Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Report from the Field: William James and Feminism at the 2013 Summer Institute in American Philosophy

The 2013 Summer Institute in American Philosophy convened in Eugene, Oregon, from July 8 to 13, around the plenary topics of “William James and Feminism and More,” “Philosophy and Music,” “Indigenous Philosophy”; addressed by Erin McKenna, Erin Tarver, Susan Dieleman, Linda Simon, and Loren Goldman, Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rare, Fred Maus and Douglas Anderson, and Thomas Norton-Smith and Thurman Lee Hester, Jr.; the keynote theme was "Pragmatism and Aesthetics," discussed by Richard Shusterman. 

Four of the five discussants on the three panels comprising “William James and More” were women, including all the participants specifically on “William James and Feminism”; interestingly, only one of the participants on all the remaining panels was a woman, and that woman (Sarah Rara) was not an academic but a musician. On the nine unofficial panels of three, five or six (depending on the gender of someone named Terry) participants, roughly half included one woman apiece; of three solo presentations, one out of three was by a woman. Of the total nine or ten women participating, five were explicitly addressing “women” or “feminism” as topics. Suggestions for advance reading were published on the conference website. The helpfully selected readings for “William James and Feminism” were “The Feminine-Mystical Threat to Masculine Scientific Order,” from Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s classic book Pragmatism and Feminism, and a group of texts by William James including “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which were required, and as options, additional lectures or chapters by William James including “Pragmatism and Humanism”, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” ‘The Energies of Men,” “Great Men and Their Environment,” “The Importance of Individuals,” “‘what Pragmatism Means,” “The Gospel of Relaxation,” “Habit,” The Stream of Consciousness,” and “The Self.” Seigfried’s chapter is a strong and clearly reluctant or regretful, feminist critique of William James by a long-time and distinguished James scholar. The James papers all have passages that either voice positions that are obviously well-suited for feminist appropriation or else invoke women or gender in unself-conscious and problematic ways.

After the first of two keynote addresses on the first night, the first two mornings of the conference were given up to the two sessions on “William James and Feminism.” Both were well attended by a group diverse in age and gender if not in race. Colin Koopman, co-director of the Institute, introduced the seminar by explaining that the session had been conceived by him and Tarver at a previous conference, due to both feeling that the topic of James and feminism, which had come up at that conference, was ripe for more general discussion among specialists on American Philosophy. All three speakers independently but McKenna and Tarver most strongly related being surprised and disappointed—"depressed,” in so many words—by encountering unexpected, significant manifestations of sexist thinking and behavior in James’ writings and biography, as had Seigfried almost twenty years before. McKenna raised the related questions: Why should feminists bother to try to convert pragmatists? and Why should. pragmatists work to engage feminist ideas? She expressed annoyance at encountering feminists who dismissed American philosophy as having no resources for feminist work. She expressed the wish to insert James into feminist dialogue. But she also admitted to “increasing doubts” of his value for feminism. McKenna raised the important, disturbing question whether James’ work may attract people who share the same blindness to gender that he himself exhibits. Tarver brought up the phenomenon of people reacting to criticism of James as if they have to “save” him-—such people complaining that feminist criticism on James is “overly mean.” Tarver insisted that worrying about not making others feel as if they have to to “save” James was “neither feminist nor pragmatist.” Seconding McKenna, Tarver reiterated throughout the conference to insist that “pragmatists ought to be feminists.” But she warned that making James’s philosophy work for feminists required more than just individual work; it required Institutional work. Dieleman pointed out that feminists “can’t just leave out a major figure,” that is, they “couldn’t just read Dewey and omit James” She affirmed that there ”are good reasons to engage” James, although what to keep and what to get rid of was a serious question.The tone of both mornings was distinctly serious, with especially the more senior panelists frankly expressing increasing unhappiness with the new awareness which preparing their assigned topic had led them.

The discussions on both days partook of the some of the seriousness of the panel.
Most of the audience members who spoke up seemed to re-simplify what had just been shown to be complex. Rather than disputing or refuting what the panelists had said, many in the audience just spoke as if nothing new had been presented, voicing what were pretty clearly the same views they had anyway. At one point a senior male professor, possibly keynote Shusterman, expressed the opinion that the material that the panel had presented (probably that regarding James’s marriage) was “conventional” and ‘banal.” One was too shocked at this stunningly inappropriate comment—amounting to a dismissal of the the very topic of the plenary and of the Penn State University Press Feminist Interpretations of William James “Re-Reading the Canon” series volume it was partly convened to help make up—to even think of a comeback. Interestingly, no one, then or the next day either, ever let on that it had been said. (No doubt it was discussed in private; I myself ought to have sought out opportunities outside of the sessions to bring it up to fellow attendees.) It would have been welcome for one of the (male) co-directors (who as male were unlikely to be as paralyzed as I was) to have pointed out discreetly that the language was was out of line.

