Ann Snitow has been an essential voice in the feminist movement for decades, and she recently put together a collection of her writings called The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary. We spoke with her about theory versus practice, her activism in Eastern Europe, her work with incarcerated men, and the new generation of feminists.
How did you choose which essays would be included in the collection?
There were big piles of yellowing paper and old journals, so I went through them all. It was like archeology. I didn't edit the pieces much because I thought one of their virtues was this time-marked quality that they had, that they were of their moment. So I hope that reading the book is like opening a little jar and having 1979 come out. And at the same time, I saw that there were clusters, preoccupations that went across time and that might be interesting in new combinations. The book is really about a life in activism that also included scholarship and being a college professor. It’s about the constant struggle to figure out those two pieces of life, without pretending they are the same thing. So the book is not meant to be exemplary. It's meant to suggest how one person moved through all of these different things.
How have you balanced between activism and scholarship?
There's an old war about theory versus practice, right? This is something that feminists have spent a lot of time fussing over for many years. I wanted to climb out of that and say, yes, everything's practice. These are, however, different modes. You're constantly trying to figure out whether one can turn into the other. They can feed each other, but there's no reason to collapse them because I think that they are usefully separate.
I give an example in the book of the fact that I helped start a little NGO in Eastern Europe in 1991, which was meant to be an international feminist exchange between East and West right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was really hard to make that organization. It took a couple of years to figure out how it could function, how we could deal with the overtones of colonialism and imperialism that always come up when Americans go somewhere and “help” somebody. It took a long time, but it never finally resolved because an NGO is a very flawed form. It's not democratic. It's controlled by strange sources of money which may or may not be commensurate with what you're trying to do. It's a strange pimple on the body of public social life.
But at the same time, you can have an NGO that does a huge amount of organizing, that really is a place where people with very different experiences join together to try to develop a local feminism in various locations. It's solidarity. There's a lot of evidence that we built something that really made a difference in people’s lives. We gave feminist law education to a lot of young lawyers in Eastern and Central Europe. They learned about feminist jurisprudence, and it gave them completely different careers.
It’s interesting that you call it a "gender diary." I like the idea of acknowledging that activism and scholarship can be very personal.
The personal commitment is very peculiar. Why would you persist? In some ways, self-knowledge about what your stake is in the movement is part of understanding how to proceed. When I understood that going to Eastern Europe was not just a feminist project but was also a great personal adventure, I thought, let it be what it is. It brought the humility and the recognition that this was something that I was doing because I loved it, and it fascinated me, and it enlivened me.
There's a section in the book called "The Feminist Picaresque." And that's a little bit naughty, of course, because the Picaro was this miscreant who stole and slept with everything that moved. But the Picaro is an adventurer who's an outsider. Once I started doing international work, feminism became an adventure. Ellen Willis used to say, "What we want is happiness, not goodness." So I did good work going to all these different places, but also, I was happy. It was grand. It was an adventure. It was wild. When you travel, you encounter people who really have a different understanding of feminism and are living in a different situation, and it breaks apart the categories you bring with you.
How do you see feminism as having evolved over time? What does feminism look like to you now?
Now there's this wonderful idea of the individual fate. That’s an achievement of individualism, and it comes partly from the enlightenment values that feminism embodies, but also partly from neoliberalism and late capitalism. These things are just so woven together in my students’ lives that it's hard for me to disentangle them. I want them to feel empowered as individuals. I like the idea that what we achieved was a sense of each woman having a personal destiny that isn't written. I mean, how wonderful. What an achievement of the second wave that they feel like that, which certainly we didn't feel at their age. The path was totally laid down, and you could be an outsider and a rebel, but you would pay the price, and you knew the price was high.
But what work are my students going to have? They have to change all the time, and retool themselves all the time. Between the debt, the number of jobs they have, the cost of rent—how much time do they have for political activity?
I thought Occupy Wall Street was a great breakthrough. For that short time, my students were different. They were all participating. And they needed it, they were thrilled, they had never had that experience before. I think it's a different situation now. The '60s and the '70s were fat years in this country. My generation of people are so used to political activism as a texture in their life. Many factors make one moment ripe and another moment not ripe.
What advice do you give your students about how to be activists?
Right now, I'm telling my students to work on the incarceration movement. I think that's a going concern now, and gender is all over it. When I was teaching men in prison, I thought it was the most important thing I was doing. I was trying to persuade these men that they could re-enter without having to do a macho performance. They were trying to persuade me how hard that would be. We had a real meeting of the minds, where they were saying, "I feel shame because I can't fulfill my male role."
I said to them, "Shame is the form your oppression is taking. It's not gonna work. Not only is it a terrible, mean-spirited emotion that's being foisted on you from all parts of the culture, but also, it isn't productive for you." We spent a lot of time on this, and I thought, all you can do is make a little more space for people to imagine some other way of being. It was a space that was speculative about other ways of being. There was a gay man in the class who came out. The class was ambivalent at first, but finally, he was completely accepted. It was freeing. So I'm thinking that maybe working on masculinity is an important thing for feminists to do now, and that one location of doing that is talking to male prisoners, working for their release, trying to figure out what men should do. Men are in big trouble.
I understand you did a seminar for the New York Institute for the Humanities from 1982 to 1994. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, it was so wonderful. It was started by William Leach. He was writing books about consumer culture and how it changed in the 19th century. He started a seminar called "Sex, Gender, and Consumer Culture." He got tired of it after a year or two, and I was in it, so I took it over and became a member of the institute. We gathered together a bunch of people who were writing those early books about sexuality and culture, and gay experience. It was the beginning of that huge burst of publishing about sexuality. Many books came out of that seminar. People gathered who were thinking about these topics: Barbara Ehrenreich, Leonore Tiefer, Jeffrey Weeks, John D'Emilio, Jonathan Katz, Esther Newton, Dennis Altman, Judith Levine. We would present what we were working on, and then we had a hot discussion for an hour and a half. Because it was the beginning of a new area of discussion, it was thrilling. AIDS was just beginning then, and we had a whole big series about AIDS. In retrospect, I'm terribly proud of it. People were very transformed by it and did a lot of creative work from it. Many people remember them with indebtedness and fondness.
Interview by Molly Long