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Week 3--Going Against the Grain (and the Forest?)

Anne Dalke's picture

Our readings this week are Linda Kaufmann's 1992 essay, "The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony," and Paula Gunn Allen's 1986 "Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to interpreting a Keres Indian Tale." In the first, Kaufman insists on writing "against the grain of individualism"; in the second, Allen shows how hard it is "to see the forest when you are a tree."  What a nice overlap of metaphors here! In what ways do they intersect with or rub up against your own? With each other's arguments? With the positions you see articulated elsewhere in this forum, by students of various generations and genders?


Jill '66's picture

Kauffman and freedom

I just wrote a nice long piece, previewed it, pushed the back button and lost it. So this will be quick and dirty.

I recognized so much that was plainly true in Kauffman’s distaste for personal testimony and deploring the cult of individualism. I have always disliked super-heroes and “great man” theories of history.

On the other hand, once you’ve been raised an individualist it is hard not to feel free. It is also hard not to notice that you are alone and limited to your own eyes and skin. And don’t we all—especially women—long for autonomy?

On the other, other, hand we know people don’t always deserve their fates; we can’t survive on our own unaided efforts. Don’t we all crave connection?

It is hard to imagine a satisfying body of literature that isn’t full of subjects who motivate the stories. Why do we even tell stories? Abstract characters are not very interesting.

I can’t help thinking that there’s “good” testimony and “bad” testimony. One is complex, examines the context of subjectivity, acknowledges chance; the other merely gloats or whines. Or worse—is completely fabricated to sell a product—isn’t that “the ideology of freedom through self-expression”?

Kauffamn clearly believes in justice. There can be no justice without subjects capable of making choices. Kauffman’s very reasons for deploring the co-option of feminism and the commoditization of the personal are that they narrow rather than expand the possibilities of thinking and acting.

It seems a contradiction but I don’t think it is. Individualism is not the same as subjectivity, and we do make choices. Maybe the important thing is not whether the choices are free but whether they are just—-based on “right” thinking. So the challenge for the feminist is not to be seduced by the culture’s rewards and apparent validation of false consciousness. The feminist challenge is to discover what right thinking is and how—or whether—it can break “language’s mastery” over us, that is, the power of ideology to keep us from understanding the contexts of our choices.

Alexandra Bolton-Schultes's picture

Week 3

This is starting to feel more like a conversation. I was glad (reassured?) to see that my own reaction to Kauffman seemed to have been brought out in the class discussion. I was having trouble seeing the point of justice if that precluded the personal. So I was glad to have Jesse’s well-thought-out perspective as a counter. The distinction made between “feminist academic literary critic” and, more broadly, simply “feminist” feels important.

For some years, I’ve been working with the idea that Story is the fundamental way in which we as humans apprehend the world. So the idea of abandoning personal narrative is difficult to accept, except in that academic context. Here is part of a “sermon” I wrote for a lay-led service at my UU church in summer of 2006:

Charles and Anne Simkinson, in their editors’ Introduction to the “Sacred Stories” collection of essays, point out that “We live our lives immersed in stories. Newspaper, radio and television feed us a daily diet of news; friends and co-workers tell us how their weekends were spent; parents punctuate their children’s days with bedtime stories; ministers weave parables into their Sunday sermons; and many spend leisurely hours indulging in murder mysteries, romance novels, sitcoms, or Hollywood’s latest film offerings.

“Stories seem to be everywhere. But while some stories entertain, inform or teach us, others move us deeply. They change us and bring us closer together. These are sacred stories….

“The critical difference, it seems, has to do not so much with the content of the story, as with the process the story ignites. Sacred stories move us; they get us thinking about what is important; they communicate through symbol and metaphor deep truths about the mysteries of life. Upon hearing a sacred story, even if we don’t understand the message intellectually, we are aware that some profound lesson has been imparted.”

So story-telling is not “just for children,” but can have broad cultural and psychological meaning. And it may even be possible to think of story telling as the very basis of human consciousness itself.

According to the theory advanced by Daniel Dennett, consciousness may be thought of as a story our brains tell us to make sense of what we perceive “out there” in the world—as structured and mediated by stored experience and memories. (Dreaming can be thought of as an extension of this process; but the story we tell ourselves can get a little weird when we’re asleep and cut off from the reality check of most sensory input.)

This building of what we call “consciousness” through an internal story-telling process seems to operate on several levels simultaneously. Sometimes we may even catch ourselves consciously “narrating” our own life story. “And then she fastened the seat belt, put the car in gear and headed down the road….” (Not necessarily rising to the level of great literature.)

Mary Catherine Bateson discusses “composing” one’s life story. “As you get up in the morning, as you make decisions, as you spend money, make friends, make commitments, you are creating a piece of art called your life.” She goes on to say, “There are advantages in having access to multiple versions of your life story. I am not referring to a true version versus a false version, or to one that works in a given therapeutic context as opposed to others, or to one that will sell to People Magazine as opposed to ones that won’t. I am referring to the freedom that comes not only from owning your memory and your life story but also from knowing that you make creative choices in how you look at your life.”

Paula Gunn Allen’s piece was to me, as to others, the most enjoyable reading so far. It is fascinating and illuminating to me to see examples of valid ways, other than our western patriarchal model, to structure a viable social order.

Along these lines, I strongly recommend Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, which has been a touchstone for me for many years.

Alex ‘65

gammyflink's picture

The Human Spirit


September 22, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist    NY Times

The Women Behind the Men

Daisy Bates had to march with the wives.

When the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock school desegregation on Monday, there will undoubtedly be a great deal said about Bates, who was head of the city’s N.A.A.C.P. chapter. She helped recruit nine black teenagers and escorted them through irate mobs of white adults and into their first classes. As a result, she and her husband, Lucius, lost their business. She was jailed, threatened and the Ku Klux Klan burned an 8-foot cross on her lawn.

Bates was invited, of course, to the famous March on Washington in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Rosa Parks was invited, too, and Pauli Murray, the lawyer and feminist who had staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant during World War II.

When they got there, they were all assigned to walk with the wives of the male civil rights leaders, far away from the cameras. “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or be part of the delegation of leaders who went to the White House. The omission was deliberate,” Murray said later.

Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women, and others begged that at least one woman be included among the speakers. They nominated Diane Nash, the student leader who had been perhaps the one person most responsible for the success of the Freedom Riders in the South. No dice.

“Nothing that women said or did broke the impasse blocking their participation. I’ve never seen a more unmovable force,” Height wrote. The men kept telling her that women already had participation — both Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to sing. In the end, A. Philip Randolph delivered a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” while the female civil rights legends sat on the stage.

We’ve learned, with some pain, to celebrate all our national heroes through clear eyes, as people whose great hearts and minds still did not take the dream of freedom and equality past their own immediate cause. The Declaration of Independence is our noblest piece of prose even though Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Susan B. Anthony is my favorite Founding Mother, but I know she broke her old friend Frederick Douglass’s heart when she lashed out at a government that would give the vote to “Sambo” and ignore well-educated, middle-class white women. Dr. King and the other male leaders and martyrs of the civil rights movement are always going to be a beacon in the center of our history. But they generally believed women’s place was in the home, and most were privately looking forward to the moment when they would all go back there.

The women of the civil rights movement who are most celebrated tend to be the brave victims, like Rosa Parks, who dutifully played the simple seamstress too tired to give up her seat on the bus, even though she had in fact been an activist for longer than almost any of the men. Still, in her autobiography she remembered that March on Washington and noted that these days “women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”

The women who men were less enthusiastic about were the ones who led. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first triumph as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott was possible because a group of middle-class black women led by a college teacher, Jo Ann Robinson, had organized it. They had been preparing for the opportunity so long that when Rosa Parks went to jail, they had 35,000 fliers ready the next morning, to deliver to black households through their children at school. Yet now they have practically vanished from our history.

