On Thursday, September 21st, GSF kicked off a new series, “Gender Studies Then,” which will mark two anniversaries: the roughly half-century since the start of the field of Women’s Studies and the 40th anniversary of Duke’s program. The event, “A 1970s Salon,” invited a dozen faculty from several departments to a conversation about feminist texts from “the long 1970s” that held meaning for them in some way. The speakers explained their affiliations to their chosen texts: while in some cases, the piece was a formative spark at the start of their academic careers, many offered critical takes on the work as well. Kathi Weeks (GSF) recognized the prescient and flawed nature of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Considering Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly, Robyn Wiegman (Literature, GSF) raised the idea that some texts became “unrecuperable objects” after trenchant critiques cause us to “cringe” at their now-controversial political views.
The texts presented spanned two continents and various forms. There were works of fiction and manifestos -- and interestingly, no primarily academic text. Professor Ásta (Philosophy) raised the Women’s Strike in Reykjavik on October 24, 1975, where a choral group, the Icelandic Redstockings, sang a cabaret song with feminist lyrics. Taylor Black (English) also considered music, with an interpretation of the content and style of Joan Armatrading’s iconic song, “Down to Zero.” Another highlight of the evening was the presentation by the curator of women’s, gender, and sexuality history in the Rubenstein Library, Laura Micham. Micham presented the multiple lives of “The BITCH Manifesto”, including its first appearance as an entry in a 1970 movement anthology, a copy of the Know Inc. edition of the manifesto, and a zine that reprinted the text in the 1990s, all housed in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. The salon’s discussion was informed not only by the texts themselves but also by the emotional responses of those familiar with the chosen works. Through a hybrid between academic symposium and group therapy, speakers grappled with their own affinities with and misgivings about works that have been central in their careers as feminist thinkers.
Two faculty who have just arrived at Duke presented. Christina Léon (Literature), who spoke about Cherríe Moraga’s account of her mother in "La Güera,” and Emily Rogers (Cultural Anthropology), considered the significance of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals for feminist thought about disability. From GSF, Nikki Lane and Anna Storti each considered provocative works by lesbian authors of the period, Cheryl Clarke’s “Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance” and Rita Mae Brown’s popular novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (a title, Storti noted, that became a popular name for lesbian bars).
The question and conversation portion of the event continued to explore a range of relations to these works and feminist thought from the era. Expressing familiarity with canonical Asian feminist texts, one member of the audience remarked that the conversation left them feeling woefully unaware and almost inadequate in their understanding of American feminisms. Others, like Toril Moi (Literature, Romance) noted the overwhelming American origins of the texts in the space: she presented on a foundational text for Norwegian feminists that had been written by a politician. The conversation spanned genres, backgrounds, points of entry into feminism or Gender Studies, which allowed for perspectives that remained conscious of contradiction, exceptions, and positionalities. This conversation was only the first in what will be a year-long series of Gender Studies Then events.