Building A Digital Feminary

Notes on the names in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères

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Liz Henry
CWL 899
Prof. Ellen Peel
May 10, 2004

Research, Reality, and Mythical Construction Projects: Looking into Les Guˇrill¸res

The names from Les Guˇrill¸res haunted me while I worked on this project. Some names were familiar, like "Anna", and seemed to echo all the Annas I'd ever read about or known in person; some were obscure, but not unknown to me, like "Dinarazade" or "Trung Truc", and made me feel a glow of kinship for Wittig for including what were obviously references to specific women in history or fiction. Some names, like "Bahissat", were completely unknown to me, but it seemed tantalizingly possible that they too might refer to someone specific - someone I don't know about, but should. It is those names that haunted me the most. I don't know who she is, but I should. She is not known in general, but she should be known or should be made known.

I commonly have the experience that I come across a fantastic writer I've never heard of before, or an inspiring myth about a powerful woman, and I think, why did I not know this before? Why is it generally not known? While it is on some level comforting to know that there will always be new fabulous things to discover and know, I become outraged at the erasing of women's history and of the disappearance of strong women, goddesses, amazons, warrior women, writers, intellectuals and scientists and queens from the collective body of knowledge. My desire to draw connections, to bring forth histories that are being forgotten, is what drove this project. I often connect these womens' histories in a very personal way to my own life, history, and identity as a writer. During the course of this project I reified or solidified my conviction that it is important to build worlds, to write feminist histories, alternate histories, and future histories, and to be flexible about what history means.

I stumbled across many factors that contribute to the loss of the history of connections between women. One is that women change their names because of marriage and divorce. I can't find contact information for women that went to high school with me, as they tend to change their last names. It is easier to find the men I used to know, to maintain those connections, than it is for me to find the women.

It is not only the semi-automatic name changes of marriage and divorce, but deliberate distancing of the self and identity from past family that sometimes obscures a woman's identity. For a while, when I was younger, I considered a deliberate feminist name change myself, like some women I've known: Quilter, Bright, Califia.

Consideration of family and of the effects of scandal on the family affect women's use of their own birth names, and the obscuring of biographical fact, on other levels. In my researches as a genealogist, I discovered that every family has scandals, and that the attempt to obscure those scandals result in the changing of names, of birthdates, of the elimination from family history of multiple marriages, illegitimate children, insanity, crime, or any other scandal imaginable. In my own family, I did not know of the existence of one of my own first cousins until I was 25 years old; another close relative asked me to remove evidence of 3 of her 4 marriages from the family history. When I uncovered, from census and immigration records, scandals from 1901, four generations back, and asked living relatives about them, I found that their memory was still painful enough that no one would talk with me. I consider this condition of the fear of the exposure of "family secrets" to be a major factor in the disappearance of women's history.

Another reason for the loss of historical connections is that women often hide their gender and their identity because of patriarchy, fear of offending their families, breaking the law, or breaking social rules of what women are allowed to do and say in a public literary sphere. I have had many pseudonyms myself and at times feel regret that my own multiple literary identities can't be more easily integrated without giving offense. Identity or simply female gender is often hidden by choosing a masculine pseudonym or going by one's initials. In junior high I read any science fiction I could get my hands on, but at some point realized I wanted to read more work by women. I remember my amazement and joy when I discovered that Andre Norton was Alice Mary, and, later, that another Alice was James Tiptree, Jr. From that point on I sought out science fiction by women, and would choose a "C.L." or an "E.M." over an author whose name was obviously masculine.

