On Feminist Civility:
Retrieving the Political in the Feminist Public Forum
As an avowed feminist postmodernist, I see myself regularly at odds with many of the pillars of my field, most of whom write and publish under the rubric of American Public Address. Having cut my academic teeth on the offerings of important feminist critics such as Karlyn Campbell, and Sonja and Karen Foss, I am quick to jump to the rallying cry that the Public in Public Address is inherently patriarchal and exclusive. So, given my political and academic affinity, I find myself in an uncomfortable position when I have to agree with David Zarefsky, one of the more traditional public address scholars.
In his 1993 presidential address to SCA, Zarefsky called upon us to revitalize our commitment to the public forum. He argues that, in the face of several contemporary threats to the notion of public, communication scholars have begun placing themselves at a dangerous distance from the public sphere. These threats, he suggests, should be seen instead as opportunities to “reformulate and reclaim” the public sphere. While Zarefsky discussed the larger public sphere, in which all citizens supposedly participate, I am concerned here with the feminist public forum, or the feminist community and what constitutes it.
For a number of reasons, a concern with the feminist public forum is crucial. First, the feminist public forum is a place to engage in feminist ideas necessary to the movement and to whatever influence it might have on the larger public forum to which Zarefsky refers. If we are absent from the public forum, then its regular participants will speak for us and define us. The stakes involved in our presence were made painfully clear to by a discussion between bell hooks, Naomi Wolf, Urvashi Vaid, and Gloria Steinam in a Ms. roundtable on the future of feminism. These four public intellectuals agreed that women with feminist beliefs avoid the movement because of its misrepresentation and narrow participation in the public forum. Second, just as the public sphere is necessary to the vitality of any community, which I take to be Zarefsky’s main argument, a feminist public sphere is necessary to the vitality of feminism. This point was brought into dramatic relief when feminist debates over identity politics, anti/essentialism, and feminism’s own elitism savaged the movement in the 80s.
In fact, I am sure most feminists would agree that we need to be “out there” in the public pressing an agenda. But like Zarefksy, I too see threats to the the notion of public. Here is where my agreement with him ends, though. His speech is a cry for civility in response to the radicalizing critique of “the public” made by feminists, people of color, postmodernists, and social theorists. The threat I see lies in the notion of civility itself, specifically a feminist civility that artificially levels power relations, shuts down dissent within the movement, and implicitly governs the feminist public forum.
In what follows, I briefly outline two feminist practices that exemplify feminist civility and discuss how they threaten the feminist public forum. I am particularly interested in these practices because they are paradoxical forms of feminist public speaking that ultimately collapse into forms of private speaking.
I. Feminist Confessions
The first practice is that of the confession, the act of public speaking through which women “come to voice” by recounting their previous history of oppression and their conversion to feminism. In an article entitled “Missionary Position,” Gina Dent critiques the confession as a central feminist practice. Her critique attempts to come to terms with her experience of a conference where she posed an academic question about “the production of women’s agency” to a woman who had just publicly recounted her story of abuse, prostitution, and conversion. The woman left the presentation in tears, and Dent spent the rest of the conference being chastised for violating the woman’s “coming to voice.”
Dent argues that even though the women’s studies conference was a feminist public forum in which there should have been an open exchange of ideas, the feminist confession served as a protected space that prevented questioning a particular set of experiences as the basis of either “theorizing about” or “doing” feminism. As Dent points out, “A confession is about form, not content…. [It] concerns itself little with the factuality of the story, or with the desired outcome of its telling, but rather with the performance of telling itself.”
Underlying the practice of confession, then, is a notion of civility that treats such stories as individual, personal, sacred, and intimate moments or experiences that are above public discussion, debate, and dissent. Such a practice, when enacted within a feminist public forum like a women’s studies conference, short-circuits the process of intellectual and political exchange out of which comes a vibrant feminist praxis.
II. Not Speaking For Others
The second form of public speaking that threatens the feminist public forum is the practice of “not speaking for others.” This practice emerged in the feminist community as an attempt to negotiate difference and to avoid a “discursive imperialism” in which white, middle-class feminists presumptuously spoke about all women’s experiences. This retreat stems from the belief that a person can never make claims beyond their own “narrow” individual experiences or truths. Now a norm of feminist discourse, “not speaking for others” threatens to become a type of feminist civility in which it is impolite to speak about anything beyond one’s own experiences.
In her recent article, “The Problems of Speaking For Others,” Linda Alcoff points out the ways in which this retreat rhetoric has actually become an evasion of political responsibility. Alcoff’s arguments are rich and their implications are many, but one implication is relevant to a vital feminist public forum. The retreat from speaking for others politically dangerous because it erodes public discourse.
First, the retreat response presumes that we can, indeed, “retreat to a discrete location and make singular claims that are disentangled from other’s locations.” Alcoff calls this a “false ontological configuration” in which we ignore how our social locations are always already implicated in the locations of others. The position of “not speaking for others” thus becomes an alibi that allows individuals to avoid responsibility and accountability for their effects on others. The retreat, then, is actually a withdrawal to an individualist realm, a move that reproduces an individualist ideology and privatizes the politics of experience. As she points out, this move creates a protected form of speech in which the individual is above critique because she is not making claims about others. This protection also gives the speaker immunity from having to be “true” to the experiences and needs of others. As a form of protected speech, then, “not speaking for others” short-circuits public debate by disallowing critique and avoiding responsibility to the other.
Second, the retreat response undercuts the possibility of political efficacy. Alcoff illustrates this point with a list of people–Steven Biko, Edward Said, Rigoberta Menchu–who have indeed spoken for others with significant political impact. As she bluntly puts it, both collective action and coalition necessitate speaking for others.
At one point in the history of the women’s movement, when women were actively denied the public platform, public speaking was a highly political and revolutionary act. Today, public speaking in the feminist forum threatens to become a substitution for feminist politics. The act of feminist public speaking is little more than privatized self-help if unaccompanied by the possibility of feminist political action. Or, as Gina Dent puts it, “Where there is no process through which legitimate self-exploration is translated into collective benefit, the feminism drops out of Feminism and the personal fails to become political.” In the end both the feminist confessional and the feminist retreat from speaking for others threaten to privatize the feminist public forum into an individualist, personal, private one with little room to move from “sharing” to collective politics.
Thus I’ve come full circle to a conclusion that agrees, ironically, with Zarefsky. His solution to the eroded public is that, with a little more emphasis on public speaking, we all really could get along. I think perhaps, with an emphasis on feminist public speaking, we might at least be able to start talking about what getting along means.
Alcoff, Linda. 1995. “The Problem of Speaking For Others.” In Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, ed. Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Dent, Gina. 1995. “Missionary Position.” In To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, ed. Rebecca Walker. New York: Anchor.
“Let’s Get Real About Feminism: The Backlash, the Myths, the Movement.” 1993. Ms. September/October, 34-43.
Zarefksy, David. 1993. “The Postmodern Public: Revitalizing Commitment to the Public Forum.” Delivered to the Speech Communication Association, Miami Beach, Florida, 20 November 1993. Rpt. in Vital Speeches.
This paper was presented at a Roundtable on “Public Speaking and the Feminist Public Sphere: Doing Difference Differently,” at the Western States Communication Association conference, 1997.