Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
In her essay “what feminism means to me,” the second-wave feminist vivian gornick describes her entry into 1970s feminism in terms that have become very familiar. First, there is the “exhilaration” that comes from feminist analysis, “the particular type of joy [that arises] when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape and are gathered together … elaborating the insight and repeating the analysis” (64–65). Then there is the seemingly inevitable declension. “[A]round 1980,” Gornick reports, “feminist solidarity began to unravel. As the world had failed to change sufficiently to reflect our efforts, that which had separated all women before began to reassert itself now in us…. Personalities began to jar, conversations to bore, ideas to repeat themselves” (66–67). While Gornick's account may at this point seem routine, her perspective on the routine makes her description remarkable: in contrast to countless other such reports, Gornick places no blame on the internal politics of feminism itself, either in the form of the critique by radical women of color or in the turn to theory. And, in the absence of this blame laying, something else becomes visible: in Gornick's reckoning, the problem was not so much that feminist analysis was challenged and hence destabilized by internal critique but rather that it remained the same for too long, so that it stopped being exciting and came to feel boring and repetitive instead. In suggesting that repetition in and of itself may be a problem for feminism, Gornick's account gestures toward some of the complex and, I think, usually unexplored relations that feminist theory implies between the new, the politically useful, and the intellectually compelling.