Viewpoints

Coalitions of the Imagination

Alice Kessler-Harris, April 2004

Editor’s Note: Alice Kessler-Harris, Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, was the invited speaker at the breakfast meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians (CWH) held on Saturday, January 10, 2004 (during the 118th annual meeting of the Association). We are printing an edited version of the text of the talk (but essentially in the form it was delivered) to give it wider circulation.

When Jan Lewis (the chair of the CWH) asked me to do this talk, we both imagined it as celebratory—the new numbers reflecting women’s current position in the historical profession were to be out, and I would explore with you the progress we had made, as women, since the founding days of the CWH. When it became clear that the numbers would not be available in time, I wasn’t particularly bothered. After all, I had lived in the arena of women’s history for 35 years (since 1968, when I got my degree and started to teach). I’d joined the Coordinating Council on Women in the Historical Profession when it was founded in 1969, attended the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians meeting when Lois Banner and Mary Hartman persuaded us all that it was time to run a conference on women’s history, and lobbied the AHA to create this committee—the CWH. Ours was, by any measure, a success story: women of my generation had counted the numbers of women on AHA programs and watched them slowly increase and we’d watched the field of women’s history grow and thrive until the triennial Berkshire Conferences grew into national conversations with worldwide participation. We could claim credit for major intellectual changes in every realm of history. And we had helped women to rise from 10 percent of my cohort to a third of the PhDs in 1990. What would it be now? Close to half? No—I wasn’t afraid of the numbers: presidents of the OAH and the AHA, members of the council, chairs of distinguished departments, and editors of several prestigious journals are to our credit. Ours was, and is, a story of success. We—we women—had fought for inclusion, and we had won. More or less.

A couple of months ago, I was forcefully reminded of the arena of privilege from which I speak when I listened to Hazel Carby tell a skeptical American studies audience that for all the progress of white women in the academy, the situation of women of color, and particularly of African American women, was dire. She despaired, she said, of making common cause with her white colleagues at Yale to improve the position of black faculty there. Insisting that the Yale faculty was no worse than most, and conceding the good intentions of her colleagues, she declared that the ideals they nurtured began and remained in their heads. As academics of color in universities became ever more scarce, and the situation of women of color became increasingly less visible, even people of good intentions maintained only what she called “coalitions in their heads”—and what I prefer to call “coalitions of the imagination.” In practice, they did nothing. Worse, the edifice of diversity that had emerged to seek out and support women of color had instead increased the marginality of the few who made it in. They had become suspect: tenuous candidates for tenure and promotion, with few to champion their cause.

The situation at my own university, Columbia, confirmed Hazel’s assessment. At this venerable, high-profile, New York institution, 30.5 percent of the 689 faculty members in the schools situated in the arts and sciences (210 individuals) are women. Of the total, nearly 20 percent are counted as members of “minorities.” But nobody seemed to have noticed that hidden under data that indicated expanding numbers of faculty of color (including Asians and South Asians) were the shrinking numbers of African Americans. At the most recent count, the 534 full-time members of the core faculty in arts and sciences boast only 14 full-time African American males, 11 of them tenured. We count 9 full-time African American women, of whom only 3 are tenured. And yet this was and is a university of unimpeachable good intentions. The number of female faculty has been steadily rising. No—it’s not wonderful, but it’s going up not down. The newest figures reveal that female graduate students are admitted in proportions equal to those who apply; and though women still have a harder time getting jobs at Columbia, their prospects of tenure and full professorships are comparable to those of men in the same fields.

How, then, could this dearth of African Americans be explained? Surely this was not the result of a lack of consciousness—not in history departments, anyway. The CWH has a heroic past: it has always included representatives of women of color and students among its number. It has imagined black and white women fighting together. Even as I silently resisted the truths of Hazel’s accusations, I recognized that I was avoiding the politics implicit in her data. Hazel had pointed to one of the crucial paradoxes of our modern feminism—perhaps of all modern movements for social justice. As feminists, we started out with an inclusionary vision—a vision that embodied ideals of social justice that transcended racial, ethnic, and class divisions. Ours was—at some level still is—a feminism that participated in a larger political agenda, a feminism that nurtured egalitarian, anti-racist, values and embraced a humane vision of the world.

