Swimming with Feminists

  • Jeanne Perreault, Heather Zwicker (Editor), Jo-Ann Wallace (Editor) and Susan Brown (Editor)
    Not Drowning But Waving: Women, Feminism, and the Liberal Arts. University of Alberta Press

Stevie Smith’s well-known metaphor (which has been reversed for the book’s title) places both subject and spectator in a quandary. For the subject far off shore, it is how to communicate one’s message to the spectator on shore; for the spectator, it is to correctly interpret the subject’s semaphore. Since misinterpretation could have fatal consequences, the spectator can’t afford to allow the subject to drown simply to avoid the embarrassment of an unnecessary and unwanted rescue mission. Whether waving or drowning is occurring, attention must be paid.

This anthology purports to be a “progress report on the variety of feminisms at work in academe and beyond,” and yet its title’s poetic ambiguity suggests that there are many more possible messages from “out there” that need our attention, that a post-feminist safe harbour has not yet been reached, and that a revisiting of Western feminisms’ metaphor of first, second, and third waves is called for.

The title of this collection, honouring Patricia Clements, long-time Dean of Arts at the University of Alberta, is most apt since many of the diverse essays it contains have in common an exploration of the use of metaphor as a means of problematizing (or opening up) key markers in feminist praxis—primarily of the last half century in Canada—in both academe and activism. Metaphor prompts theory that in turn prompts strategy. The language we use matters.

For Katherine Binhammer and Ann Shteir, it matters that we abandon the image of a historical progression of feminist thought for a more provocative (and less seemingly judgmental) “all-at-onceness.” They remind us that reading Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, as feminist analysis relevant only to her own historic moment is to obscure the ongoing applicability of her work to subsequent feminist thought. We need to be reminded that “feminism’s truth is that it must always struggle within contradiction, of acting on behalf of women while it simul- taneously erases the category.”

Elizabeth Groeneveld, in her essay on feminism’s use of the wave metaphor, argues that the image of the wave creates a too simplistic narrative of linear progress that obscures as much as it reveals. “This conceptualization of feminist histories,” she writes, “tends to overlook the ways in which the energies within social move- ments often take multiple forms or are engaged elsewhere at different times and in different spaces.” She suggests replacing the wave with Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of the rhizome, which offers a way to think about the intricate connections of ideas, polydirectional and expansive, often hidden underground, but always present and ready to bloom in the right conditions.

Amber Dean’s compelling reflection on the Disappeared Women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside offers a careful inves- tigation into how much language matters. Hundreds of women didn’t simply “dis- appear”; they “were disappeared” in many ways: through the history and ongoingness of colonization, and through the culture’s indifference to the humanity of addicts and sex workers. When attention is finally paid to them on the basis of an appeal to see them as sisters, mothers, and daughters, Dean wonders if this change of language, however strategic, may also contribute to the erasure of the circumstances of their lives and deaths. And, lest we consign their stories to a convenient past, Dean insists that these women haunt us in a present where violence against women is ongoing.

Lise Gotell’s essay on the human rights case Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief con- siders how this difficult and very divisive case about whether an MTF trans woman had a right to work in a woman-only private organization “resists a feminist solution.” Who defines “woman” as a category, and for what purposes: inclusion or exclusion, the extension of rights or the limitations thereof?

However difficult the swim sometimes seems, feminists in the liberal arts aren’t drowning, as long as Canadian institutions continue to employ a range of thoughtful voices such as these, who remind us of the temperature of the water and the hazards therein.

This review “Swimming with Feminists” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 144-45.

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