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Abby's picture

Abigail Sayre

Intro to Critical Feminist Studies

Anne Dalke



                Although I had a truly satisfying encounter with Helene Cixous’s Laugh of the Medusa I fear that I may have been blinded by my own ecstasy.  For that which thrills and excites me in her argument is also that which irritates my very core, creating a sense of uneasiness I cannot ignore.  I believe it was when one of my classmates used the word “vulnerability” that I really began to take pause.  In the world Cixous creates: one in which women freely express, share, give, experiment and do NOT hold back, I wonder, is there room for the woman who chooses to withhold?  Is there space for women to feel vulnerable?  Is there anything valuable in an inherent vulnerability?  Perhaps I am about to take Cixous and her ideas into a territory she never imagined them inhabiting, perhaps I am taking her sexual metaphor too seriously, but with those risks in mind, I have to ask: Is it oppressive to insist that every woman be public?

                A variation of this question was raised during one of our first class meetings:  Do we as feminists have a responsibility to be public?  I’m not sure where exactly I stand but I want to explore both sides of this question.  Of course I believe that we must be heard; that as women we have to speak up for other women.  I believe that the talents, ideas and energy we possess are all indeed like powerful explosives.  And when finally lit they will do nothing less than shatter the standards of oppression that surround us.  I do, however, resist the notion that there is any one standard that women should conform to.  Just as women were formerly shut up, locked up and silenced to harness their passion, women can also be pressured quite forcefully into exposing what they are not yet ready to give. 

                My other concern is with the lovely Linda Kauffman when she asserts that to believe in the intrinsic uniqueness and value of the individual is to believe in a harmful illusion.  In the world Kauffman seems to create: one in which our personal thoughts, hopes and dreams are not as important as we might have thought, where randomness and absurdity seem to take precedent over structure and the individual does not represent the universe, where is there space for the “justice” she so boldly upholds?  She decries the “rhetoric of familialism” as being just another “staple of bourgeois ideology” but is it not when we divide ourselves, take sides and eventually dehumanize each other that we hurt each other most profoundly? 

                It is quite possible that I am misreading both Cixous and Kauffman, taking them out of their rightful contexts and imposing their thoughts on the literary world onto my own world of daily feminist life.  But I suppose I’m in the process of finding out what kind of feminism is going to be the most useful to me.  I repeat:  Orgasms are powerful and so are words.  I really do believe that.  I believe that the theories we design, though we may not be able to physically touch them, have substance and weight, that ideas can break buildings just as easily as dynamite can.  So my hope is that the rest of this semester will be a chance for me to find out what my own earth shattering ideas are, and hopefully I might even be able to articulate them as well.


Anonymous's picture

Abby, I, too, appreciate

Abby, I, too, appreciate your concerns --and more, your reticence to sacrifice what you sense personally to the "larger aims" of others who speak on behalf of women. I am not a BMC alumna, but a parent of a current student (not in this class). I have been thinking/writing on issues relating to feminism and children and society for the past 8 years or so. Part of what concerns me is the question of what is sacrificed in the process of "going public." I always harken back to a story from when I was renovating a rowhouse in neighborhood in Brooklyn that was being gentrified. One of the fellows down the street was a teacher and was troubled by the "tagging" some of the neighborhood kids were doing on nearby buildings. He hit upon the idea of inviting all the kids to come over to his house and spray their "tags" on the walls of his basement instead of out on the street. He was successful with all but one of the kids. This one did not go with the others but hung back, saying "Something's not right with this, man. I don't know what it is, but something's not right." I've always thought he was right. Although the taggers were spray painting in public before they went into the basement, they were anonymous, hence hadn't really "gone public." To go down to my neighbor's basement was to submit themselves to someone else's authority, as "going public" --unless you want to be considered a sociopath-- always does.

Mary Clurman '63's picture


Abby -- not easy to respond to -- but as a clear introvert, I appreciate your concerns about privacy. I guess I have decided to blurt out, when possible, what counts for me, yet frame it in a cocoon of introversion that saves me from the trouble of anyone's having to agree with me!

Anne Dalke's picture

"Ideas Can Break Buildings"

So what I hear, Abby, are two concerns: the first one being whether feminists have a responsibility to be public. "Is there room in the movement for the woman who choses to withhold?" (Introverts might ask if there is room for them!) What private spaces remain, once we are called to speak up, to generalize from our individual experiences? Is the very concept of privacy under assault? Certainly the proliferation of the web has unsettled most conventional notions of the public/private distinction...are you calling for (or at least marking the need to consider the necessity for) reinscribing spaces where others cannot go?

Your other concern actually seems to me quite related (though you don't articulate any connection between the two). It's the question you asked in class a few weeks ago, which stopped me for a moment (only a moment): where is there space (or I would say, how can we create) justice in a world that is random and absurd? I think this question has been answered quite compellingly by the existentialists and perhaps more recently (if somewhat obliquely) by the emergence theorists, both of whom argue that in a world in which order is not given, not designed by an architect, we are the makers of what order and meaning there is. In such a world, we draw the boundaries, decide how private and bonded our publics, how open and public our private spaces will be...

and we accept the consequences of those decisions, as well as the responsibility of re-thinking and re-drawing those boundaries. I look forward to thinking and working with you further, as you figure out what articulations will be most useful to you.