You do not have to dismiss the men to believe that Ella Baker was the greatest organizer the civil rights movement ever knew. When she was passed over for the directorate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she helped found and ran as acting director, she attributed the rejection to the fact that “I was female; I was old. I didn’t have a Ph.D.” Then she went right on organizing, guiding the black college students into forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she would direct throughout its glory years as adviser and unpaid spiritual leader.

Baker also got it — the moment of recognition that all the previous movements for American social justice had not quite grasped. “Remember,” she told the young people, “we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”

You watch the reports from Jena this week and you wonder where women like Bates and Baker and Robinson would be if they were alive today. Wherever it was, it would be at the front of the parade.

   Barbara  '57

marybellefrey's picture

Kaufman on 2nd reading

Like Kaufman I know a lie when I hear it and that facts are the commonest tool of the habitual liar.  When I hear an overemphasis on facts I start listening for the hidden lie.  I am in sympathy with most of her concerns.  On the first reading I heard her quandry and lack of resolution.  The comments of the students gave me a different picture, so I went back to her.  The second time every sentence seemed written especially to me.  I have many questions about my own writing now.  Like Kaufman, no resolution.  Literature is very rigid: How do I tell a story that's uncommon in any way without the reader fitting it into one of the common patterns?  If you show an unpleasant family, the story becomes about getting away.  Many of us have unpleasant families but loved them and still love them.  No reader hears that.  I grew up in a poor, barren countryside.  It was so beautiful in my eyes that Peter Rabbit in those pretty drawings fit right in.  I remember the tamarinds in bloom along the edge of the dry river bed and the exquisite golden color inside the playhouses we made of tumbleweeds, for example.  Unless I write a sopppy, sentimental story, no one can see the beauty in that barren land.  If I tell a true story ---  the spirits of the people are asharsh as the countryside ---  the reader is deaf to any beauty in the relationships.  Maybe I simply don't write well enough.  But where are the models then?  Who has been able to break out of those ruts?  Some people have tried.  Doris Lessing, for one.  She says she failed.  Kaufman points out pitfalls I had not seen.  How am I to write about a poor, uneducated, hard-working woman in Central America?  If her life is beautiful (as many of them are), does my story become propaganda for the status quo?  If her life is tragic, I can already guess it would be the pretext for some do-gooders in the U.S. to export to Central America life styles that won't work here any better than they have worked in the United States.  Lots of questions.  Maybe I will fail, too.  But then maybe I won't. 

I'm grateful to you all for your posted comments. 

Pemwrez2009's picture

Our own introspection

For me, Allen's reading gave the reader a chance to be introspective. Because her essay was so personal-seeming, it was nice to be able to watch someone compartmentalize their life in the same was many people do. We see her as a feminist, in touch with her "tribality" (I made up that word). It was really great reading Allen, it was a very different experience than some of the other authors we read in class. It was also really refreshing to read the work of a feminist who is able and willing to point us in a non-westernized direction. I also really appreciate a feminist who is willing to validate her own experiences in the truths she comes upon.


 Kaufman, on the other hand was, not as pleasurable an experience. I got the idea from Kaufman's article that as a writers we are required to somehow exile ourselves from our contexts, experiences, feelings, and that there has to be a bold separation between one's truth from their experiences and truth from more critical evidence. Though I see the value of arguing (especially in situations where women are asked to prove themselves) however, her mentality shown in her essay, in my opinion disenfranchises the feminism of non-western cultures.

Calderon's picture

Calderon Kauffman argues


Kauffman argues that striving for justice is not happiness. If justice is not happiness why do we want it? According to her views, we live an illusion, that we should stop thinking that personal experiences matter. How can we separate ourselves from personal experience if what we are is what we have been through? How can one seek for justice if seeking for justice is not a better way of life (happiness)? If men used their physical power to obtain more power why can’t women today use their beauty to reach the top? If we want to be equal to men and succeed as they have in life why do we have to limit ourselves? Why do we have to just have enough, as Woolf would like us to? Men never have enough, because they keep seeking for more, and if want to be as equal as they are and have what they have we shall never stop the seeking.  Woolf would call this a war, but if this is a war, then, this is the war I want to fight. 


marybellefrey's picture

having enough

We were told often at BMC 50 years ago that "you can't have it all."  That was the topic of the commencement address a few years ago, so the idea is still current.  I was determined to have it ALL.  And I had it all!  I didn't fight much, but if fighting is one's style, go to it.  Whatever it is you really want, you will find the Universe laying itself out to help you get it.  You don't believe that?  I am willing to lay good money on it.  That is a personal invitation to all.  I "put my money where my mouth is."

I like what you say.  Thanks.

smigliori's picture


As I read Allen's essay, I found myself intrigued by her tale of Western corruption of American Indian culture. I could understand her outrage at the way the "White Man" had gotten her down. In fact, I found myself completely agreeing with her, until I reached the next to last page. There, Allen claims that "Much of women's culture bears marked resemblance to tribal culture. The perceptual modes that women, even those of us who are literate, industrialized, and reared within masculinist academic traditions, habitually engage in more closely resemble inclusive-field perception than excluding foreground-background perceptions." Allen wastes thousands of words complaining about the ways in which European-Americans don't understand American Indian culture, and then she believes she can make a blanket statement which theoretically includes the women of these very cultures.

While I am more than willing to admit that I am no expert on American Indian culture, I am pretty sure that I am living proof that Allen's statement makes a claim without any support. I hate to use experience, especially given Tuesday's essay, but I still believe that experience is useful in theories of falsification, another concept I refuse to give up. I also argue that this sort of theory promotes the idea of a gender binary, with inherent differences between male and female. Perhaps an argument could be made that since gender is a social construct, it is constructed as much as culture is, and therefore the notion of differences between genders is as valid as notions of differences between ethnicities. However, such an argument would, for me, only make me question the validity of Allen's earlier points.

sarahcollins's picture

personal vs. impersonal

I second commending Jessy for writing that all out, and agree with what she said about the value of remaining impersonal in the academic realm.


My first thought was Kauffman is being an outsider to the outsider's society, which I think would be agreeable to Woolf, at least for broadening the discussion's sake.

While I don't agree with everything Kauffman says, I think many of Kauffman's reasons for making such a shocking proposition are valid, and were unfortunately a little overshadowed by the proposition itself. She sees the bad effects of personalizing feminism working on a very global scale, beyond feminism, resulting in the degradation of civil rights for all people. She proposes that feminists and everyone else fight back by controlling their representation, and “critiquing the underlying assumptions about person and story” (273). For Kauffman, this means leaving the personal out of discussions. I don’t think Kauffman is directly and utterly opposed to what Sweickart believes feminism should do. Both still fight for the right to be heard. Maybe somehow they can be reconciled.


I don't agree with the idea that eliminating the personal from critical readings would narrow rather than widen the aperture of understanding and interpretation, because new ideas have always challenged my personal baggage and made me broaden my perspective. If we dismissed every idea that doesn't align with our own personal history, we would miss out on a lot and wouldn't learn as much, which is what we're all here for.


To respond to jrizzo's post, I don't think Kauffman was condemning the use of the personal in books, in the sense that characters have opinions and subjective experiences, and she doesn't bash Lessing, she actually gives the author's take on her own book.


