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How to cope with having changed the world:
Personal and structural accounts of seventies feminism.

Mary Holmes

Remembering the feminist seventies was a collective auto/biographical act in which many feminists publicly engaged once the seventies were over. This paper focuses on personal records of being a feminist collected and published in Britain and New Zealand (Dann 1991, Sebestyen 1988, Wandor 1990). These feminist auto/biographies were both enriched and made problematic by the feminist philosophy of the personal as the political, and by a feminist epistemology that privileged experience as the basis of knowledge. A focus on the personal as political could produce a tendency to interpret the auto/biographers' political career as representative of the path of feminism as a movement, practice and ideology. This was arguably aggravated by the feminist emphasis on knowing through experience. In many cases emphasising experience tended to promote the accounts of those who were 'there' as superior to accounts of others (including later feminists) who were not. However, without a continued experience of feminist activity (often defined in terms of what they had done in the seventies) it could become very difficult for auto/biographers to continue to 'know' about feminism. These difficulties with symbolic understandings of a feminist past were situated within changes in the social locations and forms of feminist activity. I will argue that a view of the social structural changes in and around feminism at the end of the seventies and into the eighties provides an important analytic counterpoint to accounts of feminism based on personal experience. Literature such as Susan Faludi's (1991) Backlash attempted to catalogue a material reaction against feminist gains, but made similar pessimistic conclusions to many experience based accounts about a 'failure' of feminism. I will assess whether these pessimistic accounts of feminism after the seventies were in fact justified, or inevitably produced by the way in which feminist's pasts were remembered.
Cahill, Maud and Dann, Christine (eds) 1991, Changing Our Lives: Women Working in the Women's Liberation Movement 1970 - 1990. Wellington: Bridget William Books.
Faludi, Susan, 1991, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. London: Chatto and Windus
Sebestyen, Amanda (ed), 1988, '68, '78, '88: From Women's Liberation to Feminism. Bridport, Dorset: Prism Press.
Wandor, Michelene, 1990, Once a Feminist: Stories of a Generation. London: Virago Press

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