Ann Snitow. Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary

(Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 378 pp., $26.95

Written in the form of a non-linear diary, Ann Snitow’s Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary is divided into five parts. Part I, “Continuing a Gender Diary,” carries over the conversation from the Introduction about the various contestations within feminist philosophy. Part II, “Mothers/Lovers,” is a historical reflection on the different phases of the author’s own activism as she continues to engage with various contested feminist dialogues around motherhood, non-binary identities, pornography and censorship, and the feminist provocations of Angela Carter’s “demonic fiction” – simultaneously as she recounts her association with her mentor Dorothy Dinnerstein for whom gender as a category could not be separated from the “great theme” of “species survival” (90). Part III is about the “Feminist Picaresque” as Snitow travels across the world—protesting against the US missile base in Greenham Common in England, working in solidarity with former Eastern Bloc feminists, and dealing with the challenges of teaching feminism to students in the transnational context of post-Communism, and reaches the recesses of US society as a feminist instructor for the incarcerated. Part IV, “Refugees from Utopia,” focuses on the Feminist Memoir Project that Snitow initiated to commemorate the history and politics of a generation of feminists, and ends with tributes to lost comrades such as Ellen Willis and to rejuvenated out-of- print books such as Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. The book ends with Part V that elaborates on “The Feminism of Uncertainty” through the figure of “doubt’s visionary” Doris Lessing, whose uncertainty about feminist longings paves the way for a discussion of feminist utopias. 

Feminism of Uncertainty is impressive in its scholarly research. A 10-page list of feminist scholarship on motherhood between 1963 and 1990 adds to the book’s argument about the tenacity of feminist scholarship. The value of feminist research in this book is intensified through its praxis-driven framework. Photos of the author at various sites of grassroots feminist work testify to this methodology of feminist praxis, and appeal to the visual imagination of the feminist reader who yearns to learn on the ground in the classrooms of the world.

Feminism of Uncertainty is a philosophy of gender learned through decades of experimentation with gender politics in the laboratory of life, forever demanding creativity to rethink the feminist present and re-imagine feminist futures. The paradigm of feminist uncertainty never allows the nostalgia of past feminist work to solidify feminism into an airtight epistemological compartment. A joyful celebration of the past with feminist comrades, the book looks forward to the futuristic possibilities for feminism as it learns from others. It is a unique contribution to feminist studies, reaching a broad target audience of theorists, teachers, and activists.

At a time when the field is cleaved with irreconcilable differences between earlier epistemologies of feminisms and emergent perspectives, this book fills a major gap as it cuts across divides and speaks across eras and ideologies. In that sense it performs a foundational task of re-imagining a broader reconciliatory vision for feminism that never forgets the importance of recognizing a broader transnational feminist perspective. US-centric feminism is brought into an engaged dialogue with Eastern European feminism through Snitow’s work on the ground in Eastern Europe to underscore the dangers of imperial feminist assumptions that US feminism works everywhere—for all women.

Snitow’s cross-border work embraces a radical vision that starts with translating feminist history, theory, and praxis to “outsiders” within the field’s many compartments and extends to the radical leap of feminist faith in social transformation, leading to her prison course on feminist studies for a male detainee population. This course not only screens films that raise controversial issues, but also ends up creating a space of deep trust between a white feminist instructor and her incarcerated students of color where they discuss and debate abortion, rape, and queer identities, and students marked by the prison system as volatile are, nonetheless, held accountable for their biases and for any dishonesty.

Feminism of Uncertainty constantly questions borders. Feminism here not only crosses over into other worlds of the human, such as militarism and the prison industrial complex; it also transgresses boundaries between the human and the non-human. Snitow engages the work of David Garnett, in which human definitions of gender themselves become malleable as human and non-human melt together in his novellas Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo. This is the vision on which the book ends—a radical vision of a feminism of integrity that goes beyond feminism itself. What Snitow argues as she examines Doris Lessing’s work is true for her own feminist position as well that sees gender as one among many avenues that will together offer us a comprehensive understanding of life: “Collectively human beings know much more than we act on” (322).

That Feminism of Uncertainty will end with an examination of feminist utopias thus comes as no surprise. It is the mark of generous scholarship to be able to imagine a world beyond its own ideological affiliations. Snitow clinches her argument about the uncertainty principle at the end of the book: “And, to strike home at what I care about most, am I confident that any form of feminism is reliably safe, a well marked path to changes I’ve said I want? Can feminism usher in the good life? Does it guarantee a loving bedfellow? Or collective rituals that warm the heart? Or, more practically, as Falstaff asked about honor, can feminism ‘set to a leg’?” Snitow contends: “Feminism is necessary but not sufficient; desire, pain, and lack break feminism’s boundaries as they do all others. One can’t ask feminism—or any other political movement—to firmly fix a better future” (333).

This is particularly resonant and useful for a new generation of feminists to devise their own strategies at a time when feminist victories cannot be taken for granted. The earlier battles that their feminist foremothers fought and the ground they gained are again being called into question. Snitow calls on established feminist thinkers, teachers, and activists to be flexible about the uncertain times, about the uncertainty of feminism itself, to be on guard against complacency about their victories, and to keep building feminist futures of boundless creativity that forever break ceilings that keep appearing in new forms in new contexts. A sequel to this book would add greatly to Ann Snitow’s contribution. The responsibility for writing that book lies with scholars and activists working in later feminist epistemologies that use race as a central paradigm. As Snitow’s work tries to bridge the gaps between the feminists of the past and the future, sequels to her work need to speak from later historical eras to the past in order to continue the work of forming bridges within feminism.

Reviewed by Basuli Deb
Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey
debbasuli2015@gmail.com

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