Margaretta Jolly in New York City to talk about women’s letters

Margaretta Jolly; In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary FeminismFrom March 26 to 31 Margaretta Jolly will be in New York City to discuss her new book, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism.

You can see the full list of all author events, including Margaretta Jolly’s, on our author events page.

Below is an interview with Margaretta Jolly to give you a preview of what she will discussing.

Question: What is so special about women’s letters in recent years?

Margaretta Jolly: Women have been letter writers for centuries: as wives of men who traveled in war or migration, as mothers keeping their families connected, as literati, and as friends. But feminist correspondences since the 1970s reveal changes in gender roles and self-perception in quite an extraordinary way. Though few have remarked upon the stories hidden in this humble form of life writing, letters can tell us the relationship histories of a generation at the forefront of social change. Feminists literally tried to rewrite their relationships, whether tussling over mothering styles or personalizing campaign networking. Love letters—but also breakup letters—vividly track experiments with sexuality and sexual identity. In fact, I argue that the love letter between women in the 1970s and 1980s became a symbol of feminist culture in fiction and polemic, whether the poignantly waylaid letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the chain letters publicizing the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, or the many writings that have been signed, for better or worse, “In sisterhood.”

Q: How does your analysis of letter writing supplement other histories of feminist activism and other personal memoirs of second- and third-wave feminist movements?

MJ: Looking at contemporary feminism from the perspective of letters gives one a very particular slant that contrasts both with public histories of feminism, like Alice Echols’s Daring to be Bad, and with the memoirs of veterans, like Robin Morgan or, in Britain, Sheila Rowbotham. In some ways, the epistolary record brings out the continuity in feminism with previous “feminine” cultures, inviting us into a world of female love and ritual. Women have been associated with personal letter writing since the seventeenth century because it stems from a domestic role. Although this role has been mixed with a dangerous fantasy of the private sphere that is perpetuated in epistolary fiction, we can see how the women’s movement attempted to harness the domestic and the sexual for feminist ends. Indeed, we can describe feminist ideas of a good society as one centered on the idea of the self defined by its relationships, a society built as much on an ethics of care as one of justice. At the same time, because letters are both more demanding and needier than autobiography as a form, some of the most sensitive negotiations of the women’s movement are preserved here. Hurt and disappointment as much as effervescence and joy leap off the page.

Q. What does a feminist ethics of care mean, when so many letters speak of women’s disappointment in one another?

MJ: This was one of the hardest aspects of researching the book for me. What we see in letters between women—and oddly, especially in letters deliberately written for publication in the feminist press—is often frighteningly challenging and angry. Exchanges between women who felt excluded from the Seneca Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice or uncared for in their disability, letters from love affairs that break up over ethnic difference, and resignation letters—these texts are not just about identity politics but about covert expectations that women would meet one another’s needs in a way that men had not. As such, they suggest that the association of women with an ethics of care itself—particularly in the formulations of philosophers like Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings—was of its time, part of a dream of sisterhood and a moment in the complex life cycle of a social movement. Audre Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly” is a famous case. This text has been seen as a turning point for African American feminists in articulating women’s differences and white women’s racism, but I argue that it is also about need and desire. At the other end of the spectrum, women who navigate sexual relationships with men often record quite tortuous negotiations, sometimes ending in dramatic “last letters.” Ironically, it is these sadder letters that show how important it is still for us to find a balance between women’s autonomy and the need not only to be cared for but also to care for others.

Q: It sounds as if you had to delve into some very personal territory. Who was willing to share such personal archives?

MJ: I realized early on that everyone has a letter story to tell, whether it is of a letter written but never sent, an inherited box of letters in the attic, a misaddressed e-mail, or an unrequited valentine. But you are right that it is easier to speak about letters than to share them with a stranger. In fact, the complexities of working with literature about relationships that are still alive or within living memory—even if they have already been recorded in public archives and anthologies—prompted me to include a section on saving, burning, and stealing letters. Letters are talismanic objects; this again seems to have a profound meaning for many women who still relate to the culture of sexual exchange and domestic responsibility that defines letters as feminine.

Q: Isn’t the art of letter writing dead, now everyone uses e-mail?

MJ: This is one of the myths I really want to challenge with my book. Scholars of letters for far too long have looked only at how people wrote to each other in past centuries, assuming that first the telephone, and now email have simply killed all of the art in exchange. It is true that email reflects the pressures of today’s lightening-speed economy. But in all ordinary correspondence, we can find a potential creativity. Email is typically a form of silliness and satire, as we can see from e-epistolary novels like Jeanette Winterson’s The Power.Book. I quote from some Chinese and English correspondents who make up pretend Chinese words and a fantasy sex change. But electronic networking is also undoubtedly one of the most vigorous ways in which feminists continue to map, promote and dream of liberation. It would be foolish to ignore its power, even if we should disentangle ourselves from its embrace more often!

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