We chose women from across the U.S. (although some regions were not fully represented). We chose some women who were well-known, but many just ordinary people catapulted into activism. We tried to cover the long march through various professions (although a number or our contributors were writers and journalists). Why did we embark on this in the early 90s? We were afraid that these stories would be lost. There was already a fraying and a forgetting, a disparaging, and a negating of the women’s movement. And therefore we wanted women themselves to speak as best they could about the convictions and backgrounds that led them to their activism (helping to instigate the anti-Miss America pageant demonstrations; struggling with marriage and career; demonstrating and gaining expertise on issues of women’s health—many activist sites are represented in the book).
DL: Do you see your role as anthologist as transparent or abundant; when someone picks up your anthologized volume, is your presence generous or minimal?
RBD: We have written two introductions (the original and an updated preface)—so our editorial voices framing our desires for this material are palpable—and passionate. One of the unusual features of this anthology is a set of shorter response essays at the end of the volume (ones not mincing words, and not avoiding controversy) by other feminists who read through this volume before it was published, and added their reflections and responses. This dialogue and continuation could only be symbolic. Obviously not everyone could respond to everyone, as one might do now on a listserv, but it was exemplary. It said that these stories and reflections continued. It said controversies and irritations were part of political struggle. And it said that historical and personal interpreting of significant events in which one has participated is on-going and compelling. We wanted to avoid closure, by putting these readings inside the book itself. Again, in this original format—creating a ripple effect with response essays—the aesthetic and ethical presence of the editors is palpable.
Ann Snitow: The question of editorial intrusion used to vex us. We talked a lot about whether or not these essays we were dragging out of people should be viewed as primary or secondary historical sources. We never resolved this beyond judging that these pieces were a messy amalgam of both, and that, further, we had sometimes intervened, begged for changes or amplifications. Our hand is here and there, and the essays are both raw and cooked. These writers were remembering their early movement activity at a distance of 20 years, and some of their stories were already shaped, already entering the condition of myth. We were choosing to discuss with them how their essays could tell us more. We hope without too heavy a hand.
DL: To what extent is the volume, or have the volumes, you have edited, stayed close to the idea you originally envisioned for the anthology? Did it or they evolve?
RDB: The main issue was choice of persons (activist women) and limitations around that choice. There were definitely people, issues and strands of the movement (or struggles) that we fervently wanted to have included (and repeatedly asked for or inquired about). Some people were too busy; some immersed in overwhelming life issues (nursing the dying, mental-health crises); some did not want to participate or somehow could not. There were also our struggles around choice—wanting a broad representation, yet never wanting to make the anthology “representative” in any narrow view of what that might mean. We dreamed that this anthology would spark a whole library of parallel volumes. Even now, it is something that no one has repeated in the same form. We also had a high ideal for both statement and long-term reflection upon any person’s activism; we wanted our writers to become essayists.
AS: We wanted people to remember and to reflect. This second goal turned out to be harder. People were struggling to keep that earlier moment fresh at a time when it was all being forgotten. The collection recreates that earlier time to an astonishing degree. We were proud of this. But we worried that a reader might take away that the beginning of the second wave was a sealed off episode, a past that must not be interrogated because so many others were attacking feminism in a full-fledged backlash. Our writers didn’t criticize themselves as much as we thought they would (of course there are exceptions), because their past was already so fragile in popular memory that one more doubt might have made it all fly away for good. We wrote in the original introduction: “We intend no elegy.”
DL: Most anthologies have somewhat limited shelf lives—some rather short, some longer. The influence they have is not necessarily commensurate with the length of time the anthology stays in print. What did you most want from your anthology(ies)? To keep work in print, or to influence a discussion, or the literary zeitgeist, or some balance therein?
RBD: This was never going to be a literary anthology, although we wanted it to be aesthetically interesting. It was an intervention into a history that has yet to be written. We wanted to influence a discussion, to jump-start feminist activism (a super-goal, but not one that easy to achieve). We wanted people not to forget, and to use these women’s reflections and struggles as a launching pad for others. The book has had a good shelf life as an anthology used in courses about the 1960s, about feminism and about the women’s movement.
AS: Shelf life! Do readers know how little survives of what first-wave feminists were thinking and doing? The too few words those earlier feminists produced have been combed over by current feminist generations, the few essays picked apart for what they can tell us. I had a dream as we were finishing the book that I was climbing a high ladder in a dusty library. I heaved our heavy book onto a top shelf and said to it: Sit there. Your readers will find you later. The readers who will need this book the most haven’t been born. Good luck to them and to the future meaning of books in their time of new media and global warming.
Recent publications by poet-critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis are Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry and Surge: Drafts 96-114. Surge is the last book of DuPlessis’ long poem project Drafts, begun in 1986. She has published six critical books on modernism and gender analyses, including The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice and Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. Among her four edited volumes is The Selected Letters of George Oppen. She has been awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a residency for poetry at Bellagio, and has held an appointment at the National Humanities Center. Her work in poetry and criticism has been translated into French, Italian and Spanish. DuPlessis is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University.
Ann Snitow, Associate Professor of Literature and Gender Studies at The New School for Social Research, has been a feminist activist since l969, when she was a founding member of New York Radical Feminists. She is co-editor of Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality and of The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women¹s Liberation. Her essay collection The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary is forthcoming from Duke University Press. She has written germinal articles about feminism, and is currently Director of the Gender Studies Program at The New School. A co-founder of the Network of East-West Women (NEWW), her most recent writing and political work is about the changing situation of women in Eastern Europe, where she has been teaching and lecturing for 22 years.