Overall, the audience did not seem to take the topic as seriously as the panelists. It was shockingly clear to anyone used to working within the feminist field that aside from specialists on feminist pragmatism, Seigfried critique of James was still an outsider view within American Philosophy. Later the second day, in a general panel on William James, I gave a paper on “William James and Women” that coincidentally touched some of the same biographical episodes as McKenna. Primarily, I called into question the disturbing recent biography of James, suggesting that author Robert D. Richardson had admitted only to minimize James’s problematic behavior with women outside his marriage and that subsequent work like Gunter’s biography of Mrs. Alice James followed his example. After my talk, Koopman asked (if I understood him) how these biographical revelations bore on interpreting and teaching the philosophy. I admitted that not being a James scholar I didn’t have a glib answer but invoked the premise of a recent book called Philosophers Behaving Badly that life and works are so entwined (particularly in regard to pragmatism) that the life couldn’t help but be related to the work. Like the plenary speakers, I was pretty stunned at what I had read in preparation for the topic. SIgnificantly, though Tarver was the chair of my panel, and obviously was better positioned to engage Koopman’s question than I was, she did not do so, raising the question whether the not-always-so-collegial comments from the floor the previous days had temporarily silenced her.

The next day I attended panels, none of which touched on women or feminism, all of which were made up of men. The following day I returned home although the conference was to go on two more days. Unlike the previous year, I found I did not feel such an overwhelming desire to be present at the conference to the end as to pay to change my flight and book two additional nights at my motel. This was especially odd since by leaving I missed a presentation on “Feminist Aesthetics,” as well as a panel on William James and “Energy,” one of the presenters on which, Linda Simon, is the author of the first biography of James which discussed newly found letters between James and his wife and which I had included in my paper. I had the distinct feeling of not wanting to speak to anybody. I was overwhelmed by the strange mood of the two James plenaries. In retrospect, I am almost beginning to feel that the “James and Feminism” panelists were disrespected. I felt I had witnessed live for the first time the sort of disrespect that women philosophers have long called attention to but which I had assumed was on the way out and in any case probably never had existed within the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Obviously that was naive. On the other hand, perhaps another, more senior scholar should have been added on the panel. The audience made smart comments because they could get away with it because no one on the panel was experienced enough to assume the authority to stop them.

As a final note, I had chosen to speak on “William James and Women” because the CFP had encouraged submissions on topics related to the plenaries and keynote. It was notable that no one else besides me had apparently submitted a paper related to “William James and Feminism,” leaving me to be on a panel with two papers on James topic unrelated to mine or each other or to the the plenaries or keynotes. Rather than a “William James and Feminism” conference, it turned into a plain William James conference, just as on the final title the original “William James and Feminism” turned into “William James and Feminism And More.” “William James and Energy” was included, as if to assure that attending or reading the readings for “William James and Feminism” was optional. Yet as McKenna discussed, in reference to some philosophers gender is fundamental; as she observed, if you take the sexism out of Aristotle, the philosophy collapses.It might turn out that this is true of James as well. But if so, no one in that audience at least on those two days seemed to want to find out.

—Carol Bensick

Carol Bensick has been a CSW Research Scholar since 2010. She received her Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Cornell University in 1982 after completing a dissertation titled “La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance Medicine and New England Theology.” She has taught at University of Denver, Cornell University, UCLA, University of Oregon, and UC Riverside. Her book, La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in "Rappaccini’s Daughter," was published in 1984. Her most recently published articles include “Esther Edwards Burr” inAmerican National Biography (1999) and “Partly Sympathy, Partly Rebellion: May Ward, Hawthorne, and The Scarlet Letter,” in Hawthorne and Women (1999). 

For more info on the Society or the Advancement of American Philosophy, visit

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mysteries of the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives: Martha Foster Collection

One of the joys of working in an archive, for archivists and researchers, is coming across tantalizing mysteries. A huge range of women have donated to The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives, ranging from public figures like Margarethe Cammermeyer to lesser-known, but no less historically important, women. Occasionally, a very intriguing collection will come with a minimum of identifying information about the woman to whom it belonged. I interviewed Stacy E. Wood, a Graduate Student Researcher working on processing the Mazer collections for UCLA, about one such collection: The Martha Foster Collection.

