The video of Heike Paul’s speech can be viewed below.
It should be a self-evident truth that a democracy without women’s participation at all levels is not a democracy. For a long time in its history, American democracy, like most others, did not include women — no matter how hard they tried. Think, for instance, of Abigail Adams, wife to John Adams, who threatened “a rebellion” if not included in this new “independancy” of his, or of Penelope Barker and her peers who organized “a tea party” of their own in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1774 to annoy the British king; or remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wrote yet another “declaration” (the “Declaration of Sentiments”) in 1848. The impassionate speeches of Sojourner Truth shook her audience, and Ida B. Wells fought for the black woman’s vote. Many others circulated pamphlets and manifestos — and some even dared to run for the highest office in the country, the presidency. Victoria Woodhull was the first to do so in 1872.
This year commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which, one hundred years ago, finally granted universal suffrage to American women and, at least in name, secured their admittance to that political system called US democracy. In her new book Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, Ellen Carol DuBois has documented the long and thoroughly racialized struggle for full participation vividly and meticulously, calling it “the largest mass enfranchisement in national history.”
At the time of the amendment’s passage, the political, social, and cultural climate of the so-called Progressive Era impressed quite a few female visitors to the United States. Alice Salomon, a renowned German-Jewish educator, wrote in her travel book: “I have always felt, already after my first visit to the States, that — if I were ever to be reborn in this world as a woman — I would only wish to be born in the United States.” Salomon’s observation was shared by many German women crossing the Atlantic for the first time: American women (notwithstanding their comparable legal status) apparently had better access to education than their old-world peers and they appeared to be more respected in the public sphere.
Still, Salomon’s feminist twisting of a powerful utopian tradition in and about America was perhaps somewhat too enthusiastic. It focused mainly on the privilege of white middle-class women and coincided with a virulent nativism that eventually led to the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. The successful inclusion of some women in the political process went hand in hand with a newly institutionalized discrimination — what we could call the exclusion of other “others.” Is this a lesson and a legacy we have taken to heart?
Let us fast forward: In most contemporary assessments, the dystopian imagination clearly outweighs the utopian imagination just mentioned, and many of us would be hard pressed to chime in with Salomon’s born-again wish. Moreover, in the widely revitalized genre of the feminist dystopia, various kinds of repressive authoritarian regimes exist on the territory of the present-day or near-future United States. In much-acclaimed novels by established authors such as Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, and Gish Jen, women, once again, fear for their lives and their rights in worlds that subdue their voices, deny their human rights, and forcefully control their reproduction. Needless to say that patriarchy and authoritarianism of any kind are hardly compatible with universally acknowledged democratic ideals. Oppression increases in tandem with nationalist agendas and religious fundamentalism. It subverts the very basis of liberal society.
The plots of fundamentalist re-nationalization in those dystopian novels, unfortunately, do not appear very far-fetched and are not entirely void of verisimilitude. Rather, they seem to reflect and expand ad extremis on the backlash gathering momentum in many western democracies and on the attempts to either contain feminism, even abolish or outlaw it, or to appropriate it for the sake of a right wing, authoritarian ideology. The use of “feminism” as a label may be at times as problematic as what in the past has been covered by the label “democracy.” Sara Ahmed reminds us that the export of “democracy” has been complicit with “colonialism” and even “conquest” around the globe. Taking down patriarchs is not the same as taking down patriarchy, Susan Faludi has pointed out — and even taking down patriarchy is not enough, I want to suggest, when we do not take on heteronormative and racist structures at the same time.
In the recent rhetorical right-wing hijacking of feminism, a revived ethno-nationalism (strongly reminiscent of the nativism one hundred years ago) replaces multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. It is “in the name of women’s rights,” as Sara Farris has noted in her observation of European political culture, that a cultural nationalization generates a kind of pseudo-feminism. This “rise of femonationalism” on both sides of the Atlantic deals in nativist fantasies of purity and is premised on the fixation of saving (white) women from foreign, border-crossing non-white men — and calls for immediate action. At stake is not the wellbeing of women, individually or collectively, so much as the wellbeing of the Volkskörper, an organicist, essentialist notion of the body politic, cunningly updated and re-romanticized. Sadly, the constituency for nativist ideas of this kind has always included women as well (those who let themselves be wrapped up in Volkskörper sentimentality). This has, once again, forged a few unlikely and insidious alliances in recent times. “Every woman adores a fascist,” Sylvia Plath once wrote succinctly, albeit in a different context. Do they? It is this famous line of the poet that has been much on my mind lately.
Trying to remove herself elegantly from such debates decades ago, Virginia Woolf, in the spirit of anti-chauvinism and anti-fascism, famously declared: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” And she is not alone in calling for a different, transnational and open form of community. Diasporic Black women activists have long conceptualized dynamic forms of belonging apart from the nation. In the words of Audre Lorde: “[C]ommunity must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” Woolf and Lorde remind us today that the fight for women’s rights has been and continues to be an international and transnational one, a timely reminder (not only) in the month of the international women’s day.
Moreover, Woolf’s declaration echoes another genre that, next to the dystopian novel, has internationally seen a renaissance of late: the feminist manifesto. A manifesto is a programmatic text for public recital and display, often utopian in scope and vision, calling for profound political and social change. The number of manifestos rises in times of political crisis, and the new feminist manifestos attest to a severe crisis — pointing to deficits in the democratic system they want to see remedied. The manifestos by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mary Beard, Marie Rotkopf, and Sara Ahmed, to name but a few, may at times break genre conventions and may appear to be politically plurivocal. But most certainly, they all attempt to counter the bleak politics of a dystopian heteropatriarchy becoming real these days with a programmatic call for alternative horizontal affiliations.
Perhaps the Thomas — and Katia — Mann House is as good a place for democratic manifestos now as it was in the 1940s. Much in the spirit of feminism’s longstanding practice, we may want to transform this private, domestic sphere into a highly political public space; a space from which to recall the transatlantic networks of the past and to reflect on the vision of a transnational civil society for the future of democracy around the world. This task certainly includes the transnational legacy and futures of intersectional feminism and an ongoing dedication to its unfinished business, here and elsewhere.
Photo credit: Thomas Mann House / Nikolai Blaumer.