Close looking series exhibits collection of extremist literature

October 23, 2014

On Wednesday, Oct. 22, the Hall-Hoag Collection of Extremist Literature was exhibited as part of the Close Looking series in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

This collection contains over 5,000 articles, pamphlets and flyers dating back from the late 1940s to the 1980s. All of these materials promoted beliefs and convictions that society has labeled as “extremist.” Topics range from politics to religion and include the points of view of both the far left and the far right. Wednesday’s event focused on a specially-chosen selection of media concerning feminism. The discussion was led by Dr. Joyce Antler, the Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture, and by Dr. Karen Hansen, a professor of sociology and history. Both speakers are also members of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department.

This collection was begun by Gordon Hall, an archivist and a researcher “who was a soldier in World War II, came across fascism and hated it and wanted to get enough information so that people would be informed about the extremist right, but then came to consider the extremist left equally important,” said Antler. In the 1960s, “he and Grace Hoag put together a collection of 5,000 pieces … on organizations of ‘the far left and the far right’ and then Grace writes, at some point, they had to change their collecting strategy because ‘it was tricky to determine where a group was heading politically, whether it would turn violent or not, so they included dissenting groups,” Antler explained.

Both speakers chose to focus their discussions upon “the way these documents are suggestions for larger narratives,” said Antler. More specifically, Antler sought to answer, “What do they suggest about women’s liberation?”

The women’s liberation movement was distinct from the earlier liberal moderate and less “extreme” movement. The first wave of feminism began in the early 1960s and centered around the National Organization of Women, furthering its goals through legalistic strategies, commissions for equal opportunity, and more. However, the groups focused on during Wednesday’s discussion were formed in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Antler explained that the second wave of feminism regarded their predecessors as “kind of a sell-out, too compromising, too accepting of the status quo. What they wanted was a radical restructuring of social organizations and comprehensive consciousness-raising … to create social equality.”

Antler used her chosen selections to challenge three different styles of narratives commonly associated with the women’s liberation movement: that all women are a monolith and view one another as sisters; that the movement, while controversial at first, rapidly became mainstream; and that the women’s liberation movement failed and that society has been left with very little.

She provided a rather unique point of view by adding a pair of photographs and an article from the The New York Post from her own personal collection. The newspaper was dated Aug. 27, 1970, which was the 50th anniversary of the 1920 Suffrage March. What makes this particular piece so unique is that, in the background, Antler herself can be seen. She told the story of how she had been heckled, along with the 50,000 other participants of the parade, by both men and women. She spoke of how those interviewed believed that all women who participated in the movement were either divorced, single or, euphemistically, “frustrated.”

Hansen continued the discussion by discussing the diversity of opinions within the political spectrum. “In our casual glance backward, what is commonly talked about is how the movement was really very white, very middle-class and really only concerned about issues of its own self-interest … there are plenty of documents in this collection that reveal that to be wrong, or at least not wholly true,” she said.

Her discussion and choice of documents analyzed the broad range of political positions of a handful of groups, all of which fell under the banner of the women’s liberation movement. These topics included peace and solidarity, international imperialism, racial equality, class and labor issues, reproductive rights and family problems. Some of these documents were cynical, while others offered solutions that held a “healthy dose of utopianism,” as Hansen phrased it.

After the lecture, the floor was opened to questions, and the event transformed into a seminar-style discussion in which many of the audience members who had lived through and sometimes even participated in this movement answered the questions posed by the younger generation. All were invited to leave their seats and step forward to gaze at a handful of original documents from the collection, and to continue the conversations initiated during the question and answer portion of the event.

The next event in the Close Looking series is called “Duck Foot.” It will be held on Dec. 3 in the Rose Art Museum and will be hosted by Dr. Christian Gentry.

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