I don’t think she was making a general statement about how novels should be written, she’s trying to prove that the feminist interpretation buys into and promotes the idea that the individual is all that matters by making the book only about one woman, when the message of the book (according to Kauffman) was the exact opposite, and when the book is about everything but the individual. It’s not that a reader isn’t allowed to see Anna Wulf as an individual, but it is dangerous, according to Kauffman, to give the book that reading alone.


She also asserts that the "novel is a sustained critique of subjectivity and of the individual's obsession with the person" (264).


Sorry for being long-winded!


tbarryfigu's picture

Death for the Feminist Cause?

Women of Bryn Mawr here and then,

What is a feminist? My entire life has been spent under the wing of my mother, a feminist/marxist economist who spends the majority of her time concentrating on women's studies (Yes, it's still called women studies at Fordham University!) and gender-health economics. She is a feminist. And yet, I have never asked her to explain what exactly that means...I am taking this course to find out for myself.

A friend of mine told me that one of our favorite professors stood in class last year and asked "who, in here, is a feminist?" No one raised their hand, and the professor took this for a lack of understanding. My friend, appropriately, asked "what exactly do you mean?" He answered: "A feminist is someone who would die to have equal rights between men and women." He asked his question again...all hands remained down except for his.

I believe that while there is the baby boom generation, the technology generation, etc. that mine is not appropriately labeled. As a whole, I truly feel that we are the apathetic. History has shown that the fight for justice has nearly always prevailed...that the oppresors lose favor in the light of equality, that the victims of the world walk some point along the line...or maybe that's just the t.v. talking. My generation has been spoon fed a story of endless happy endings...and we think that they will continue to come about whether or not we get off our ass to do/say something. As a result, we have become obsessed with the individual, with the unique...we long to be special and to be acknowledged for it...we have lost that feeling of unity which has propelled the protests of millions over this country's history.

So, what does it mean to be a feminist in a country where cries for equality are met by the deaf ears of a generation who will soon enter the real world? What does it mean to die for a cause that you truly believe in when hundreds of thousands are being sent abroad to fight for causes they don't believe in? What significance does individuality/the personal testimony hold when every documented uprising involves a call for unity-for sameness?

 I would like to know why it feels like the feminist movement has run out of gas...why it is Bryn Mawr women and not every woman in this country learning what it means to fight back? I may not know exactly what a feminist is yet...but I know for sure that no revolution was started in silent protest. How can we learn to break the silence?

Ann Dixon's picture

willing to die?

I think we should examine that definition of a feminist a little more closely.

A feminist is someone who would die to have equal rights between men and women." He asked his question again...all hands remained down except for his.

Isn't the teacher using a war metaphor to describe feminism? And for women, most (?) women, a war metaphor might not resonate at all. If the teacher had used a different type of metaphor, he might have gotten a different result. I'm thinking of a birthing metaphor, one of creation, not destruction.

Ann, BMC '83

tbarryfigu's picture

War Metaphor

I'm not so sure it's a war metaphor, but of course, my personal experience dictates my interpretation.

My mother and her friend were thrown in jail at the age of 18 after protesting Nixon on a Virginia Air Force base which she snuck onto. She painted her face white and sat on her University steps alone for three days to protest the Vietnam war. My father worked with the Black Panthers within a Latin sect of supporters. After years of hearing all these stories time and time again, and finally learning that not everyone was as passionate, I asked my parents what they were willing to give up to support their respective causes. Both, in many ways, described dying for what they believed in, not in a physical sense per se, but in the manner that one thinks about sacraficing themselves for their child, or for a loved one. The thought of equality, of peace, of justice, meant more to them then life without those things. Life without those things...was as good as death, and thus they were willing to fight. Has this type of protest, the only type I have ever viewed as effective, slowly died away? Sure, people wear certain colors in school to protest this or that injustice...but since when does support for a cause have to be expressed to a teacher? Have we come to the point where gender equality does not require men and women to "rush the gates," as it were? Is that too old school? Or are we just lazy?

Recently, I was amazed by the documentary "The U.S. versus John Lennon." This 2 hour movie documents his [John's] hold on the younger rebellious generations eager to make a change during that time period, and the response of the government, weary of those willing to "rock the boat." During an interview, John states straight into the camera: "Ok, so flower power didn't work. So what? You keep going, you keep trying." Those words alone represent my opinion of the feminst movement as it exists today. Do I/should I really have to read a book in order to grasp what wave of feminism we're currently involved in? Should I have to study up in order to understand what feminists in this country are working for RIGHT NOW? Or should it be an ever-present thought on the minds of women? When african americans and latinos were fighting for equal rights, the white men and women of this country weren't confused about what they wanted. It was all anyone could talk about and it caused a mass uprising.

Here's what it boils down to: There are thousands of races and only two sexes (sorry to reduce it to this, but it helps my argument). If one race can fight for equality in a world of different races, why can't one sex (which composes a larger dynamic)? Is the feminst cause one not worthy of that attention?


Ann Dixon's picture

honor the past but

tbarryfigu, like you, I honor people who protested in the bus, at the lunch counter, in the town square, on the Mall in D.C, at military installations. Does it dishonor them to say that there are new means to protest injustice? I actually think blogs are (and can be) a big part of that movement.

Another thing to consider is that women are the caregivers of society. 

They work to care for the elderly, the sick and the young. There is a huge impact on how much 
we could ask of women who are doing so much to hold together their families and communities.  

If they don't come out for a march, you can't attribute this to apathy.

 Ann '83 

tbarryfigu's picture


I'm sorry, maybe I'm interpreting this the wrong way, but I'm finding it hard to swallow this comment, especially considering the context of this class and of this argument: 

"Another thing to consider is that women are the caregivers of society. They work to care for the elderly, the sick and the young. There is a huge impact on how much we could ask of women who are doing so much to hold together their families and communities"

Can you explain that a little better? Because what you seem to be saying is that some women are too busy filling the roles that the patriarchy assigned them to do anything else about the current femenist movement. While, yes, this is true in alot of cases, I really feel uncomfortable using that as an excuse. Especially because it is using a patriarchical premise as reasoning for the lack of extremist feminist action. It has a very "Momma's too busy cooking and cleaning" feel to it, and that almost sickens me. Plus, it is a very generalized statement. Yes, women are often viewed as the "nurturers," no, that is not a bad thing, but in many ways, it is incorrect. Today's woman is not always flattered by the expectation of "housewivery," nor are they charmed by the thought that that role is still assigned to them and only them. Today's woman still notices the difference on their paycheck. Today's woman may not want kids, may not have the means to have kids, may not give a damn about being nurturing. All this, I'm sure you know. Which is why i'm surprised such a statement was made. Can you tell me about the women who aren't at home taking care of the family and the community? What are they doing? How can you explain their apathy?

 And wait, let's discuss those who are nurturing society. Finland and a few other countries in Europe have implemented gender-blind governmental standards that provide a sallary to those women who choose to be the nurturers. If a woman decides that she wants to be a professional mother, the government pays her for doing so. And, if she, instead, would like to continue her job as a professional lawyer, doctor, librarian, what have you...the government pays 100% of child care so that she might continue to lead her life as a person. One with equal opportunities. If I am to understand your argument, then the nurturer of the US is too blinded by the constructs of our predominately male-dominated society to even realize that such things are possible. Is she too busy to fight for the justification of her role as a nurturer? Because as far as I can tell, that's who feminists are fighting for right now anyway...shouldn't the nurturer fight for herself? 

