Which “Women” Are Prized? On Racialized Gender

Christine “Xine” Yao, University College London

#ReclaimHerName invites us to affectively participate in the triumph of rescuing benighted women authors from the grasp of an agèd patriarchal literary tradition that has forced them to toil under the false mask of a masculine pseudonym.  Liberate these women from that history so they may stand proudly in the light of our feminist moment!

To my eye the catchy phrasing developed by the Baileys marketing team capitalizes upon the unacknowledged influence of two recent Black feminist hashtags and their attendant critiques: #ReclaimingMyTime and #SayHerName. The former references U.S. Representative Maxine Waters’s pointed response to Republican prevarications during a congressional hearing in 2017. The latter is the movement by the African American Policy Forum to draw attention to the Black women such as Sandra Bland who are victimized by police brutality and anti-Black violence but whose names are too readily forgotten in the discourse around Black Lives Matter. The complicated affects involved in both become streamlined into #ReclaimHerName’s promise that we can share in a sense of struggle and feel good about it too.

If this is the Women’s Prize, which women are prized? Or rather, how does a reductive idea of womanhood based on whiteness operate as the lens of legibility through which writers are prized?

Although the array of writers selected by Baileys in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Women’s Prize is diverse, there is something pernicious about this campaign’s universalizing of Black feminist hashtags about misogynoir concerning time and names. Liberal multiculturalism co-opts and makes invisible Black women and their labors in the name of uplifting them alongside other women of color and white women on a playing field that flattens out difference. There is an erasure of the nuances of racialized gender that implicitly reinstates the white cisgender woman as normative template for all other modalities of minoritarian gender. If this is the Women’s Prize, which women are prized? Or rather, how does a reductive idea of womanhood based on whiteness operate as the lens of legibility through which writers are prized?

I wish to make two further points about #ReclaimHerName by tracing counterpoints to the affects the marketing campaign wished to elicit. First is my interest in lingering with racialized modes of unfeeling like Oriental inscrutability that defy the affective and epistemological transparencies that the project relies upon. Among the twenty-five writers, they incorporated a short story allegedly written by Edith Maude Eaton, best known as Sui Sin Far, under the name Mahlon T. Wing. I am less interested in the errors–such as claiming her novels were famous when Eaton never wrote a novel we know of–than comparing the choice of “How White Men Assist in Smuggling Chinamen Across the Border in Puget Sound Country” to one of her best known short stories “The Smuggling of Tie Co.”

Of the Wing short story whose title functions as straightforward summary, the framing text on the Baileys’ website states, “Unlike her characters, she no longer needs to hide.” But what if Eaton and her characters are resistant to that reclaiming, to that assumption that exposure is justice? “The Smuggling of Tie Co” complicates the scenario of white men aiding the smuggling of Chinese across national borders. The story is recognized by scholars for its queerness: Far disaggregates gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation from the supposed fact of Tie Co’s body reclaimed after the character’s death. “Tie Co’s body, and yet not Tie Co, for Tie Co was a youth, and the body found with Tie Co’s face and dressed in Tie Co’s clothes was the body of a girl–a woman.” The story ends with the white Jack Fabian “pondering long and earnestly over the mystery of Tie Co’s life–and death.” Fabian is unable to reclaim a Tie Co that would be legible to him and the narrator preserves that inscrutability.

My feelings about #ReclaimHerName, however, are not so obscure. The clumsy inclusion of the Wing short story twists the careful recovery work of my postdoctoral mentor Mary Chapman. This faux-feminist campaign erases the intergenerational and horizontal practices of feminist scholarship necessary for the sensitive attention required to do justice to minoritized writers.

In closing, I turn to the celebration of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at the Dickens Universe conference as a contrasting project of feminist scholarship not only in content but in practice. In these events Brigitte Fielder, Koritha Mitchell, Derrick Spires, and Nazera Sadiq Wright demonstrated the intellectual richness of Harper studies as it is strengthened by an ethos of collaboration and pedagogy; it emerged that over the years Carla Peterson’s graduate seminar had been the generative site for the next generation of Harper scholars. I myself am indebted to the generosity of these scholars in my work on Harper. In honouring the names and works of writers, we need to remember the importance of citation. Citation is political, as elucidated by theorist Sara Ahmed: uplifting names can be feminist and anti-racist critique.

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