While looking through the Mazer holdings at UCLA, Wood came across Foster’s papers, which included a small amount of poetry and many striking photographs, taken in her backyard in Echo Park in the early 1930s. “They’re really gorgeous,” says Wood. “They almost look like test costume shots. There are hundreds of them. And I couldn’t find any information about her. Even Angela Brinskele (photographer and board member of the Mazer Archive) couldn’t find a death certificate or birth dates.”

Wood became fascinated with Foster, and went above and beyond the call of duty to find out more about her. She and Brinskele emailed friends and colleagues to try and unravel the mystery. Wood even went to Foster’s house to inquire about her.

“There was one letter with her old address on it,” says Wood. “So I went to her house and asked [about her], in case maybe her grandkids lived there. I felt really strange about my pilgrimage to her house, but I did it anyway! I went and knocked on their door, asked if they knew the previous owner, and said her name. They said no, and I took it at face value.”
Wood had given up on solving the mysteries of Martha Foster. However, six months later, strictly by coincidence, a new clue emerged.

“There is an accordion room divider at The Mazer‘s headquarters in West Hollywood, and it’s from the Esther Bentley collection. It is sort of a collage that she’s done. It’s called ‘The Women in My Life,’ and it’s rumored to be all of her ex-girlfriends. Peeking out, I saw Martha Foster’s face, and I freaked out, because this meant that she was sort of real and had real connections, and maybe I could find something about her.”

To her surprise, as Wood continued processing various Mazer collections, more fragments of information and memorabilia about Foster began to emerge.
“Looking through Esther Bentley’s collection, I found Martha’s ID card and some tax information about the house they shared in Echo Park,” says Wood. “And then these other bits of her life were in another person’s collection. Nobody at the Mazer knew that [any of these people] were connected.”
So far as Wood can tell, The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archive contains the only evidence of Foster’s life.

“Angela has been tracking down everything for the collection’s deeds, for legal purposes, and she even asked me to dig out Foster’s tax document because it says that she died, and we can’t find out through the city or online that she even existed. The only traces of her are in these collections, and some of them are in her ex-girlfriend’s collection. But we don’t know when they dated, or when they knew each other. There are just these sort of weird suggestions.”
Foster’s relationship with Esther Bentley makes the lack of information available about her even more confounding, as Bentley was a very well-known and well-connected member of the Los Angeles LGBTQ community.

“That’s the weird thing,” says Wood. “We know almost everything about her. Her collection is huge, everyone knew her. She was super active in L.A., everyone at the Mazer knew her. There are all sorts of stories about her. What’s strange is that the picture of Martha in the ex-girlfriend collage was taken when she was older, so I assume people would have known her or had some contact with her. But nobody knew her. She was with somebody who was very known in the community, but she herself doesn’t have any ties. The pictures are so beautiful. It’s like a silent film star posing in her backyard, in these beautiful, sort of Moroccan prints. You imagine who was taking those pictures, and you’ll never know. It drove me crazy for so long, for so many months.”

Before she began processing the Mazer archives, Wood anticipated that they’d contain more mysteries than they actually do. Her assumption seemed to be confirmed when the first collection she processed belonged to another very enigmatic subject named Tiger Woman. “Her poetry and some of her art work were in the collection, and again she dated someone who ended up being a famous and recognized artist,” says Wood. “I tried to contact the artist, and she would never respond to me. But it was a situation that was really frustrating, because I had all of these photos, and she felt more accessible because they were from the early 1990s. I couldn’t believe that someone would just drop off the planet, and that there was no trace of her.”

However, in spite of these archival mysteries, Wood has been surprised at how comprehensive the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archive is in its historicizing of lesbian identities. She believes that the archive can be so comprehensive because of its deep, strong roots in the community that it documents.

“Since Tiger Woman was the first collection I worked on, I expected it to be the norm: some of it due to mystery, and some of it due to a choice made by the subject of the collection,” says Wood. “A lot of people have collections that they gave at times in their life, and now they have different identities and politics. So I just expected it to be a little harder to pin things down in a traditional archival way. But [such challenges] haven’t happened as much as I would’ve thought, and I think that’s due to the organizational structure of the Mazer and the grassroots nature of it. If you can’t find something out, you activate the network, and it will come back to you. It might not come back soon, but in nine months somebody will send a facebook message to somebody else, and eventually it will come back to you: Here is what she is doing now.”