Ann Dixon's picture

Expanding the definition of feminist praxis

No, you're right, I am not invoking the "Mommy's too busy cooking and cleaning" argument. I'm saying that my definition of feminist praxis and activism is larger than what I'm hearing is your definition of not being apathetic, protesting in public spaces. And I'm saying a very real life element of that definition is to consider what else a woman has going on in her life.

To somewhat ironically invoke personal testimony here, I am not protesting in the streets. I have a preschool child and work full-time. There's a lot going on. 

I hear your definition of feminist action and it sounds like you would place me in the apathetic  category, yes? 
Does it count that after my child is in bed and I'm dog tired, I write grant proposals for  nonprofits I care about?  Does it count that in my worklife, I run a webserver that enables these conversations?

Many (most) women in the 30 to 50 year old age range are juggling fulltime jobs, children and elder care, and opportunities  for activism are constrained by these things. They might not be out there in the public square  (or they might be), but they also might be doing activities that you aren't including in your  definition. Look close to home on this campus:




Do you see a playground on campus, much less a daycare, for faculty, staff and students 
who are  parents? 
Do you read the committee's report (thanks to Anne Dalke for posting minutes) and see 
anything  about support for staff members and students who are parents? Working to change policy wherever you are, and whatever you can do, needs to be included in the definition of feminist activism.



tbarryfigu's picture

Picking it Back Up

Here's to picking it back up again! I don't know if you or anyone else has realized this in class (maybe Anne...i've taken two classes with her) but I'm a little bit obsessed with Finland. Maybe it's because it's a socialist democratic, maybe it's because everyone over there is just so ridiculously honest that it's refreshing...maybe it's just that they have access to a free education and are thus, very intelligent...maybe it's everything. In any case, my visit there last year changed my life and really opened my eyes to the injustice of American policy.

Over fall break, my mother and I hosted two Finnish feminist scholars who were invited to attend a conference at Rutgers University. To get back to the point, they began to discuss the "homemaker" as a feminist. In Finland, as I mentioned earlier, they have implemented laws which deem the homemaker worthy of a full-time salary. Additionally, if a woman has a child she will be paid the salary of the highest wage-earning member in the family for the first year of her maternity leave. After the first year, the salary decreases, but free childcare and other opportunities for stay-at-home mothers (or fathers) become available.

I feel that if the feminists of this country were to work together to make their voices heard on a more urgent level, such things would be possible in this country. After all, jobs stimulate the economy! However, it continues to be my belief that the feminist forefront has deteriorated over time. The image of the angry feminist lives on, but where have they gone? I accept that women are busy at home and at work, both with children and without. But how can we accomplish both adgendas: maintain our roles in family life and work towards more progressive methods of "living feminism."

An analogy, if I may: Somewhere in the world, there is a giant cube of concrete. Underneath this giant cube is a giant room. The feminist cause will have been achieved when women (and feminist men) work together to uncover the room by pushing the concrete block away. If we successfully push the concrete block a few yards and some women jump into the room below, we will have lost some of the "woman power" needed to continue to move the block completely. Feminist activism in today's world seems to take this shape. We have achieved some of our feminist goals to the extent that some women are satisfied with the way things are ("sure, I don't make enough money as a man. But at least I can hold a job as a woman"), however, we have not truly pushed the boundaries of our opression as women. Again, we will never do so until the forefront of the feminist cause is re-established. How do you propose we reconvene on a national or global scale? I mean, playgrounds for the children of BMC's employees are nice...but that's small scale in my opinion (though still very important, don't get me wrong). I guess I just want to see drastic changes that apply to all working women?

Ann Dixon's picture

Feminism as economic justice

Your thoughts about Finland prompted me to look up information about Finland, and it's impressive in its particulars and also in its overall satisfaction ratings - one of the happiest countries to live in, they say. If only it weren't so dark there in the winter....

The huge question that underlies your arguments for salary for homemakers / childcare is how do they fund it? Not that I am against the idea, not at all, but it is the taxpayers who are funding that sort of program. I see that Finland has eliminated the top marginalized tax rate so it is no longer 60%, so I looked a little farther, and found that their military expenditure as expressed as a % of GDP is about 1.3%. The military expenditure for the U.S. is over 4% of GDP, so that is one area where many social programs could be funded if we elected a President and Congress with different priorities.

But maybe this is not what you meant. It seems like you are looking for one organization that will be the standard bearer for millions of US women. But why do you insist on it being one organization, one way of attacking the problems, ... one solution? I don't actually think that that is possible, though one stronger feminist organization would be useful to accomplishing those goals.

So let me put it to you this way - your goals seem to align with NOW's. See:

Are you a member of NOW? If not, why not? I used to be a member of NOW a long time ago. For me, NOW blew it when it 1) wasn't able to pass the ERA, and 2) wasn't able to change its organization from a white, upper/middle class, straight organization to a place where many diverse voices were heard and where many people felt at home. Yet, I look at their website today because of this conversation, and see that race, sexual orientation, and economic justice are among their top priorities, and that they claim half a million members.

But to step back and ask why can't they get it done? Isn't political power located in corporate America today, not on the streets? When I think about issues that corporate America will support, there is no incentive or actually even disincentive to support, say, "equal pay for equal work," since it invites employment litigation. Corporate America will support progressive reform when (and I would say only when) it aligns with its interests. So for example, corporate America has supported non-discrimination employment policies for GLBT employees years before Congress could pass ENDA. Why? I would say because the case has been made that discrimination against GLBT prospective employees and employees costs the companies more than non-discrimination.

This reply has been all over the map, but your comments interested me on many different levels.



gammyflink's picture

Is Feminism Necessary in White America?

I also don't see it as a war metaphor, but rather as an expression of passion. And you are correct that the passion of earlier feminist movements seems to be missing today.  I ascribe some of that to the fact that the educated white women of America who carried the second wave of feminism have accomplished many of the goals they sought to achieve.  The irony is that some of those accomplishments have lost their luster. 

Personally, I have become more interested in the globalization of feminism and the critical victories achieved in that area.  Note the recent push in Egypt to outlaw genital mutilation, and the outcry in Syria against honor killings.  When one travels extensively in developing countries as I have, one realizes that our brand of feminism is really a luxury.

What is not a luxury is the senseless killing of soldiers and civilians in Iraq, yet other than Cindy Sheehan's burnt out protest, where is the public passion and outcry?  Turned inward, I think, on the material world and our Selves.

Barbara  '57

gammyflink's picture

Thank you tbarryfigu

   Until I read your Death for the Feminist Cause I was about to give up on this Forum.  Like Gail, it seemed to me it was a collection of independent essays, each one vying to see how impressive and academic it could be.  There was no sense of a forum or conversation.  But you have raised some meaningful and reality oriented questions, questions that have no easy answers.

I have always considered myself a Feminist but I would not "die to have equal rights between men and women".  As a matter of fact I think many women have come to realize that the masculine model of success has some serious drawbacks and does not necessarily make for a meaningful and satisfying life.  At this stage of my life (70's), I think in more humanistic terms.  What can we do to make the lives of women and men more fulfilling and worthwhile?

 Every new generation gets accused of something.  Even the young people involved in the 60's movements became disillusioned when their lofty ideals and plans did not come to fruition.  As you move through life, your cohort will be confronted with a variety of challenges and some of you will rise to meet them. 

Perhaps one reason there seems to be more silence today is that people are isolated in their own world of technology and spend much of their lives in virtual reality rather than true communication.  This Forum is an opportunity to break that silence, to communicate across generations.  Let's do it! 

 Barbara  '57

gail's picture

Death for the Feminist Cause

Thank you all for this "thread".