Another reason women are hard to find, and were hard to find in my research into Les Guˇrill¸res, is that names, when translated from language to language, don't retain consistent spellings or a consistent form across time. While I might fairly quickly find that Zenaida is a pseudonym for Madame Elena Hahn, the 19th century Russian writer, it was harder to draw the connection between Zenaida, Zeneide, Madame Hahn, Elena Hahn, Elena Andreevna, Helena Andreyevna von Hahn, E. Gan, "the George Sand of Russia" and Helene Blavatsky's mother. They are all the same person. But it might be only with one or two of these versions of her name that I might find out that Zeneide's works were or are considered "protofeminist novels", that she loved to ride, hunt, shoot and fence with a sword, that she had wild scandalous love affairs, and that she was considered the center and founder of a group of Russian women intellectuals. Finding out these small facts builds a picture in my mind that I welcome with great joy. I need all the ammunition I can get to outweigh the overwhelming message I have gotten all my life that powerful, strong, writing women are lonely anomalies.

I was interested in the ways my own imagination began to engage with the possible identities of the women that Monique Wittig names.

Who "belongs" in my footnotes to the list of women's names of Les Guˇrill¸res? My criteria were loose. Queens and warriors certainly, but strong women, leaders, martyred saints and people I know in my own life were also possible.

As I found those powerful warriors and goddesses, I also began finding their friends and their personal connections. The "lonely anomaly" model, or the model of a woman who could only be amazing because she had a specific man supporting her, began to disappear, and was replaced by a picture of dynamic groups of women who supported each other.

What I learned from the research began to bleed over into my habitual analysis of my life. I look at the women I know who are writing or doing interesting things and wonder: which of us will have names that survive? Or will we be be lost, our friendships lost, our names lost in a role of, for example, "John Kim's wife" or "Milo Kim's mother" or "an intellectual woman encouraged by her father to read and study" as so many of the women I uncovered in research were lost or shadowed? The way the friendships and the intellectual webs disappear, so that you get an anthology of male beat poets with Diane Di Prima thrown in as the token woman - as if there were only one woman doing something at the time, or as if the others, who are forever invisible, were there but were just not good enough to be taken seriously?

To be taken seriously under patriarchy requires not the approval of men, but instead requires other women taking one seriously. For Trung Trac and her sister to exist, they needed their army of women and their generals. For Maria Desraimes to exist and to be important, there had to be not only generations of women before her and influencing her, but also a complex community of feminist thinkers and activists, women-run newspapers, political groups and politicians and leaders and writers, members of the leagues of women fighting for the vote or (in 1848) rioting in the streets. From the one name of Maria, and realizing that for many reasons Wittig might have thought of Maria Desraimes, I had to realize that it was possible to extrapolate her friends, her supporters, her readers and fans. I also got fascinating glimpses of women who were far more radical than she was. Athena did not spring fully formed out of the head of Zeus, but had a mother. Athena was a syncretic combination of many goddesses with amazing histories, and was not born in isolation, though this one story of her birth has arrogated control over who she is and by extrapolation, who all amazing women are and how they came to be.

Each name became, for me, the tip of an iceberg unseen. I feel now that for every famous woman or existing woman from history that I learn about, I can assume that there were many others around her in a community. The name "Ceza" sounded like it could be a specific person - what ethnicity or nationality, I had no idea. The online 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica had nothing on her. Through a general web search using some variant of "Ceza +feminist" I quickly found Ceza Nabarawi, who, with Nabawiya Moussa, unveiled herself in public at an international Women's Suffrage Alliance congress in 1923. With this information I could search more narrowly. I found that Ceza Nabarawi was just one of the leaders of an Egyptian women's movement - and I can extrapolate that there was more than one "women's movement" at that time, just as in our time, there might be a leader of an organization like "ACT UP", but there are also organizations doing similar work but with a different philosophy.

