How many feminist scholars and archivists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? There is no punch line to this set-up. Instead, we have spent the past two years curating a four-disc DVD/Blu-ray set on “Cinema’s First Nasty Women,” a project that features 99 films from over a dozen international archives spotlighting the unrealized histories of feminist revolt and hellraising rebellion.
Wonder Woman controls crowds, stops traffic, and makes all your wishes come true. This is not a description of the comic-book heroine invented by William Moulton Marston in 1941 but of Elsie Lincoln Benedict (1885–1970), who earned the “Wonder Woman” moniker for her self-help secrets and life-changing lectures (fig. 1). Instead of evil supervillains, she battled naysaying and bad habits. Instead of ensnaring the weak with a lasso of truth, she entranced audiences with her unmatched public speaking prowess. Her X-ray vision could diagnose a person with a single glance.
Virginia Woolf records in her diary, September 22, 1925, clarion testimony to the transformational power of the Hogarth Press on her writing life. The avowed feminism of that final sentence has the force of proleptic aphorism; one woman’s victory over a male-dominated publishing industry might well become the rallying cry for later women printers and press owners. But the future-making turn of the last sentence also eclipses the quiet force of the first: Woolf’s lament that she has sacrificed, willingly, her handwriting to the Hogarth Press.
“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again.
The work of Wyndham Lewis seems like a strange place to go looking for innovative configurations of gender. Notoriously associated with what Jeffrey Herf termed “reactionary modernism,” Lewis is well known for the flamboyant misogyny and homophobia expressed in both his fiction and his theoretical writing. Unlike male modernists whose work has been subjected to richly revelatory feminist and queer rereadings (James Joyce, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway), Wyndham Lewis was for a long time generally assumed to be unsalvageable for any kind of progressive or even very interesting politics of gender and sexuality.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald appeared on the cover of Hearst’s International magazine in 1922, held up as icons of the Jazz Age, of youth, talent, and burgeoning literary celebrity. This image remains one of the most recognizable of the couple. However, alongside this iconicity, Zelda Fitzgerald’s various diagnoses of mental illness have prompted critics both sympathetic and unsympathetic to remember her primarily in terms of the tragedy of her life—whether as the mad wife who brought about the downfall of her brilliant husband, or as the victim of patriarchal control and pathologization.
My approach to feminist aesthetics in modernism takes as one point of departure an ongoing critical negotiation with Theodor Adorno’s theory of heteronomous autonomy of art in the context of feminism and race theory. This approach is not without its risks, as it has to confront and struggle with the persisting racial and gender exclusions even in the more progressive Western intellectual traditions.
Why aren’t black women writers more central in conversations around the avant-garde in modernism? Without resorting to VIDA-like statistics, we can observe that black women’s writing still occupies a marginal role in modernist inquiry despite several decades of recovery work.