I feel that I have for the first time in this series, made a connection!

marybellefrey's picture


GOOD questions!  Good point.  My generation (class of '57) was also the apathetic generation.
EMaciolek's picture

Personal Testimony/Uniqueness

Despite the fact that Allen's essay was not personal testimony per se, I still had the feeling Kauffman described of having all authority taken away through Allen's description of her work with the Keres tribe.
Not even just with the tribe aspect of the essay, it felt like she sucked all authority of knowing what a feminist was with her critique of the Kochinnenako story. I guess once I had an uneasy footing on the subject of the Keres tribe and I realized how much more schooling Gunn has had than me, I lost all authority on every subject she brought up. I can't help but wonder if her essay would have been more powerful/persuasive/engaging if she had refrained from ever using "I."

To respond more to Kauffman's idea that all we are made up of is our actions and reactions to all aspects of society:
Like I said in class, I agree that we are all made up of what we have experienced throughout our lives (how could it be otherwise?). Yet, I'm not convinced that thinking that we are nevertheless individuals, because that is how society has taught us to think of ourselves, devalues our seemingly inherent feelings that we are unique. That is to say, we are unique and individuals because we want to be and the reasons for why we want to be as such are inconsequential. It shouldn't bother us that we are products of society, but it should bother us if we give up on a sense of self just because we recognize that we have internalized our interactions with the world.
matos's picture

Emily brought up a question

Emily brought up a question that I thought was important in class, regarding the Kauffman reading; “what are we supposed to go off of, if not our interactions with the world?”.


Though I agree with the concept that personal testimony should not be the be all end all of literary criticism, I also agree with the class consensus that we can’t separate ourselves from our criticism.


I think the three interpretations of the Keres Indian tale goes with that point. Though the reading came from a general point of views, if we are our social constructs, than these three point of views show how who we are and where we come from, strongly effect how we read.

gail's picture

agreement with class consensus

Yes.  I agree that who we are and where we come from does indeed influence how we read.  That is why we must keep "where we're comiing from" in our consciousness.


kwheeler's picture

Reader-response and the Keres Indian Tale

It was really interesting to see some of Schweickart’s ideas about reader-response theory put into practice in Allen’s three interpretations of Gunn’s translation of the Keres Indian Tale. If the message conveyed through an Indian Tale is manipulated by a white-male reader then it follows that a white-feminist reader’s interpretation will be just as biased. That the feminist reading Allen gives falls short of (what she dictates to be) the true meaning, is evidence of how much interpretation lies with the reader in such situations. It happens with the Keres Indian Tale that the feminist reading is closer to the “Feminist-Tribal Interpretation” because of what Allen attributes to a resemblance between women’s culture and tribal culture. However a feminist reading will not always be more correct than that dictated by a patriarchal society. This further stresses the importance of reading with a consciousness of the reality of bias that is involved with reader-response, and that no one reading of a text is necessarily correct. How does this relate to Sosnoski’s ideas about falsificity, and the need to rid our minds of the duality of correct versus incorrect and Kauffman’s ideas about ridding the equation of personal testimony? What gives Allen the authority to say that Gunn’s translation is incorrect?

jrizzo's picture

I'd like to commend Jessy

I'd like to commend Jessy for making some important clarifications about both Kauffman's article and the value of the falsification that took over Tuesday's class when our concepts of self were threatened.  I agree that the notions of personal testimony and individuality itself mean very different things and carry with them distinct dangers depending on the scenario in which they appear.  In an academic sphere, I have a difficult time conceiving of a situation in which I would find the exploitation of personal testimony or experience as authority to be a compelling or even credible argument.  For example, if in studying a piece of literature about say, the Vietnam War, I found myself in conflict with a critic who happened to be a veteran, I do think he would be destroying the dialogue by asserting his opinion's supremacy with the, "I was there.  I understand.  I know.  You never can," argument.  If the work is unable to communicate effectively to the both of us, with the vast difference in life experience, it itself is a failure.   Those who do argue the value of personal testimony in criticism are insulting the authors they critique. 

However, as Jessy articulates, the personal in life, art, and work are very different things.  Kauffman's complaint was obviously against the intrusion of the personal into the professional, but when she strayed from this central topic, I found her coming awfully close to condemning personal experience as utilized in the writing of literature, which seems more than a bit ridiculous to me, if not impossible.  While bashing my beloved Doris Lessing, she writes of The Golden Notebook, "Anna Wulf is represented as suffering a schizophrenic 'breakdown' at the hands of sexist society... evidence of her 'cure' is that the novel commences with her novella 'Free Women.' Fiction is thus reduced to a tragic representation of life; 'life' is reduced to a tale of individual malaise.  The implicit message is that you cannot change society, only yourself.'  I do not understand this conclusion.  First, her reading of this specific novel seems to suggest that she views society as something entirely separate from the human person, rules, structures empty of people (and hence, to my mind, worthless).  To change society is to change the hearts and minds of those who make up the society.  So, to change oneself is to change society.  This pertains to the personal testimony question because Kauffman also seems to be saying here that novels ought not to be about human lives.  This confuses me.  Whether she is crying out for the very didactic or the allegorical, or some other alternative to the vast majority of literature we know and respond to today I am not sure, but even these forms must neccesarily be stories about people, people and their experiences.  Literature communicates in a way different from essays and speeches and political platforms because it can connect people's personal experiences to one another's, perhaps wake them up to how their personal experiences fit into the world.  It saddens me the Kauffman, a literary critic seems not to believe this.  She whines, "Didn't we say goodbye to personal testimony, with its valorization of the power and autonomy of the individual psyche, a long time ago?" and she is talking about literature, not criticism.  I still believe that personal testimony in literature is a tremendously valuable, if not the only effective manner of expression. 

hslavitt's picture

Allen and Kauffman

I don't understand the need of these two scholars to isolate parts of themselves from the rest. Kauffman wants us to be able to, on command, rip our personal tetimony from what we talk about and write. I get her arguments about using personal testimony as a tol; it stops conversation and is a crutch that feminists are especially prone to use. I know that I've been faced with the stereotypes that all feminists actually do is sit around and talk about feelings. Fine, tell ACADEMIC feminists to stop using personal testimony. What Kauffman does is actually invalidate all personal testimony by deconstructing the personal aspect of herself and others. Allen, while her article is sharp and interesting, also attempts to divide herself into manageable categories. Feminist, tribal, tribal-feminist. United these characteristics make a full and unique point of view SO WHY SEPARATE THEM? It's important to acknowledge, but it really doesn't do anyone any good to separate the personal testimony from the intellectual, the feminist from the race/ethnicity/class etc.
ndegeorge's picture

Frustrated with Kauffman

I was extremely frustrated with Linda Kauffman's essay and it was reassuring to see that others in class had problems with it too. I do agree that the personal testimony should never act as the be all and end all, but she seems to take all value away from it as she develops her argument. I find that to be hypocritical of her because she starts out by telling us about her own history. It may be that we are shaped by the institutions that surround us, but everyone, given their histories and genetic makeup, will be shaped differently. I can't go along and throw out uniqueness altogether. I also wonder, if she asks us to give up our personal feelings AND the authority of "institutions" what do we possibly have to build on? You have to start somewhere. She even proclaims that feminism has been institutionalized and that we cannot ignorantly follow that wave. She also seems to scorn "us," we that sit around a seminar table discussing these issues. She says "We can't do political work within the university unless we constantly remind ourselves that it is a sphere of relative privilege and entitlement..." So I ask what is the point of her own theorizing?