Ceza edited a magzine or newspaper published in French in Egypt called "L'Egyptienne" and participated in the creation of many other magazines. In fact, in reading about Ceza and the women and movements of her time and place, I thought of the history of my own activism. I was often, in college, a spokesperson for progressive groups, because someone had to play that role to the newspapers or to the campus. But we had rival groups or sister organizations; we had many members. Because I know from this experience that I was not alone, I can extrapolate that Ceza was not alone, that it wasn't just her and her friend Nabawiya deciding to go the International Women's Suffrage Alliance meeting in 1923 because they felt like it; they were the tip of the iceberg or - perhaps a better image - the tip of the arrow. I looked for the rest of the iceberg/arrow and found timelines of Egyptian feminism. Once I knew what to look for, more information was not hard to find. In 1873 the first government school for girls was opened; in 1892 the first women's magazine was started; in 1899 Qasim Amin published "Women's Emancipation". Ceza was a member of the Egyptian Feminist Union founded by Hoda Sharawi. Hoda Sharawi was even more intriguing than Ceza.

I had trouble stopping myself from going off on tangents like this for many, many names. The project will probably continue over time, as it is impossible to finish.

From one first name, I discovered a whole country and history I had not imagined. My own intense literary participation in the Riot Grrl movement of the early 90s, and in fact, most of the history of that movement, is not recorded anywhere, even on the Web. I believe that countless other entire icebergs have melted in the history of the world. As an archeologist, it is difficult to find fossilized evidence of melted ice... I found Ceza, and got a glimpse of her country, and I realized it was familiar. I had been there all along. She was there before me and so were many others; I'll probably never know them.

What I am constructing in the Digital Feminary is not just a system of signposts for others - it is my own personal country to live in and operating manual for how to be in feminist consciousness, how to act as a publisher and editor and writer and friend in my relationships with other women and in my work as a translator and scholar. I want to honor the Invisible Woman, who lives in the "Fourth World" of myth and symbol that Guillermo G—mez-Pe–a writes about in New World Border:

I oppose the sinister cartography of the New World Order with the conceptual map of the New World Border - a great trans- and intercontinental border zone, a place in which no centers remain. It's all margins, meaning there are no "others", or better said, the only true "others" are those who resist fusion, mestizaje, and cross-cultural dialogue. In this utopian cartography, hybridity is the dominant culture; Spanglish, Franglˇ, and Gringo–ol are linguas francas; and monoculture is a culture of resistance practiced by a stubborn or scared minority.

I also oppose the old colonial dichotomy of First World/Third World with the more pertinent notion of the Fourth World - a conceptual place where the indigenous peoples meet with the diasporic communities. In the Fourth World, there is very little place for static identities, fixed nationalities, "pure" languages, or sacred cultural traditions. The members of the Fourth World live between and across various cultures, communities, and countries. And our identitites are constantly being reshaped by this kaleidoscopic experience. The artists and writers who inhabit the Fourth World have a very important role: to elaborate the new set of myths, metaphors, and symbols that will locate us within all of these fluctuating cartographies. (7)

This Fourth World of myth and metaphor, history and re-history, has become more and more clear to me over the last six months. Re-searching the names helped me think of Wittig's personal identity in a feedback loop: the more I was able to imagine about Wittig's life, the more it helped the research, and the more I researched and realized, the better I felt I was able to imagine and (in the Fourth World) befriend Wittig. She grew up in France, was born in 1935. I wondered, but don't know anything about, her experiences growing up during World War II and German occupation of her country. I noticed that among the names, I could trace echoes of French colonial history: non-European names tended strongly to be from former French colonies/conquests like Cambodia, Vietnam, Algeria, Egypt, and the Middle East; this knowledge was helpful for some names as I was able to gamble that a name of unknown ethnicity/national identity would be from one of those places that it made sense for Wittig to know about - because of her probable educational background she would have known about different sets of historical figures than I would have with my education in the United States of the 1970s and 1980s. I tried to imagine and then look in the direction of What books would Wittig have 'naturally' read or been aware of, in France of her time?" As a woman, as a feminist, as a lesbian?

This tied into issues of "context" that I think of in my comparative literature classes and in my work as a translator. For example, often, to understand cultural references in a poem written in 1919 in Uruguay, I have to read quite a lot of information about Uruguayan history and must extrapolate that sort of information: What would Juana de Ibarbourou, or the young Juana Fernandez Morales in the provinces in 1901, have been reading? What would she know? What would she think of as culture? What myths would fire her imagination?

