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Bringing Together Feminist Theory and Practice

Hartmann, Heidi, Ellen Bravo, Charlotte Bunch, Nancy Harsock, Roberta Spalter-Roth, Linda Williams and Maria Blanco.  “Bringing Together Feminist Theory and Practice: A Collective Interview.”  Signs 21.4 (1996): 917-951.  Web.


This transcription of an interview hosted by Hartmann and conducted among a selection of prominent feminist academics and activists initiated a dialogue regarding the current nature of the so-called women’s movement, and how academic feminist theory was being and could be used to inform feminist practice.  Consideration of these themes ranged across a number of questions and topics, such as diversity and commonalities within the women’s movement – with most participants agreeing that there was no single women’s movement that could be, or even should be, identified – defining feminist theory, and examinations of feminist organizing.  Finally, the group offered some proposals for moving forward toward a goal of approaching and engaging feminist theory in such a way that makes it actually useful for feminist practice and activism.

Of the readings I have done so far this semester, this one most clearly appeals to what I am attempting to explore through this Praxis project.  In addition, there were parts of the reading that I found myself able to relate to very strongly, both in the context of considering my organization but also on the more personal level of how I think about and engage with feminist theory.  It is important to note that this interview is from 1996 – and as such potentially very much outdated in a variety of respects – but nonetheless it raises some salient points that are still relevant; and what it reveals of how the movement has changed is also worth considering. 

In discussing the women’s movement, many of the participants expressed concern that while the movement may not be dead, it is potentially detrimentally fragmented, and also that it runs the risk of becoming less politically meaningful if it follows the trend of becoming so integrated into social life – and no longer concertedly in the political arena – that it becomes unnoticed and as such unable to prompt greater change.  From what I have observed of the practice of my particular organization, it seems that women’s organizations are to a large degree conscious of the divisions among themselves and the communities they serve.  Furthermore, this is acknowledged in the targeting of specific groups that may need certain support than others – for instance, the lecture I attended at the Harrisburg conference on working with immigrants, lower-class, and minority women as particularly vulnerable populations – while also convening coalitions of organizations in order to work toward goals that will benefit all women while allowing individual organizations to serve the needs of their particular communities.  There will always be work to be done regarding managing our differences while also working as a common group – much as Arendt talked about regarding agonism – but my experience with my own organization has demonstrated a contemporary awareness of that need. 

I found the comment regarding the risk of depoliticization due to pervasive social awareness interesting, though.  On a personal level I can see how that may be the case; I make a concerted personal choice to be informed largely by feminist news, circles, and discourse that it almost becomes unremarkable, and as a result potentially less mobilizing as it forms a backdrop to my daily life.  As a counter thought, though, it seems in keeping with feminist theory to allow that kind of integration to inform a more feminist life and, as such, ultimately actions.

Organizationally, this can be seen as feminist organizations being included in mainstream institutions out of obligation– such that their inclusion suffices for addressing women’s issues, without considering the wider structural changes that feminism calls for.  This is a positive step for inclusion, but a negative one insofar as it demonstrates cooption instead of continued transformation.           

The somewhat related danger of professionalization was also brought up, which is a danger for any advocate community.  To some degree it is a necessary evil: advocacy in such a large, complex world requires significant time commitment and resources (though this is not to devalue grassroots advocacy that may have little to no experience or resources), and so professionalization is somewhat inevitable.  If we accept that, though, advocates must be even more vigilant in ensuring that they are honest to the communities they are seeking to assist.  The risk of isolation from the community as an isolated bubble of well-intentioned advocates is a theme I have touched on multiple times this semester.

Especially exciting to read, though, was one speaker’s account of

“a student who has been immersed in this theory comes to work in our office where we are organizing women to utilize and confront global policy systems like the UN.  She immediately starts to question how anybody can speak for women, but the question totally immobilizes her.  The theory has conditioned the student to feel that she cannot have a voice.  She is afraid that if she speaks, she will be accused of speaking for or ignoring somebody else.  The theory has important truth in it, but it has become immobilizing because it has not been done in conjunction with practice.” (932-933)

This story so accurately describes how I have felt reading and feminist theory and attempting to practice it, and is in large part the motivation for structuring my Praxis the way I have.  The group sees a variety of solutions for this dilemma, including increased dialogue between academics and activists, acknowledging the diversity of theory while also constructing a baseline goal for the women’s movement, and revisiting the notion of “being a one-woman coalition: any woman who speaks ought to incorporate in herself as many parts of women’s experience as she has been able to understand, so that when she does have the space to speak, she can speak to issues that go beyond just her own experience” (935-936).

Taken all together, Hartmann’s group interview isolated, deconstructed, and proposed solutions for many of the issues I have stumbled across both before and during my Praxis experience.  Relating so clearly to the material addressed in this reading was both incredibly comforting and hopeful, as it offered some measure of tangible solutions to the challenges I have come up against.  And given that this conversation happened in 1996, there is also the hope that this dialogue has been continued over the years, and further developed and expanded upon.


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