Susan Bordo, M. Cristina Alcalde, Ellen Rosenman, eds. Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 608 pp. $59.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-26422-9.
Reviewed by Valerie M. Hudson (Texas A&M University)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Readers—especially those of the 579-page variety—are notoriously difficult to review. Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought is a stimulating new collection which proves no exception to this rule. The difficulty arises because readers are not first and foremost an argument about the material they present. Instead, the reader in effect is itself an argument about the choice of material presented. The appropriateness and efficacy of that choice can only be assessed relative to the vision of the volume, and it is to that vision we now turn.
Provocations is not thematic in its organization; rather it is arranged by historical time periods. Within each time period, primary source materials from more than one culture are proffered. The reason for this lies in the purpose of the volume: it was intended to be the accompanying text for a women’s studies class on the transnational history of feminist thought. The editors, all from the University of Kentucky (indeed, twelve of the twenty-seven who contributed introductory essays are from that institution), attest that this vision at times seemed “an impossible dream” (p. xvii). To accomplish this dream, women’s studies-affiliated scholars at the University of Kentucky held two-week-long “feminist summer camps,” to which they invited scholars from other universities, in order to begin shaping the choice of readings to include (p. xvii).
The editors note that while the class and its reader seek to capture the history of feminist thought, neither seeks to lay out the history of feminist thought. They state, “Our pairings of primary texts and critical essays are organized chronologically not to create an overarching historical narrative but to give a sense of the movements, relations, and conversations that can justifiably be described as crossing or overlapping borders, as well as the differences between them” (p. xxi). Thus, if you are looking for primary source materials from authors one would expect to see in a history of feminist thought, you may be disappointed. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Gilman Perkins, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and Catherine McKinnon do not make an appearance in this reader.
At first, I found this disconcerting, even troubling. It was only when I understood that this reader was assembled by asking the participants of the summer camps to “pick readings ... on the movements and ideas that each considered essential to include” (p. xviii), that I could accept the volume on its own terms; that is, this reader is more of a personalized endeavor by those who will teach this particular course. The editors own up to such: “our own cross talk became the collection’s true editor” (p. xxiii).
Perhaps sensing this might be problematic for those outside their group of instructors, the editors do ponder “what scholars and students are to do with all this diversity, beyond celebrating it, tasting all the dishes on the smorgasbord table” (p. xviii). Their exhortation to the reader is therefore to appreciate “each contribution or set of contributions in its own geographical and cultural context, while prodding history to reveal what is shared—and not shared—across those borders” (p. xix). In other words, enjoy the smorgasbord.
If one accepts these scope conditions, there is much to be enjoyed. In addition to “key documents,” such as an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), there are also “lesser known texts,” and some real gems may be discovered in these 579 pages (p. xx). I enjoyed learning about Musonius Rufus, a male Roman who felt women should be educated. I found myself personally drawn to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a bright young nun in the Spanish New World who chafed at the constrictions of gender more than the constrictions of life as a nun. I was pleased to become reacquainted with the work of Paula Gunn Allen on early Native American women, and also Fatima Mernissi of Morocco. Michael Kimmel’s selections of the works of male writers fighting strict gender roles of masculinity were new to me, and well worth reading.
However, the organization of the volume itself is uneven. How nice it would have been to have the date and place of each primary source included right with the title of the piece. The odd “text box” appears once or twice throughout the volume, with little rhyme or reason. The “introductory essay” to Mernissi’s excerpt is another Mernissi excerpt. Some essays are stand-alone with no primary source material provided, such as the short essay by Nadje Al-Ali. In the section on women in the French-controlled Caribbean, the only primary source material provided does not represent the voices of women or those who support them, but rather examples of misogynist writings by men in that time and place—which seems at odds with the purpose of the volume. There are numerous other examples of this unevenness that could be given. Perhaps cross-talk should not have been the editor; perhaps the editors themselves should have shaped and structured the volume a bit more.
In sum, I am glad to have read this volume. It has given me knowledge of and access to works with which I had not previously been acquainted. I deeply appreciated the editors’ effort to find works from every time period from antiquity to the present, and the effort to find works from every continent. These are terrific contributions, and the editors are to be congratulated for offering this volume to all who are interested in feminism. At the same time, it would be difficult to make this reader a required text for a transnational history of feminism course. The unevenness of the volume, coupled with its nature as a personalized endeavor of those jointly teaching a specific course in a specific program, make it more of a resource volume for other professors rather than a stand-alone text to be assigned. In that capacity, however, the book will occupy a place of distinction on my office shelf.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Valerie M. Hudson. Review of Bordo, Susan; Alcalde, M. Cristina; Rosenman, Ellen, eds., Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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