Dorothy Q. Thomas – ‘Daughters of the American Revolution: Progressivism, Feminism and Human Rights in the U.S.’
I stumbled across the publicity for this talk at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute about a month ago (around the time I last posted here, actually). It has now been uploaded as a video, and you can see it here.
I’m watching it as I type this. For some reason I can’t make it fast-forward to the place I left off watching it on Sunday when interrupted by tiny children and their unignorable needs, so it’s running in the background until it gets to that point. It’s a really interesting presentation so far. The sound is rotten, sadly, and it can be hard to listen to some segments because of that; but if the topics in question appeal to you, it’s worth persevering.
It’s not a presentation on family history as such, although Thomas does use what she knows of two ancestors – her namesakes, in the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries – as a starting point for the issues she’s examining. Both had fascinating, varied and independent lives, but she mentions the difficulty of teasing out their history as individuals after their marriages: a familiar problem to anyone researching female ancestors. She goes on to address the way that our desire to align ourselves with particular movements like feminism or progressivism can bring about conflict between different elements of our identities, extending even to the point where we’re alienated from our own background (in her case, as in mine, that background includes some relatively privileged and well-documented American families, the sort beloved by the nostalgic right).
The middle section of the talk really resonated with me. I’ve frequently felt, over the years, that certain aspects of my identity could be viewed by others as strikes against the legitimacy of my feminism. I’ve therefore occasionally found myself, as Thomas says she has also done (it’s much more significant for her, as she is a hugely influential human rights activist) downplaying various aspects of myself so that I feel more legitimate, uncomfortably squashing or even fracturing my own identity in the process. I’ve also struggled a bit with how to frame experiences from my past; eg whether any not-very-feminist choices made in response to particular circumstances 15 or 20 years ago are something I still need to be a little ashamed of, or better regarded as lessons learned by trial and error. (Yes, I know the answer, but it’s surprisingly hard to relax about this stuff.)
Obviously, anxious self-criticism is not what being a feminist, or a progressive or a member of any positive movement, should be about. A bit of rational self-examination is great, but navel-gazing self-consciousness and dwelling on the past doesn’t do anyone any good; it just stops you from getting things done. I would like both of my children to grow up feminists, but I certainly don’t want them to be bogged down by these issues. Hopefully they won’t. Hopefully things are changing, and as Thomas suggests, the politics of legitimacy can shift to focus on our commitments rather than our identities. It’s a thought-provoking set of ideas, anyway, and there’s a lot more to it than I’ve picked up on here (Thomas locates it within the bigger picture of American progressivism and global human rights activism). I think there’s maybe going to be a book at some stage, which would be nice. She comes across as someone who, while eloquent, is mainly inclined towards practical action and ideas that can be used; I love that. I’m really bad at staying interested in stuff that’s purely theoretical.
I do hope to come back to this later. A series of random RL events (family illness, laptop death, actual work coming in for me to do) has kept this blog from taking off, but I’m keen to get it back on track with some more substantial contributions.
Oh, and: Hidden from History has still not arrived at my local branch of the library. Which is sort of fine, because I’ve had no time to read it anyway, but I have a suspicion it might actually be lost in the city library system. Which is kind of ironic.