Feminist Generations

To speak of “feminist generations” or “feminist genealogies”—even of first, second, and third “waves”—is already to take for granted biological and teleological forms of relation between past and present: “ancestors” and “descendants,” “predecessors” and “successors,” and so on. Even as practitioners of feminist historiography complicate the genealogical model, the language of reproduction permeates historiographical thinking and contemporary political consciousness, shaping, in subtle ways, both the acknowledgment of the past and the imagination of the future.

“Feminist Generations, Feminist Genealogies” takes up this methodological quandary, alongside the controversial politics and reception of 1970s American feminists, especially their theorization of body, reproduction, and biology. Shulamith Firestone exemplifies the contradictions of this legacy. On the one hand, Firestone’s reduction and rejection of “natural” reproductive “biology” presupposes an essentialism that intersectional feminisms rightly resist. As countless critics have pointed out, Firestone’s critique of the family buys into middle class, white, colonialist concepts of family, and “natural body​​.” But Firestone’s feminist agenda opened up this “natural body” as a contested political terrain for her late-twentieth-century feminist successors—some of whom exploited the radical potential of this opening to denaturalize the body, others of whom doubled down on the ideology of “the natural.” Firestone’s legacy is paradoxical: she has been interpolated as a feminist thinker who defines feminist possibility in terms of normative embodiment, on the one hand, and as a feminist committed to challenging that same normative embodiment, on the other.

What should we make of Shulamith Firestone and the controversial American feminism of her milieu, which, for all its oversights, formed a central avenue for the entry of the body into social, political, and philosophical thought? How should we understand the ways that feminist thinkers create the conditions of possibility for feminist thinkers who follow after, even when there is deep disagreement between them—without succumbing to the teleology implicit in the paradigm of “waves”? How do we engage the limitations of many of what are, nevertheless, some of feminism’s most influential texts? How profoundly do the “biological” resonances of terms like “generation” and “genealogy” shape and delimit their conceptual possibilities as historiographical models? And how can we think “feminist” history without reifying fixed subjects, either in biological or historical terms?