Wood admits that her own personal tendency to become passionately fascinated with the subjects of the collections she processes can sometimes drive her crazy. At the same time, it likely makes her perfect for the job. “I get very attached to the collections, and also sort of like to communicate some sort of story [from them]. There are false hopes attached to that desire. I think that especially with a project like this, when the idea is unearthing these lost, hidden, or less public histories, it seems even more important if you get almost obsessive about representing people in whatever way you can. So it’s almost more frustrating when you can’t put a picture together.”

Wood emphasizes that the more identifying information she can find about a collection, the more potentially useful it will be to a researcher. “Ultimately, it’s about people using this collection,” says Wood. “If you think about it that way, it’s important to have as much information as you can, so that people can know it’s there, and how they can use it. It’s hard to fit that sort of affective sense [that surrounds mysterious collections] into a finding aid. It’s hard to say: Oh, there are these beautiful pictures, and they’d be great for artists, designers, and period study, and there’s this poetry that’s not really great, but… It’s hard to say why a collection is important without giving it shape or context. It’s hard to piece it together.”

However, while there are abundant professional reasons for solving the mysteries of the archive, Wood has become an excellent detective because she loves the work. “I think I have some narrative greed, but that’s my own sort of personal problem,” says Wood. “I think it is in a lot of ways a hindrance to my actual job sometimes, because within the context of what we’re doing it’s actually not always practically important to know all of the information that I seek out. But it’s hard to work with these materials and not want to know.”

--Ben Raphael Sher

PS Do you know anything about Martha Foster or Tiger Woman?  E-mail!

Ben Sher is a doctoral student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and a graduate student researcher at CSW.

The finding aid for this collection will soon be available for viewing at the Online Archive of California( Digitized materials from the collection and the finding aid will be available for viewing on the UCLA Library’s Digital Collections website. This research is part of an ongoing CSW research project, “Making Invisible Histories Visible: Preserving the Legacy of Lesbian Feminist Activism and Writing in Los Angeles,” with Principal Investigators Kathleen McHugh, CSW DIrector and Professor in the Departments of English and Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and Gary Strong, University Librarian at UCLA. Funded in part by an NEH grant, the project is a three-year project to arrange, describe, digitize, and make physically and electronically accessible two major clusters of June Mazer Lesbian Archive collections related to West Coast lesbian/feminist activism and writing since the 1930s.

For more information on this project, visit For more information on the activities of the Mazer, visit

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives: Daughters of Bilitis Records

The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives at UCLA are exciting because they allow researchers to investigate important historical institutions and events in the lesbian community from multiple angles.  The Daughters of Bilitis records collection gives the researcher a unique opportunity to understand how one of the earliest LGBTQ organizations developed during a time of profound oppression and invisibility for LGBTQ people.

In 1955, a group of eight lesbians founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). The group, founded to counteract the loneliness and isolation they felt as lesbians, became the first national combined lesbian organization and support network. DOB began publishing its monthly magazine, The Ladder, in 1956.

The  Daughters of Bilitis records include documents related to the running of the organization's national and local chapters. The collection contains files related to the production of The Ladder, and the organization’s national conferences in various cities.  It also contains personal and professional correspondence to and from various members of DOB (including, prominently, founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin), as well as documents from several other homophile organizations. 

The DOB Collection includes many treasures.  Its administrative papers give a clear and detailed understanding of how one of the earliest lesbian organizations was run, beginning in the 1950s.  At the same time, correspondence among the organization’s members offers portraits of the personal and professional lives and relationships of lesbians during this time period, including those of “ordinary” women whose stories might not be found in history books.

–Ben Raphael Sher

Ben Sher is a doctoral student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and a graduate student researcher at CSW.

The finding aid for this collection is available for viewing at the Online Archive of California ( Digitized materials from the collection and the finding aid will be available for viewing on the UCLA Library’s Digital Collections website. This research is part of an ongoing CSW research project, “Making Invisible Histories Visible: Preserving the Legacy of Lesbian Feminist Activism and Writing in Los Angeles,” with Principal Investigators Kathleen McHugh, CSW DIrector and Professor in the Departments of English and Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and Gary Strong, University Librarian at UCLA. Funded in part by an NEH grant, the project is a three-year project to arrange, describe, digitize, and make physically and electronically accessible two major clusters of June Mazer Lesbian Archive collections related to West Coast lesbian/feminist activism and writing since the 1930s.

For more information on this project, visit For more information on the activities of the Mazer, visit