I think what we should take out of this essay is that we should always be aware when talking about feminism. Aware of ourselves, as well as the circumstances of those around us, aware of how we come to think the way we do. But I say that we should embrace the personal, that you need to in order to be aware.

That brings me back to the issue of trust that we discussed last week. As a side note I would like to say that I think it is really important for a classroom environment, but that I think it takes time to develop. But in reference to the article, I think we should trust ourselves, to know that our ideas can change and also to know what we want to gain from an exploration of feminism. As I said before, I think you need to have a strong base within in order to successfully bring your ideas out.

llauher's picture

Going against the grain (...going insane, going mad...)

(Apologies, I somehow felt the need to quote RENT. It seemed like an accurate communication of my reaction to some of the content discussed below).


I was absolutely blown away by today's class and our discussion of Kauffman. I'm still apprehensive about speaking in class and I feel a little out of my depth, but the quick-paced examination of the reading was definitely stimulating.

I have the class discussion to thank for some of the ideas I want to post here. Firstly, I personally am inclined to resist the invalidation of personal testimony. I suppose that may have limited my reading of the text, in that I grew a little defensive of personality and the value of experience and probably didn't absorb or consider as much of Kauffman's argument as I should have.

One of the points I was brave enough to put forth in class has to do with Kauffman's (and de Laurentis') theory about the external influences on the psyche, which is held up in our thinking as an unbiased and unscathed source of personality. To a certain extent, through both careful reading and personal opinion, I agree with this point. I certainly think that societal issues and experiences exercise a great deal of influence on people's growth and personality (in that, for example, I find myself inclined to act or present myself in a certain way if I have been punished or rewarded in the past for my behavior in a social setting). However, I hold fast to the idea that, in spite of the experiences and influences we may share, the strength of our stories, the way in which these influences change us, and the lessons that we learn from these experiences are inherently personal and, I think, support the validity and value of personal testimony.

Rhapsodica's picture

Like many of us expressed

Like many of us expressed on Tuesday, I also had a somewhat oppositional reaction to Linda Kauffman's ideas about personal testimony, as well as to her notion of striving for justice rather than happiness. After reading Jessy's (very well written) post, I can see that perhaps we took her ideas a little out of context, since it does seem that she's largely talking about academic writing and not necessarily feminism as a whole, or even just daily interactions. I do find it interesting how we all jumped to that conclusion, though.

I was actually thinking a lot about the notion that claiming authority through personal testimony is a conversation stopper, and whether that really is a bad thing in different contexts. For the feminist movement itself, I do not think it's been a bad thing at all. Looking at Sojourner Truth's speech, "Arn't I A Woman?"... the whole thing is personal testimony, isn't it? In a sense, I suppose it did succeed in "stopping the conversation." After all, no one can really say her feelings are invalid... instead, they have to stop and listen and accept that she knows what she's talking about since she's lived it. But that doesn't have to be the end of the discussion, either... and it wasn't, then or now. We used it as a starting point of discussion in this very class, didn't we?

Different people see problems from very diverse perspectives; as readers, writers, speakers, and classmates, we need to remember that there is not one right answer to, or one absolute authority on, any given matter. If we can listen to those with more experience and not be tempted to clam up, or to automatically agree, then I don't see the issue with personal testimony, in literature or everyday conversation. In fact, to a certain extent, I think that personal testimony can even serve to further a conversation. I could sit around and discuss life in the rural southern US with someone from New York, but I probably wouldn't learn as much as I would if someone from the south were involved in that conversation as well. Instead of drawing on my minimal knowledge of the south in that conversation, though, I would probably be asking that person questions and trying to learn from his/her experience. Isn't that still considered a dialogue... asking questions of someone who has experiences to share? Does having a dialogue necessarily mean that everyone has to be coming from the very same place... have the very same level of knowledge (or lack thereof)? If that more experienced person were to sit back and listen to us talk about the world he/she is so familiar with, but not claim her relative authority on the subject, we would be missing out on a great learning experience. Not only that, but she would be missing out on the chance to take the discussion in directions the other participants couldn't have imagined.

As readers, we cannot look at the text and ask it questions. It (or rather, the writer of it) has to find a way to present its topic in a way that is both informative and unpretentious. I can see how personal testimony can be unprofessional in the context of academic writing, but I also think that it, once again, can serve to stimulate dialogue rather than "limiting the possibilities for dialog and inquiry" (as Jessy put it in her above posting). Used primarily as a means of portraying authority and expertise, I can see personal testimony as stopping the dialogue in a bad way. Used as a way to bring another point of view into the arena, I can see it as being a way to add to the reader's knowledge rather than make the reader feel hesitant to form his/her own view on the topic at hand. I think it depends on how the reader chooses to take the writer's assertions just as much as it depends on whether the writer makes those assertions in the first place.

... well, now that I've gone on about that for such a long time, I just wanted to close with my thoughts about Kauffman's statement that she "never thought feminism was about happiness... [but] thought it was about justice" (274). I think that this idea is useful, even if it's not taken 100% literally. To me, feminism is about both: it has a personal aspect as well as a more public aspect. We sort of decided in class that justice can be considered the happiness of all, which is how civil rights ties into it... and I agree with that. But I also think that feminism operates on the level of the individual woman and her own choices and feelings towards being a woman in addition to the impact on women as a whole. I think it's good to remember that, as feminists, our ultimate goal is to achieve happiness and justice for everyone involved... but I do not think that we have to necessarily abandon our own personal journeys in order to effect large-scale change.

Lydia's picture

Allen Reading

Of our readings to date, I appreciate Allen the most. I think this may be because I understand it the most. Her points and ideas are clear throughout...although I wish she would have expanded further on the nature of the Keres society. From her writing she implies that Keres society is less hierarchical and less patriarchal, or perhaps USED to be- before the western tradition/values began to infiltrate. I would have liked to see what kind of a society was present before the colonizers... before the anglo-european tradition began to impose its values/views or began translating what Allen says was a balanced, peaceful Keres oral tradition to the war-mongering and patriarchal narrative of the anglo-european.
I suppose, because the Keres society is based on an oral tradition, the 'pure' and unadulterated Keres is harder to identify. Allen notes that because of the very nature of the oral tradition, that of a living body, when subtle elements of the colonizer are introduced, the "change goes unnoticed or unremarked by the people being changed"(225) I think Allen draws an interesting connection between the oral tradition not only as a "record of a people's culture" but also a living, breathing "CREATIVE SOURCE" of the "collective and individual selves" within the society (224). The oral tradition for the Keres is where the sense of self is derived. It makes them who they are. Unfortunately, the unique nature of the oral tradition is both a source of strength and a source of destruction. Because of the fluid nature of the oral tradition, subversive elements of foreign (non-Keres) tradition are able to infiltrate unnoticed, turning the Keres source of spiritual guidance into "the major instrument of colonization and oppression"(225), thereby corrupting not only the society but the people themselves. Their 'selves', their values and identities become colonized, perhaps without them realizing.
So how can we turn it back? Can we return Keres society and tradition back to the "balance and harmony" and "egalitarian structuring of society as well as literature" which the anglo-european tradition has corrupted? If the well-spring of the Keres society is a fluid, oral tradition in which subversive counter-values are able to infiltrate unnoticed, will we ever be able to reverse the damage done? Or will it take further infiltration of foreign values/theories, an introduction of feminist critique and theory,for example, to undo the damage done?

