On Claiming and Naming: Whose Feminism? What Ends?

Brigitte Fielder, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As I consider the efficacy of the Reclaim Her Name project, I am interested in trying to understand the rhetoric of “reclaiming.” What does it mean to claim or reclaim an author’s name? Whose names require reclaiming? Who needs / ought to reclaim them? And for whom are they (re)claimed?

One reason for my confusion is the project’s odd unevenness with regard to well-known and understudied writers. Why, for example, republish Middlemarch (a book that is widely available, by a well-known author whose identity is hardly a secret) when one might have highlighted an understudied woman writer?

As a scholar of African American women writers, I cannot help but notice the project’s merely tokenizing inclusion of nonwhite women. That the texts for writers such as Frances Whipper, Sui Sin Far, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson were also fraught with factual errors resulting from sloppy research is not lost on me. Nor is this lack of care surprising, given the ways that mainstream white feminism has refused to attend to the lives, work, and needs of nonwhite women (despite countercurrents of work that thinks beyond whiteness and other limiting normative categories).

In this refusal to engage authentically with the literary histories of marginalized women writers, the project truly missed an opportunity. The frame of Reclaim Her Name has led me to consider how I discuss names in my own pedagogical practices. This semester I am again teaching a course on Early (pre-Harlem Renaissance) Black Feminisms. In this course I assign a fairly standard array of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century African American women writers, including Phillis Wheatley, Maria Stewart, Ann Plato, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Harriet Jacobs, Julia Collins, Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper.

At the beginning of the semester I always ask students how many Black women who lived before 1900 they can name. They have never (collectively) named more than two or three (the two most popular being Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, only occasionally accompanied by Harriet Jacobs). The vast majority of U.S. students are still taught very little about African American women in K-12 schools; most of the names on my syllabus are entirely unfamiliar to them. These names–and the very existence of Black women writers–must be first reclaimed, so to speak, in order to open up not only the work of individual authors but an entire area of study that was previously unavailable to my students.

As I think about this pedagogical reclaiming, I consider the oddness of the Reclaim Her Name project’s framing around a presumed need to “reclaim” names that people chose deliberately (under a variety of circumstances) not to use. Why not amplify names that are right there in the archive but ignored by mainstream accounts of literary history? Moreover, even if we begin with names, why make this an end point? Notwithstanding, for example, the inaccuracy of claiming Frances Whipper’s biography was the first written by a Black woman, the choice of this text seems rather arbitrary. Choosing a book about Martin Delany’s life risks eliding the fact that African American women have long written about Black women’s issues specifically. A truly feminist project (such as the #SayHerName activism that this project riffs on) does not end with naming alone.

Why not amplify names that are right there in the archive but ignored by mainstream accounts of literary history?

Academic recovery of women writers has, in contrast, focused on making little-known or out-of-print works available for study. The accompanying editorial labor often involves filling in biographical details or publication histories, providing historical context, and at times even speculating about the sources of anonymously published texts. Recovery work on women writers has increasingly taken up difficult questions regarding whose work is recovered and why, who does this recovery work, and who that recovery benefits. Such projects have often been collective and collaborative, as scholars build upon earlier, foundational research. This work is cumulative and expansive, not only adding new texts or information to an existing canon or genre but demanding that we reimagine notions of literary canons and generic categorizations in light of these additions. The results are exciting and field shifting, often complicating what we once thought we knew, uncovering new avenues for producing literary knowledge. Recovery scholarship of the past several decades has questioned not only who we talk about when we talk about women writers, but also why and how, and for whose benefit.

As we consider the project of naming and claiming women writers, I want to consider still another question: To what (kinds of) feminist ends do these acts of naming or reclaiming bring us? A feminist project need and should not simply reinscribe a narrow, exclusive, and limiting form of feminism. Rather, we might use this opportunity to interrogate its feminist framing by considering the unevenness of past namings and claimings as we seek to build more capacious forms and avenues for feminism in the twenty-first century.

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