Date of Degree
Nancy K. Miller
Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, North America | Women's Studies
Feminism, Autobiography, Archives, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, This Bridge Called My Back
The desire to record lives and the conviction that such recordings would serve an important purpose for other women were the motivations behind much of the autobiographical writing in U.S. feminist writing of the 1970s and 80s. In Genres of Feminist Lives: Autobiography, Archives, and Community, 1970-1983, I argue that feminist writers in this period used autobiographical writing to create a sense of community among their readers: a new feminist public. Realizing the inadequacy of a sense of identification, these writers encouraged their audiences, in the words of Audre Lorde, to transform silence into language and action. While scholars have rightly called for new narratives of feminist history and theory, I argue that an analysis of the literary forms feminists were using during this period makes clear they were already rejecting simplistic linear or narratives of coming-to-consciousness—both thematically and formally—in favor of hybrid texts that attempted to model and create dialogue and action. To make this claim, I explore texts in four different genres—journal entries, poetry, hybrid autobiographies, and anthologies—and include with an epilogue that points to contemporary resonances and challenges. I look at work by authors including Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Michelle Cliff, Jill Johnston, and other contributors to feminist anthologies.
Archival materials—including the unpublished papers of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, the organizational materials of women’s liberation groups and feminist publishers, and copies of feminist newsletters and journals—are both source and subject for this project. My own location in the archive as a researcher has encouraged me to think about the relationship of the writers I’m studying to archives they used, hoped for, and created. As they engaged with the traces of past women’s lives—reading, recovering, and often incorporating into their own work—feminist writers in this era found the motivation and starting point for telling their own stories, as well as the basis of new forms and structures in which to tell them. This engagement with the artifacts of other women’s lives was part of the way that the autobiographical texts of this period modeled ways of depicting the self in relation to other women, of mapping a community or genealogy of women.
Rather than as singular interventions, we should view these feminist texts a part of a broader genealogy of autobiographical writing by feminists and women of color that continues to merit consideration today, as our contemporary moment continues to bring challenges about how to create dialogue and community without effacing individual voices, how to move from experience and identification to action, and how to create and develop feminisms that do not entrench singular narratives, but create space for unevenness, hybridity, and multiply-voiced subjectivity.
Benjamin, Meredith A., "Genres of Feminist Lives: Autobiography, Archives, and Community, 1970-1983" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.