YJ's picture

Modes of Perception

I much preferred Allen's essay on interpretation far more than Kauffman's essay. While the latter raised some interesting but perhaps ultimately unusable (for lack of a better word) ideas and points, it just didn't seem like a theory that could work beyond its theoretical context. Allen's essay definitely struck a chord with me, and I think part of the reason why was the skillful way in which she showed how we really are a product of the societies we are raised in (ironically enough, the very same point Kauffman makes, but to different effect). Upon first reading of Allen's intentions to interpret the same Indian story from three different perspectives, I wan't expecting such vast differences to appear.

Something else that really struck me was Allen's contention that Western patriarchy has influenced and to some extent, disrupted the non-patriarchical society of the Indians, which is (or perhaps was) ruled by equality and that this occurred through the Westernizations of the Indian stories which are then passed back to the Indians themselves. The Westenized version of the story was an all-too-familiar one, as Allen showed that it definitely fell into a certain narrative, with a hero battling "evil" in order to win the hand of the beautiful princess stuck in a loveless marriage. The Indian version was so vastly different from this version, it was almost hard to believe they were the same story.

I think what I liked the most about Allen's essay, and also could most easily identify with, to a certain extent, (again, echoing the conerns of Kauffman) was her interpreting the story from first, the Indian point of view, then the modern feminist point of view, and then finally from an Indian-feminist point of view. It is a similar process I feel I subconsciously undergo when reading any type of story- but especially Western stories.

One issue underlying feminism and many other types of "ism" movements, etc. is that intersection between race/ethnic identity and gender or gender and sexuality, or religion and gender, etc., etc. I have always felt and believed that to be a feminist is something different than being a women of color who is a feminist. Personally, I have always felt that dealing with my own issues of race was enough on my plate without getting into the whole issue of feminism. As much as I would like to embrace feminism, I'm not sure I have "room" for it in my life right now. It's a juggling act and not a very fun one. That is not to discount the challenges feminists do face or to say that my struggles are more or less than anyone else's, but just that for me, it's almost too much to handle. I suppose that's why I was drawn to this class in the first place- to learn more about feminism and perhaps in better understanding it, be able to become more engaged with it.

gail's picture



I'm an alum 67'

I think you have made "room" for feminism by taking this course. 


We all must be conscious of feminism, taking different actions at different times through our lives.  Much will be lost if we do not.

One Student's picture

I don’t

I don’t understand the strong emotional reactions most of the rest of the class seemed to have to Kauffman, and I don’t understand why I didn’t have that reaction. Many of you seemed to think that she was arguing against the personal, against its validity, its value in a general sense, or even against its existence.

But who was Kauffman addressing? Feminists? Or academic feminists? She writes:

I clearly believe that our intellectual work as feminists is directly related to our personal histories; that our subjective experiences influence our politics, that our psychic traumas affect our teaching and writing …

I dislike the “our” in the previous paragraph; among many other assumptions it takes for granted, the one that is probably most accurate is therefore most troubling: “we” all do the same kind of labor, i.e., feminist work in higher education in America. Are “we” feminist scholars solipsistically talking only to ourselves? (pg 259)

Although she doesn’t like it, Kauffman acknowledges that the conversation in which she is engaging is mostly a conversation among feminist academics. “I want feminist scholarship to reach an audience that transcends the academy …,” though she says this in the context of criticizing how feminist scholars have been treated by the institution (261). Her priority is the much smaller community of feminist scholars.

She often talks about ‘feminists’, rather than feminist academics in particular. Here is one such usage: “Society tames the feminist through the story in particular, the allure of personal testimony in general. Are feminists succeeding in finding ways to make their work inaccessible to the usual forms of “recuperation”? … I am arguing that such recuperation infects not just feminist criticism, but reader response criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, materialist criticism, and even post-structuralism.“ (pg 262, italics hers). I think she may be using ‘feminist’ as a short-hand for the particular kind of feminist she assumes she is addressing, the feminist engaged in literary criticism, the feminist who works in academia. The subject of the essay as a whole is the practice of feminist literary criticism, the practice of feminist literature. Not feminism on the streets, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Kauffman is addressing the professional, who gets paid to be an academic, if not to be a feminist. She is pointing out how a certain kind of use of personal testimony is unprofessional because it makes for less effective feminist literary criticism by limiting the possibilities for dialog and inquiry.

And I read this text as an aspiring academic, not as a private individual. Perhaps that is the difference? I was the intended audience.

Only, I’m not sure that Kauffman had a clearly envisioned audience. Anyway, who cares about authorial intention?

Perhaps what we can take from this essay is that, as feminists if that is what we are, is that getting in touch with our emotions and expressing them is just a starting point. “Writing about yourself does not liberate you, it just shows how ingrained the ideology of freedom through self-expression is in our thinking” (269). Writing about ourselves is not insignificant, because for so long females rarely had a voice. But simply finding and using that voice over and over again will not lead us anywhere.

Kauffman does not advocate subduing our emotion – it’s clear that she is angry about the lies we tell ourselves, about the harm certain mythologies do to us (‘we’ being Americans). She does not advocate not writing from one’s experience, if only because that is completely impossible*. She is alarmed at the erosion of civil rights, she is angry at the hypocrisy and sullying [reword] of the way the Right “has turned the rhetoric of equality against its citizens” (272). She asks, “What can I as a feminist literary critic do? I can address the misapprehensions of representation: What has led us to view symbols and representations as dangerous menaces, the dissemination of which must be controlled? ” (273) The ivory tower provides a different view, a birds-eye view, away from the dust of each individual narrative. Kauffman wants feminist academics to know how to see through their own dust, or how to sit still so that the dust settles and the air is clear. She continues, “I can use my own personal history to critique the underlying assumptions about person and story, as I have tried to do here. Moreover, I’m the perfect candidate to critique “women’s ways of knowing” and “sentimental power” because my first book, Discourses of Desire, was at some points an implicit endorsement.” Find your personal narrative, and know yourself, she says. But in a professional sphere, in the sphere of the craft of literary criticism, be careful how you use it and keep the dialog open. Don’t give them impression that you know best, even if you don’t think so.

I think this is what made me upset: that others saw one or two things which seemed offensive to them and focused in on those things, to the point of misreading (in my opinion) the essay as a whole. In class, people really did seem to think, at one point, that Kauffman was against the personal as a general notion. And it wasn’t that my classmates seemed to me to be in error that made me angry, but that they didn’t seem to hold back for a moment to give Kauffman the benefit of the doubt, they didn’t ask, “Is this really what she’s saying?”

Many of you got distracted by her opinion that feminism is about justice, not happiness (274). This is a question worth addressing, but not at the cost of understanding an essay which is about something different. Kauffman’s thesis is not that feminism should be about justice, but about the perils of using personal testimony in an academic context. That personal testimony “reinforces the blind belief that we are all intrinsically interesting, unique, that we deserve to be happy” (274) is only one of the possible perils of this particular American myth. We use it to distract ourselves from the erosion of civil rights. That forms a much more integral part of her argument, and if you want to evaluate her essay as a whole, you might start there, with her supposition that the grifters are on Capitol Hill.

Let the silt sink to the bottom. And if the glass I’ve prepared for myself to drink is muddier than I like to admit, stop me in mid-swallow and point out what I have unconsciously ignored in order to bolster my own initial reaction and opinion. Perhaps, on some points, I am in error.

And let me speak to you, student to student: you don’t win the class by disagreeing with that day’s reading. Sosnoski would have cried to see you all competing with Kauffman. I remember the first time I read Foucault. There were students in the class already familiar with that thinker, and the first one who was called on answered the professor’s opening question perfunctorily and then went on to disagree with Foucault. At length. That’s an extreme example. But we’re all trying to be Sosnoski’s Magister Implicatus already, and because of this sometimes we miss the point entirely.

