María Carla Sánchez, UNC Greensboro
I beg a little indulgence, and an indirect path to explaining my titular ellipsis: I have been writing about three Mexican women who published poems in the newspaper El republicano during the early months of the 1846-48 war with the U.S. The poems are fascinating and none-too-optimistic responses to the political future Mexicans found themselves contemplating in 1846. Two of the women, Guadalupe Calderón and Josefa Letechipía de González, published poetry elsewhere that I have been able to locate. The wonderful Hispanist scholar Christopher Conway argues that the few Mexican women who found their way into print during the 19th century utilized family networks: they were sisters, sisters-in-law, and sometimes cousins of the hombres de bien who ruled Mexico’s belletristic culture. (But rarely were they wives or mothers. That’s a story for another day.) That’s true for two of the three poets, the two for whom I’ve been able to find other published works; they were not only related to literary men, but distantly related to each other.
But the third woman? Her name is Josefa Terán. Conway surmises that she, too, could have been related to a male author, but he has no proof. Nothing connects her to a better known man, or to anyone, actually. No birth record, no death certificate, no record of marriage, residence, inheritance, notoriety: not one other extant glimpse of her. These poems, spirits from a world in which Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas were still Mexican territory, represent the only trace that once, a woman named Josefa Terán possessed a beautiful way with words, and that she used it as a figurative weapon against an invader – one of the few weapons, it turned out, that any of her fellow citizens possessed.
I share this story about Terán because her name and two poems are all that can be reclaimed about her, and my frustration and sadness about this makes me sympathetic to the basic aim of the Reclaim Her Name effort. Let me be clear: I’m not sympathetic to the bizarrely tone-deaf and intellectually slapdash manner in which the staff of the Women’s Prize for Fiction went about forming this project. As all of the brilliant scholars of Legacy and SSAWW’s original panel astutely noted, almost everything that could be done badly in this endeavor, was done badly, from the choice of author to the tokenizing of writers of color to the failure to recognize any of the glorious nuances that now enable us to push categories like “woman” to their vital limits. (It’s the general haplessness that offends me. To pay so little attention to getting things right that you could put a photo of Frederick Douglass on a cover and call him Martin Delany strikes me as too much akin to this for comfort.)
And yet… at some early conceptual moment for Reclaim Her Name, I assume there was a heartbeat of what I call that “basic aim”: not to let the least known of these names and texts languish in obscurity and perhaps disappear. For when I look at that list of 25 texts, I see a majority that are absolutely unknown to me. Neither pen names, birth names, nor titles. Despite a professional lifetime devoted primarily to studying nineteenth-century women writers, I was utterly ignorant of who these figures were. Henrietta Everett/Theo Douglas? Julia Constance Fletcher/George Fleming? The Roadmender, or Attila, My Attila? Never heard of any of them, and this nags at me. Women, regardless of how capaciously or narrowly they understand that category as pertaining to themselves, are still in a position of having their intellectual legacies rendered marginal and tenuous. What protects the writers that the Legacy readership and SSAWW membership have worked assiduously to recover and recuperate? (Or those brought back to print and accessibility by the Recovering the Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, or the Schomburg Library, and similar entities?) What guarantees do any of us have that in a century or two, these authors won’t meet the same fate as Josefa Terán?
Lest my concerns strike anyone as melodramatic, let’s recap: all of us in the USA, at least, are experiencing the first “female recession,” with job losses in the service sector and a punishing lack of childcare options driving women out of the work force and into lines for food banks. Media of all kinds have documented for months now that school closures and childcare duties are sinking the productivity of female academics. Looming budget cuts due to coronavirus collateral damage will strike first at the most vulnerable in our ranks, those scholars actually categorized as contingent. Our citizenry faces political choices in the coming weeks that will immediately affect how all of us, across a wide spectrum of gendered and racialized identities, are comprehended as autonomous persons before the state – or not. I could elaborate, but this is likely enough to comprehend why I am sober about the challenges we may face striving to keep publishing initiatives, scholarly organizations, and a wide range of conferences and symposia vibrant and thriving. And most important of all: a future for the humanities in which tomorrow’s graduate students replace us, take on new projects of claiming, reclaiming and proclaiming, get it right, and are never, in any sense of the word, contingent.
So I’ll happily join the criticism of the artless fumbling of the Reclaim Her Name project. But I won’t fault the basic desire to preserve a past for someone who may one day need it. Let’s follow Mary Chapman’s sage counsel: Let’s “get better at sharing our research with the public.” If we can find ways to work with gente outside academia, we know we can do recovery, reclamation, and legacy very, very well.
And let’s hit Bailey’s up for more money. I volunteer for that task. Seriously, a little Bailey’s on ice, maybe some chocolate, your favorite music? It’s the only way to grade papers.
Rockeman, Olivia, Reade Pickert, and Catarina Saraiva. “The First Female Recession Threatens to Wipe Out Decades of Progress for U.S. Women.” Bloomberg, Sept. 30, 2020. Web. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-30/u-s-recovery-women-s-job-losses-will-hit-entire-economy