But in trying to implement our larger vision, we have fallen into what one might call the trap of identity politics. The rapid success of small segments of women has fostered pride in our identities “as women” and at the same time encouraged us to participate in practical coalitions that enhance the possibilities of political success. However, the power of our imagined coalition diminishes as we seek recognition as particular kinds of women. As women, even the most successful of us retain a sense of ourselves as outsiders, excluded from important arenas of the academic community. But among us are outsiders of different sorts who frame our efforts to become insiders with strategies that build a host of other identities onto the shoulders of our womanhood. We are lesbian or straight; we are the children of working class parents; we are the products of small town and rural farms, of migrants and immigrants; we are women of many colors; the offspring of interracial families; refugees for whom English is a second or even third language. We create our practical coalitions across as much as within gendered lines, and then we weave a silken web around our particular outsider positions. As we take pride in our identities, weaving ever more complicated webs of association, our empathy for those who locate themselves elsewhere diminishes; our imagined coalition of “women” recedes. We are drawn into an identity politics that reinforces our hesitancy about committing to a broader politics of social change.

Perhaps the resulting tension is inevitable. Claiming the overarching, inclusive identity of “women,” we had hoped to carve out access routes to intellectual understanding and scholarly careers that would pave the way for all women. But if “women” no longer exists as a unified category, can it function as a political rallying cry? You are familiar with some of the divisions and perhaps you have even experienced some of them such as the conflicts over institutional concessions to parenting roles between women who are mothers and those who are not; the experience of senior women preferring to mentor young men, rather than young women; disagreements over spousal or partner appointments, where the justice of a spousal hire to one person appears as an injustice to the individual candidate who watches potential job prospects disappear; debates over providing adjunct and part-time faculty with offices, benefits, and dignity; and the costs of offering the equivalent of marital benefits to gay and lesbian partners.

Faced with such issues, our coalitions have proved fragile, and women, no longer comfortably allied as women, have fragmented into groups of people who identify with their racial, ethnic, political, and religious elements; their sexual preferences, their marital statuses, their reproductive inclinations, and especially their locations within the academy as securely tenured senior faculty, or precarious part-timers. A politics of identity has turned inside out. Arguably a necessary vehicle for the rapid success of women as a whole, it has in the long run produced barriers rather than linkages. Our practice promises to divide, rather than unite us. The notion of “women” can no longer act as a call to mobilize on behalf of all women. The coalition of our imagination remains the only unifying force of feminism.

How then to reconstruct the coalition of our imagination, to shore it up so that it can transcend and triumph over the fissures of fragmented identities? We can turn to some lessons of the past, remembering that the idea of coalition has a long historical trajectory. Some of you know that I’ve been particularly interested lately in questions of how the imagination relates to politics. My recent book, In Pursuit of Equity (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), rotates around the effects of what I call the gendered imagination. But here I want to speak briefly about two new pieces of work that I am engaged in, which illustrate different aspects of the tensions between imagined coalitions and fragmented identities and point to the paradox in which we now find ourselves.

One of these is a biography of Lillian Hellman, the American playwright—perhaps the greatest female playwright of the 20th century. A woman whom I admire for her toughness, her survival instincts, and her courage, Hellman had a strong vision of social justice that drew strength from the Popular Front movements of the 1930s. She traveled as a journalist to civil-war-torn Spain and visited Moscow in the 1930s and again in the 1940s. She raised money for social causes; advocated a postwar cultural front. Whatever the sources of her vision of a humane world, she never wavered from a language of commitment to a more just and generous world, to a utopian future. She was a woman passionately interested in truth, integrity, and honesty; a woman who valued friendship, loyalty, and commitment above all else; and whose life is marked by acts of singular courage and generosity.

