In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism

June 26, 2008

I am going to try but I am not quite sure of this. I don't think I know how to write without being intimate, without exposing myself and my real feelings about what is going on around me and I am not as charitable as I appear," wrote Joan Nestle, founder member of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, on 3 January 1977 to a woman friend.

It is intimate letters such as these, written between second-wave American and British feminists, that are discussed and analysed in Margaretta Jolly's fascinating book In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism, the first cultural study of such sources.

Jolly draws not only on lesbian love letters but also letters between mothers and daughters, e-mail novels, memoirs and feminist communities on the web as she charts the development of feminist consciousness from the heyday of second-wave feminism to today's internet networks.

It is her contention that such sources track feminist ideals about personal relationships, offering a powerful record of women's willingness to prioritise relationships among themselves.

In particular, she identifies what she terms a "culture of relationship", a notion of mutual care that reveals that love among women has been essential to their liberation, an erotic form of class consciousness that went way beyond traditional calls for brotherhood in men's class struggles.

Much of the inspiration for Jolly's book came from Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's pathbreaking 1975 article, "The female world of love and ritual". In this essay, Smith-Rosenberg uncovered an epistolary network among 19th-century white middle-class American women that suggested that they were involved in deeply loving relationships with one another that were nevertheless compatible with heterosexual marriage and motherhood.

The evidence presented in this book suggests that 20th-century feminists came to favour separation from men, a claim that would be hotly denied by many heterosexual socialist feminists who fought battles with their menfolk over shared housework and childcare, sexual autonomy and women's marginal place in the public sphere.

Indeed, the wider social and political context of second-wave feminism is not explored in this text, nor are the differing cultures of the US and Britain. Nonetheless, Jolly does her task well in mining previously untapped sources to explore personal relationships between women as they try to develop new ways of doing politics.

The chapter on the passionate friendships between the Greenham Common peace women is particularly moving. The 36 women, four men and assorted children who initially marched in 1981 to protest against the siting of US nuclear cruise missiles at this airbase in southern England did not intend to create a community, nor write about it. But it happened.

In the women-only community that developed, the fundamental tenets of the women's peace movement were worked out - principles of non-violence, egalitarianism, decision by consensus and a holistic and emotional, as well as intellectual, approach to change.

The women's peace camp, recollected one of its participants, "brought the possibility of a lesbian lifestyle to the surface for women ... from all backgrounds ... (P)eople didn't say they're a gang of well-meaning housewives. They said that they're a gang of dykes ... I think that's been very important. And the idea that women can take control of their own lives, and take control of other people's lives, and can say to politicians, we're not going to have this sort of shit."

It is in revealing the often hidden, unsung lesbian voices of second-wave feminism that In Love and Struggle makes a major contribution to the available literature. In Jolly's focus on the personal relationships between women, we find a discourse about, as well as within, feminism that explores its very nature as a social movement.

In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism

By Margaretta Jolly
Columbia University Press
328pp
£23.50
ISBN 9870231137928
Published 1 March 2008

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