Posted by Kate Ozment
As part of Women’s History Month, I’m publishing a short reflection on what I think that it means to teach a feminist book history. For the first time in one of my posts, this is more abstract than practical, meaning I’m not linking to lists of women scholars for you to follow or linking to articles. We have a database of the latter, and if you follow our Twitter you’ll see plenty of the former. It is also, as you may suspect, highly personal and tied to the work that I do as a literary scholar working in English literary history. This is one perspective. We need many more than mine.
Sammelband would love to publish more pieces around the question—what does it mean to teach a feminist book history? If you have a reflection you’d like to see on the blog, email me at keozment (at) cpp (dot) edu. We will have some ground rules about content, which we will discuss as needed. We would also love for you to comment more perspectives from different sources if they are posted elsewhere.
Teaching a feminist book history is, like all feminist projects, an act of willful revision of non-feminist paradigms and narratives. We ascribe to the feminism that embraces woman in all its definitions, including non-binary individuals who similarly remain marginalized. Our feminism is anti-racist and anti-imperialist. It is aware of class divisions and of “woman” as a historical category as well as how it is used today. It is always political, because the personal is political.
Teaching a feminist book history requires the foundation of a single belief: books cannot be anesthetized from the cultural context of their creation. We cannot pretend that it is possible to read a book solely through “objective” materialism anymore than I can pretend that the Early Modern books I study were not created from metal type, a common press, linen paper, and a host of laborers. Gender affects how books are made, and the marks of that labor can be read in books’ material histories. Gender affects how books were written. Gender affects how books were received. Gender affects what we think of as a book.
Teaching a feminist book history means that we spend time looking inward at ourselves and discovering and respecting our own limitations. Our approach to books is influenced by who we are, where we have studied, and our life experiences, and it is not possible to categorize all these factors away into a sheen of objectivity. By letting go of that belief, we then interrogate what values we hold and how we may remake them into a feminist practice. Teaching a feminist book history is an act of reflection, of changes, of breaking things into pieces, mixing them up, and making meaning from them in new ways. It means looking at the books you teach, the scholars you teach, and the way that you teach them.
It means that if you are only studying male-identified subjects and their work, ask yourself why.
It means that if you can’t think of a single female-identified or non-binary scholar to assign in a course or cite in an article or to be on your panel, ask yourself why.
It means that if you are only assigning white authors, ask yourself why.
It means that if you are privileging forms of materiality that also privilege white male-identified authors, ask yourself why.
It means that if you apply standards formed from the study of white male-identified authors to female-identified authors and find the latter lacking, ask yourself why.
It means that if any of your answers to the above questions are that white, male-identified authors and scholars are the core of the field, you must acknowledge that you do not teach an “objective” book history, to which others and feminist values are a niche corrective. Our field is a construction, and we each make our choices based on the sedimentation of the choices of others. The choice to ignore is as active as a choice to include. To move beyond this is difficult, but sometimes necessary. We take what we can, respect what we can, but do not become so tied to what book history looks like now that we forget to imagine what it could be.
It means doing more than thinking. It means doing something about it. Listening. Learning. It means reading more widely than you were trained, if you were only taught the white male canon of bibliography and book history. It means not offering your background as an excuse for not knowing more, but seeing it as a challenge to teach others better. To keep growing. To know more next year, and the year after, and so on until you slowly become the scholar that you wish you had been taught to be.
It means believing people who have experienced the effects of marginalization and actively working to change it. It means joining them in that change. It means making space for other at the table and not thinking about how little food there is to eat, especially those who come after you if you have stable employment. If means that if you experience privileges of any kind, be them institutional, economic, able-bodied, racial, gendered, or through sexual orientation, you actively use those to better the experience of those who do not have them.
Ultimately, however, teaching a feminist book history is an act of love. It’s loving what we do and the potential of this field so much that we are willing to fight for it.
About the Author
Kate Ozment is assistant professor of English at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Women and the Book that theorizes feminist bibliography with her WBHB co-editor, Cait Coker. Contact her at: keozment (at) cpp (dot) edu.
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