But Hellman’s imagination (of which we know something because she was, after all, a playwright) had another part as well. Born in 1905 in New Orleans, she moved to New York with her family at the age of 11. She always presented herself as a Southerner, her imagination shaped by the smaller injustices of her own exclusion as the poor relative of a rich family; as the exiled southerner whose themes belied her New York education and training; as a nonbelieving Jew who grew up in the boarding house of two more or less traditional aunts; as the ugly-duckling daughter, whose philandering father remained out of reach of her love. Her subjects eerily evoked the self-presentation she wanted to make of herself: they encompassed jealousy, money, and power within and outside families, and examined the meaning of lies, greed, and struggles for recognition. These subjects constituted the practical boundaries of her own life, for even as she spoke up for artistic freedom and defended just causes, she lived a personal life in which her own search for recognition was marred by accusations of dishonesty, theft, single-minded ambition, and self-deception.

The split between the imagined politics—the person she might have wanted to be—and the Lillian Hellman who so badly needed to make something of herself that she promoted herself beyond her principles, came to haunt her in the end. As famous as she was in the 1930s, she could not live by the code of honor that she so valued. And when she began to write autobiographically in the late 1960s, she found herself attacked for self-aggrandizing behavior; for distorting the acts of others; for appropriating their stories as if they were her own; for remaining an unregenerate Stalinist, unwilling to acknowledge her own short-sightedness.

The lying and manipulative individual, the greedy and predatory woman who took hold of the public imagination in the years of her fame, had no place in Hellman’s conception of herself. But to whom had she lied more than to herself? She retrieved her sense of honor in a series of autobiographies that offered up a Lillian Hellman that wedded her political and personal behavior to her imagination. This Lillian Hellman was lionized, finally, by a generation of 1970s feminists, who honored her achievements yet never fully understood their cost.

I have yet another story for you—this one a more successful effort to connect the imagination with political practice. It is about my beloved Aunt Erzsi—whose life I am attempting to reconstruct as I file away notes for a new project on “Memories of Refugees,” which has its roots in my own memories as part of a refugee family from a ravaged Europe.

My mother’s family came from Ungvar, a small town located in a province of Hungary that became Czechoslovakia after World War I, and now lies within the borders of the Ukraine. Large, prosperous, and Jewish, the family produced seven children between 1899 and 1912. Then the family was caught up in the swirls of 20th-century history. My grandfather died in the First World War; his eldest son, then 19, joined the briefly successful Bela Kun (communist) uprising after the war. Bela Kun was overthrown in 1921, and, along with most other followers, my uncle—only 21 at the time—was executed. Of the several lessons that might have been drawn from this death, his sisters, including my mother and my aunts Juli and Erzsi (all of them teenagers at the time), chose the political one—they too would fight for the vision of social justice for which their brother had given his life.

Erzsi, who was next in line, and 18 when her brother died, took up the torch, leading the family into the interwar Communist Parties of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In the 1920s and 1930s, she, along with her sisters, imagined a world in which democratic and egalitarian values would prevail. They practiced their politics. Like her sisters, Erzsi refused offers of marriage: she was married, she used to say, to the party.

Even when the Second World War came, Erzsi refused to give up the coalitions of her imagination. Though she used her influence to smuggle family members and friends out of Budapest and Prague (my parents and her sister Juli among them), she remained behind—certain that her party connections and her visions of a new world would prevail. Caught by the Nazis, and identified as a Jew, she was sent, along with her mother, to Auschwitz. Even there, her ideas of social justice and her principled commitment to an inclusive value system did not desert her. She survived the concentration camp, a death march, and Bergen Belsen by taking on the leadership role to which she was already accustomed. She organized a diverse group to share what they had, distributing scarce soap and supplies as evenly as she could. “When we were all hungry,” one of her campmates told me much later, “we still waited for Erzsi to ladle out the soup; and when someone died, Erzsi decided who should get the shoes of the dead woman.”

