Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review: Passionate Politics

[Charlotte Bunch. Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.]

Charlotte Bunch is a middle-class white lesbian woman who was a prominent organizer and theorist in the heart of the second wave of women's liberation in the United States, and who remains active and vocal today. She came out of a radical Christian space, and was involved in the civil rights movement and in opposing the U.S. invasion of Vietnam before feminism burst on the scene and into her life. Soon after that transformational event, she came out as a lesbian and was active in doing and theorizing separatist lesbian-feminist politics during the height of the gay-straight split in the U.S. women's movement. She went on to be very active in feminist media production and in what she termed "global feminism," or the building of bridges among feminists around the world.

The book is a collection of her writings from her entry into the women's movement until 1986. I read this book for two reasons. The first is that the chapter I am pretty much done rewriting is about two gay liberation activists. Bunch did some important early writing about heterosexism, and someone pointed me towards her as a source to flesh out what I had written on the subject. (A useful device she used in encouraging hetero women to think about heterosexism was to get them to be lesbians for a week, in fact or at least as a thought experiment -- to go around only with women, tell your friends and family that you are a lesbian, and so on, and see how life was different.) The other reason I read this was that two or three chapters I hope to get to sometime next year involve activists from the Canadian women's movement. One important aspect of doing justice to the words and work and lives of the people I have interviewed is not only amassing a suitable collection of relevant facts, but also developing a sense of the feel of the times and movements in which they were active. Though Bunch is from the U.S., it is my sense that there were enough similarities in the women's movement in North America across the diverse physical locations where it blossomed that her writing will be useful in helping me develop that qualitative sense of what it was like.

As is so often the case, I found much more in the book that was interesting and useful, even if not directly applicable to my work. First of all, it succeeds admirably in conveying something of the spirit of the time over which its essays were written. As well, it is useful for understanding some of the more material aspects of the history of the U.S. women's movement as well, and the various stages through which it passed in those years. It is particularly poignant to read some of the things Bunch wrote early in the Reagan era, and how spectacularly unsuccessful the women's movement and other progressive movements in the United States have been at turning back the offensive of the New Right that was already horrifying to her in the early '80s. Perhaps less visible but even more disturbing is how the changes in material conditions brought about by a quarter century of victories for the right (including, for the most part, during the Clinton presidency) is how it has taken the radical edge off of so much of the activities and rhetoric by the women's movement and other movements in the United States.

Different essays in the book also tackle questions relevant to many different movements in many different eras. There is attention to social movement pedagogy, for example, and to the building of media institutions that are related to or integrated into social movements. As well, she wrestles with important questions about the value, in certain circumstances, of splitting from a movement that you previously saw as being your home, of building movements across divides of power and privilege, and of allying with other movements. I found material of that sort to be particularly interesting, because her quite radical flavour of feminism and her experiences of opprsesion as a lesbian within the women's movement provided her with an early and powerful sensitivity to the category of "woman" not being monolithic. Over the time period covered by the essays, as she moves into her focus on global feminism, you can see this understanding expand and become more sophisticated. At the same time, when read from a basis of anti-oppression politics in the early 21st century, her writings in this area are a real mix -- sometimes it feels like she really hits the nail on the head, but at other times (often in the same essay) it reads lilke the same problematic sorts of things that most white or otherwise privileged progrsesives would have been writing back then and that they/we write in the blogosphere today. She'll say some great stuff, then seamlessly transition into the depoliticizing concepts/language of "diversity". She'll talk about the importance of not just adding token representatives of excluded groups to whatever movement is under consideration but actually being proactive about being changed by the politics of the heretofor excluded group, and then she'll write about unity of feminist women across lines of race, class, and nationality as almost a given rather than a social accomplishment that comes only from hard political work and a commitment to undermine their own power to dominate by privileged women.

The book also helped me understand a particular way that I have read and heard feminist women, particularly of Bunch's generation, use the word "feminism" and "feminist," which has previously somewhat puzzled me because it does not reflect any social reality that I have seen or that I have heard about from feminist women of my own generation, or how most of them use those words. I'm not sure I can capture exactly what I mean, but it has to do with assumptions of unity and political cohesion that really were reflections of the more energized and movement-y movement of that era (as well as being indicative, at least to a certain extent, of exclusions from and marginalization within that movement).

The later essays also began to take on a particular flavour, to reflect a particular tone that I associate specifically with the political culture in the United States. Again, I'm having trouble defining it, but I think it is peraps a reflection of the loss (at least in white communities) after the 1970s of much of a social base for any non-right politics not infused with liberalism, unless you wanted to be totally marginal. And I hesitate to say those things, because they are quite harsh words and I'm not sure I mean them -- to whatever extent they are true, it is important that they are not meant to be understood as reflecting personal failings but rather material changes in political realities.

Given the limited time and space that most people have in their lives to read about social movements, this might not be the number one book I would recommend coming out of the second wave of the women's movement. However, for particular people with particular interests, it is very useful. Specifically, I would recommend it to people looking to understand the development of that particular movement in North America. As well, I think it contains useful reflections grounded in actual movement building on important questions that continue to plague social movements, and readnig this could certainly be part of a deliberate program of attempting to learn from the successes and mistakes of our elders.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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