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Re-reading the Seventies: Re-reading Women's Silence

Mary Eagleton

I am using as my focus one of the questions on your promotional material - how can the seventies be re-read? - and, as a textual illustration, Ursula le Guin's short story 'Sur'. As the story was published in 1982, I am also taking the liberty of using, again as suggested on earlier promotional material, the concept of the 'long' - well 'longish' - seventies. The story tells of an expedition made in 1909-10 by a group of South American ladies. The women not only reach the South Pole two years before Roald Amundsen but also decide not to say anything about their achievement lest male explorers and men generally be upset by it.

The paper has two, interrelated themes. Firstly, I want to suggest how unsatisfactory is the common tendency to designate the seventies as one kind of feminism and later - and, indeed, earlier decades - as expressing other discrete kinds of feminism. I find much more productive Edward Said's notion of 'travelling theory', how ideas can travel with changing degrees of acceptance or resistance from one period to the next. Secondly, I want to focus on the particular issue of the women's silence to show how what might at first glance seem a very seventies preoccupation has a much wider currency. Thus my reading of 'Sur' would suggest:

  • That it could be read within the context of seventies feminism to emphasise the notion of a hidden women's history, sisterhood, silencing etc, though I hope that in the course of the day that construct of seventies feminism will come under question;
  • That the story can also 'travel'. The women's acquiescence in their silencing can be understood in the context of the feminine masquerade which would take us back to Joan Riviere (1929) and forward to 1990s ideas on the performance of gender;
  • That the women's silence may be defensive but may also involve them in what Nietszche calls 'slave morality', or Bourdieu an 'elective renunciation', or a form of moral superiority - all ways in which women might, dangerously find comfort in their oppression. The fact that this story is still in 2002 a very immediate and pleasurable story for women to read might suggest that this is a problem that remains with us.

In such an exposition I hope to critique the compartmentalising of feminism into decades and, of course, to question fundamentally the view that feminist thought is on an upward trajectory from past simplicities to present sophistication.

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