As a sort of post-script, I have a few questions:

In the last paragraph, Kauffman writes: “Growing up among grifters, I learned early how illusions are fabricated, how false piety smells. That doesn’t mean I have no illusions, hopes, dreams, etc. It does mean that I want continually to cast doubt on the status of knowledge – even as we are in the process of constructing it – a perpetual project … Rather than mythologizing ourselves or the past, can’t we total those disabled vehicles and – at long last – wave goodbye to all that?” (pg 274-5) Earlier, she wrote: “But (here’s the grifter’s voice again): Americans are hooked on authenticity and sincerity.” (pg 262) What does she intend with this very pointed use of personal testimony?

She wants us to “wave goodbye to all that”. Goodbye to All That was a novel written by Robert Graves about WWI. Why is that the closing line?

The Long Goodbye is the title of a Raymond Chandler novel (a murder mystery), and a movie based off of it. Either she didn’t realize that the title was already taken, or she’s playing two very different novels off of each other. I haven’t read either.

*“Is it even possible to write against the grain of individualism?” (261)

“…the individual cannot be confronted in isolation, separated from a complex matrix of international politics, environmental issues, multinational economics, and global military conflict” (pg 265).

Elizabeth319's picture

Pieces of Life's Puzzle

Allen's essay is my favorite piece that I have read so far this semester. Ironically, just after I finished reading her essay I received an e-mail from a mentor that started her e-mail with, "... it is somehow more about seeing the forest from the trees..." Her words may have flip-floped those of Allen's, but is of an identical bearing. I was surprised by such a coincidence and felt that maybe I should really start looking into the background of the forest that I am a part of.

Allen refuted each one of my westernized interpretations about the tale. Allen predicted many of the westernized interpretations and analysis that emerged as I read the tale including the comparison of the Robin Hood story to the tale, the assumed unhappy marraige, and the submission of Kochinnenako which then lead to a generalization that most women must be subjected to submission in the tribe. Just as Allen noted, the title lead me to the notion that Kochinnenako would be the heroine in the tale. Obviously, I was incorrect.

Despite my initial falcities, I favor the Keres Indian story over the westernized version. The Keres Indians may have significantly different values that influence how they live their lives compared to western ideals but the question of how much meaning was lost in translation also remains. Regardless, I would have to agree with MerryBelleFrey and note that I much rather the holistic interpretation and values of what our Western minds our abe to decipher from the culture and ways of the Keres Indians. I found the tale's values similar to the values,spirituality, and religion of the East. Rather than shining a focus on external forces guiding one through life the emphasis is put on one's inner central core. Life is a balancing act.

Not one of us chose to be born into this world of inequality but that is the reality. We can centralize positive energy toward equilibrium of all forces rather than exert unhealthy amounts of energy toward such asperity. To quote MerryBelleFrey, "All the bits and pieces of my life are rearranging themselves in a great 3-dimensional patchwork." I prefer to look at life as a balancing act and a neverending challenge to put together a multi dimensional puzzle that cannot be completed in this world.


rmeyer's picture

What an interesting class we

What an interesting class we had today. I suppose every time that I go to this class, I ask myself the question, "why am I taking this class?" I am new to the whole feminism thing. I must admit that when someone was referencing first, second and third wave feminism within my first class, I was really just...well, I felt in over my head. I, embarrassingly enough, went home and "googled" the terms.

Anyways, I consider myself a naive reader. I haven't quite formed all of my opinions in life, and certainly haven't in terms of feminism. I seem to have been reading the essays that we've been assigned and naturally agreeing with pretty much all of them, something that rather frightens me, but at the same ok, because all the opinions that bounce around during class jump-start my own opinions eventually.

In any case, after reading Kauffman's "The Long Goodbye", I actually agreed at one point. But, I think it was just me being a blind follower.

I feel like Kauffman's argument against personal testimony is in ways 'ok' to me, but ultimately, I generally feel like our issues, personal testimonies, and experiences MAKE UP the issues that we stand for. It seems to me, for some reason, that this argument goes against the whole feminism ideal. Aren't we fighting these issues BECAUSE of our personal testimonies? Thus, we should at least...perhaps not entirely ignore them. I do see how sometimes if someone were to say, "I was a poor girl living in the South"...that they may automatically take authority in that sort of group of issues due to natural human behavior and psychology, but I feel like that sort of authority makes the feminist theory stronger. Hmmm.
gail's picture

Kaufmann and Gunn Allen

Hi- I'm Gail '67 an alum.

I had more trouble than you with Kaufmann's essay.  It seemed to me that whatever valid points she had were lost among her wordy "academic"eze.

This is not our lack.

I found the example format of Paula Gunn Allen easier and much more interesting to read.  This seems to emphasize the personal testimony or experience we all bring to any art. I agree with your feelings.


Anne Dalke's picture

Living in the Lapse

I mentioned in class today an experience I'd had over the weekend that seemed relevant to our discussion of constructing narratives...

I participated in a really soulful performance with the Headlong Theater, in an astonishing space--an abandoned church in West Philadelphia. We were asked to wear blue. To go deeper into the denseness of the sensual world, into an analogue reality, to live in the lapse, the absence of explication, the gap between experience and explanation. Saturday night was the last performance of the "Explanatorium," so I can't recommend your going to this particular show (though the company offers both free First Friday performances in old city and a semester away program co-sponsored by Bryn Mawr). It occurs to me, however, that much of what they are doing--preparing their private expressions to meet the public, letting their innerworld find its way to the outerworld, exploring our fascination with the inexplicable, reveling in our awareness of not being sure, taking the risk of making pieces by indirection, by experiment, and by conversation--are deeply resonant with our own explorations, in this class, of the narratives we are making up, as we go, about our lives.
gail's picture

explorations and narratives

I appreciate your sharing this experience on-line for alums in addition to class.  This is important to me. 

 I do use your class notes ( and appreciate the modifications/additions).  They give me a sense of interaction.

Perhaps it is my failing, but I do not get the sense of a "thread" or sharing of thought.  As I read the posting of students/alums, each seems to be a brief independent essay.  Perhaps, as this , you could start us out....or....the assignment each week would be to "post one" and "respond to a posting" of the prior week or current week.

Thank you for leading us in developing our narratives.

marybellefrey's picture

Allen and Kaufman

Allen has turned my world upside down -- or more accurately, stood me on my head. For a good part of the last ten years I have been reviewing my life, looking for continuity and meaning. Last year I was given a book that deals with the symbols of astrology and the esoteric tradition from a Jungian point of view. For the first time in my 70 years I felt that someone was talking about my life; it helped me see some direction or meaning. But Allen makes me realize that I have been looking for a narrative, a linear, chronological, 'masculine', left-brain construct with myself in the foreground. I am on my head because she makes it so clear what the holistic, multi-dimensional, 'feminine', right-brain mode actually is --- AND its practice. All the bits and pieces of my life are rearranging themselves in a great 3-dimensional patchwork. Even my understanding of the Jungian analysis of symbols is changing: the direction and significance I had taken from it are becoming a fluid pattern of relationships and balances, with myself, strangely, sometimes present, sometimes not. Reading, writing, and speech are primarily left brain. I have read about the right-brain qualities with that left brain and it is all very theoretical. Allen is the master prestidigitator: flip! flop! and here I am on the other side of the corpus callosum. Not quite at home yet, but eagerly anticipating making our heritage (the human heritage) of both sides of the brain truly mine. Kaufman's dilemna might look very different from the right side of the corpus callosum.