Thursday, January 22, 2009

Challenges from the Margin: Diverse Feminist Theories for Diverse Women

Introductory Bio

Dr. Hui Wu is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Her scholarship encompasses history of rhetoric, comparative studies of rhetoric, global feminist rhetorics, and archival research in rhetoric and composition. Currently, she continues to study post-Mao Chinese literary women’s feminist rhetoric and has begun writing about and translating China’s first book on persuasion, Guiguzi (Master of the Ghost Valley, 400-300 BCE). Her Chinese translation (Jiangxi Education Press, 2004) of C. Jan Swearingen’s Rhetoric and Irony: Western Literacy and Western Lies offers Chinese academics an alternative perspective of the history of Western literacy. Her critical anthology in translation, Once Iron Girls: Essays on Gender by Post-Mao Chinese Literary Women, is forthcoming from Lexington Books.

Editor's note: find Hui Wu's Works Cited page at

Blog Entry

Time is ripe for CCCC to address diversity in terms of what we do as scholars and teachers. Today, each of us is part of the diversity we live and work in. Personally and professionally, diversity is what I am, what I live, what I “do” in everything I do. Yet diversity remains an issue with the whole baggage of problems, problems that permeate our research, teaching, and service. Feminist theory and research methodology can serve as a prime example. For years, until recently, “Privileged feminists have largely been unable to speak to, with, and for diverse groups of women because they either do not understand fully the interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression or refuse to take this interrelatedness seriously. Feminist analyses of women’s lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation on which to construct feminist theory (bell hooks 15).

Since 2001, my publications on post-Mao Chinese women writers’ rhetoric have been addressing methodological problems caused by the dominant interpretive feminist framework that has evolved from white middle-class women’s perspectives (Wu 2001, 2002, 2005). Such perspectives, I have been arguing, disable us to explain the lot of women of other cultures, ethnicities, and classes. The dominant feminist theory focusing on individualism and women’s sexuality hardly provides a valid critical lens for the understanding of non-white, non-middle-class women’s lives. It does not respond to post-Mao Chinese women’s rhetoric nor explain their lived experiences. First, individualism is a concept inherited from the Western white male tradition for the independent pursuit of the self, so it is still patriarchal. Second, sexuality as a critical concept is developed from white women’s gender perspectives against white men and for the sexual emancipation from white men. To other women, for example, African-American women, the fight for women’s sexuality is a family quarrel between white women and white men (Morrison 21). Other women want “something real: women talking about human rights rather than sexual rights” (Morrison 30).

To the question, “how do you address diversity in your research, teaching, and service?” I am providing this answer--what I have been doing is addressing problems to shape and reshape feminist theory by making Chinese women’s feminist rhetorics visible and their voices heard, because of the challenges these women pose to the feminist mainstream theoretical framework.
Since the late 1980s, particularly the most recent years, Western feminists' interest in Chinese women’s life, history, and writing has exploded. Yet, for more than three decades, post-Mao literary women, who came of age in the late 1970s, have been baffling their Western sisters with their vehement repudiation of Western feminism. For so many years, this breach has been barely patched. And for so many years, the disassociation and repudiation have undergone intensive examinations in the West but with little satisfaction to either side.

My reading of their writings shows that post-Mao women writers’ experiences under Mao and their observations of women’s lives during economic reforms have largely shaped their feminist standpoint, a standpoint that distinguishes them from white middle-class women and Chinese women before and after their generation. This standpoint encourages women to develop themselves into strong world leaders who embody both the Confucian value of the exemplary human and the modern feminist values of the independent equal woman. The ostensibly conflicting values have possibly engendered their disassociation with many Western feminist critics, whose reading of their works is often dominated by individualism and sexuality.

Such an interpretive framework fails to appreciate post-Mao women writers’ collective activism for a women’s literature, which distinguishes itself not only from mainstream male literature, but also from two types of women’s writing for commercial purposes--one that encourages women to shape their bodies and minds for male approval and the other that focuses on sexual encounters with graphic details mostly read by Western critics as free expressions of women’s self and sexuality. The post-Mao female writers want to continue developing a literature of women, by women, and for women, a literature that centers on women’s past and present, including women with/without choices, working women, impoverished women, married/unmarried women, and young women. They hope this literature will educate men (not fight against men for sexual rights) and emancipate women to develop China into a society respectful of human rights and free of gender discrimination.

It’s no coincidence or surprise that I am frequently quoting African-American women in this blog. Actually, my research draws upon their womanism more than mainstream feminism, because of some interrelatedness between post-Mao Chinese women and black women in the U.S. These two groups of women in different socio-cultural contexts have both been deprived of human rights by the state political machine, a regime that has also oppressed their men. Theirs is not only gender oppression but also socio-political oppression.

This cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, cross-class feminist standpoint is what we should continue to advocate and develop in order to read diverse women’s writings, rhetorics, and histories on their own terms. This is because “it has become so commonplace for individuals doing feminist work to evoke gender, race, and class, it is often forgotten that initially most feminist thinkers, most of whom were white and from privileged class backgrounds, were hostile to adopting this perspective” (bell hooks xii). Until recently, few feminist critics of white middle-class backgrounds have transcended their own race, culture, or class to use theories of non-white, non-middle class women to reflect upon their practices or theories. It is quite often to see feminist critics of other cultures and ethnicities being trained with the dominant feminist theory, but it is rare to see their theories being part of the training unless the course title has some distinguishing “Other” words—“African-American” or “third world.” Isn’t it odd that other women should master the dominant feminist theory consequently to deprive their own voices and find no valid methodology to explain their own lives or interpret their own writing?

I feel it compelling to take this opportunity to promote diverse feminist approaches and show how cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, and cross-class approaches can bring us “together in difference” (Mao). A successful example is Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, where she braves the ideology of white supremacy openly. Her confession about her refusal to include Alice Walker in her previous book, Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions is like a fresh breeze into a room covered by layers of heavy dust from years of feminist talk that has never personally transcended the dominant discourse. Ratcliffe’s approach is encouraging and aspiring. It is encouraging, for it shows that it the margin is pushing the frontline of feminist research, taking its footing in the mainstream framework. It is aspiring for it testifies that marginalized feminist theory is indeed useful to the analysis of mainstream identity and discourse, making us better critics, theorists, and teachers with diverse perspectives. Evidently, the feminist theoretical landscape demands culture matters, “race matters” (Middleton), and class matters.

1 comment:

Yvonne said...

Thank you, Joyce. As a woman of color, I couldn't agree more. The difference in experiences between middle and upper class white women and other women is a huge issue.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan

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