When Bergen Belsen was liberated, her campmates saved Erzsi’s life. Weighing no more than 65 pounds, unconscious, and seemingly dying of typhus, she was now 42, many years over the age at which the British triage teams would normally have designated her for medical treatment. But the women she had protected lied about her age, pointing her out to the liberating army as a candidate for aid. So she survived.

When Erzsi returned home to Czechoslovakia at last—returned to the country she imagined would now welcome her—she expected a hero’s welcome. Instead, she was turned away. To the new leaders of the country, she was a nationalist, a Jew, a particularist, whose imagination no longer matched that of the leaders of postwar Communist states. Ironically, though she could attribute her life to a value system she never abandoned, she could not, in the end, overcome her compatriots’ insistence on identifying her as an outsider. Heartbroken, she fled first to Israel, then to Britain, and finally to the United States. Her outsider status put an end to her inclusionary commitment, undermining her ability to imagine that social justice could somehow be made available to all. She died at the age of 97, convinced that, try as one might, a visionary politics of social justice would fall prey to the practices of political self-interest.

Erzsi’s story convinces me that we can and must reconcile the tension between imagining a magnificent edifice of social justice and constructing the structure of a practical politics. When I hear Carby deplore the gap between our good intentions and the world we have created; when I learn that Hellman really believed (in some larger sense) that the story of Julia was her story, not that of someone named Muriel Gardner; I begin to understand how an identity politics can both foster pride and inhibit empathy; how it can negate the intent of the imagination that represents the best side of us.

The early strength of feminism may well be that, lacking power, we could live the coalitions of our imaginations: that is, we could sometimes act in the collective ways to which an imagined feminism pointed. But the feminism of our imagination both requires definition and founders on it. In practice, our outsider status has become a dual-edged sword: at once situating us in a liminal position that enables new insights, a more complete vision, and perhaps greater courage, while at the same time fostering self-doubt, vulnerability, and an effort to think politically. Yet if our coalitions rarely leaped from our imaginations to our real lives, so our politics never achieved the best of our imaginations. Now once again, we need to take care that our own identities do not undermine the possibility of coalition.

I am left with questions: Have we, who are female, white, and lucky, been seduced by the edifices in which we now participate to think that feminism has had its day? Have we abandoned the notion of a collective struggle for humane alternatives in favor of career ladders, counting our successes by the number of individuals who make it to the top? Or are we afraid to talk because to do so would reveal our tenuous positions in the academy? Do our own identities get in the way? What are our current coalitions of the imagination? Do we still construct ourselves as embattled outsiders? Are we going to defend our positions by adopting exclusionary language and strategies? Are the successful among us willing to jeopardize our sense of ourselves as outsiders by joining with part-timers, adjuncts, those still excluded from the magic circle? If we do so, will women remain outsiders always?

I’d like to think that my Aunt Erzsi would have answered these questions optimistically. When I learn of her decision to give the shoes of the dead to the woman with the most poorly shod feet I hear her asking us to remain loyal to our imagined coalitions, our structures of good intentions, while we search for ways to put them into practice. For it isn’t that we lose our outsider status when we become insiders. It is that we live both as outsiders and as insiders. Outsiders in our imaginations, we reap the benefits of insiders. And that combination provides little room for a coalition with those who in practice remain outside.

There is something in the principles of feminism that speaks to inclusion, that nurtures egalitarian values, and fosters a humane vision of the world. It is this imagined feminism to which I want to return—to engender anew a coalition that encourages and acts upon that imagination.

— Alice Kessler-Harris is Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, where she chairs the history department. She particularly wishes to express her grateful thanks to Jan Lambertz for the inspiration she provided by tracking Erzsi’s path through the camps.