It is impossible to know the answers to these questions with any certainty, but it is nevertheless useful and informative to form hypotheses. People of my generation and background tend not to know who Madame de Sta‘l is. I know just a little bit about her. I can say with 99.9% certainty that Wittig not only knew of her but would have known quite a lot about her. I have to construct a possible Wittig and must be aware of my own constructedness, and our differences, in order to interact with her work in the way I would like. It is the awareness of that disjunction that creates the possibility of the Fourth World.

I try not to be sexist, but it is difficult. For example, I used a book for this project, "The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names", written in 19Ń by E.G. Withycombe, because it, along with another book by C.M. Yonge from the mid-1800s, seemed to be the best of a large stack of "meaning of names" books I investigated at the Stanford Library. The more I read of the Oxford Dictionary, the more it charmed me with its quirky, obsessive scholarliness. I began to imagine its author E.G. Withycombe as a cross between a character in a Sherlock Holmes story, a P.G. Wodehouse story, and maybe someone out of Agatha Christie - an archetypical absent-minded professor, stooped, nearsighted, balding, a little bit made fun of by his friends, boringly talking at parties about the etymology of names like Fridwytha, spending hours poring over musty old parish records written in Latin; I felt quite friendly towards Withycombe - that funny old coot.

As I continued reading Withycombe's book - often forgetting to stop reading at the end of a name I was looking up, and just plowing on through as all the names were interesting - I realized how often C.M. Yonge's novels and earlier work on the etymology of names were cited. At some point I connected C.M. Yonge the dictionary maker and scholar with Charlotte M. Yonge the novelist. I had heard of her, mostly because she is mentioned in other novels of the 19th century, but I couldn't remember exactly where I'd heard of her. Perhaps in some novel by Louisa May Alcott, the characters read or discussed Mrs. Yonge's novels. But I also remembered derision from other quarters, that Yonge was sappy, non-serious, bad, a nauseatingly pretentious Victorian "lady authoress" who automtaically should not be taken seriously. That sort of criticism should have made me suspicious that she might be quite interesting as a writer.

At some point in other research I came across an article written by Elizabeth G. Withycombe and realized with amazement and embarrassment how sexist I had been in my imaginary creation of Mr. Professor Withycombe. I set out, apologizing to Elizabeth's ghost, to re-create my imaginary picture, and found I could not. Who was she? I had no archetype of a woman who would have written this book in 1930 and who had gotten it published by Oxford University Press. I had just been reading Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, twelve novels in the correct time period, but found no model there - only mockery of women who had any pretension to intellectual or political activity; Gypsy Jones the political activist and the narrator Jenkins' mother-in-law, Lady Warminster, come to mind as targets of derision. Lady Warminster, who appears in Book 5 of the series, wrote books on famous, heroic women of antiquity; Powell's narrator mocks her literary efforts while professing that he likes her personally. "Lady Warminster, as a widow, divided her time between her own ailments, real or imagined - opinion differed within the family on this point - and the writing of biographical studies devoted to the dominating, Amazonian women of history" (Powell, 61). This character was likely based on a real person; probably a member of the Pakenham family (Allason).

Proust, too (as I was reading book 3 of Remembrance of Things Past simultaneously with this research and with Powell) did his share to give me more examples of patriarchal rewritings of feminist history; his derisive portraits of the salons of "lady intellectuals" made me scream with frustration at the contrast between their ridiculous pretensions all done for the sake of positions in society or attracting men with real education and genius Ń the contrast between that idea of the sexually frustrated, ignorant bluestocking and the reality of the history of French feminist writers and activists of the 19th century; that contrast deeply, deeply disturbed me.

Withycombe's praise of C.M. Yonge now looked different to me than it did at first contact. I thought of sisters and kindred spirits - Elizabeth paying homage to the amazing work of Charlotte - the probable lack of respect they both faced in not being taken seriously as intellectuals in all the ways outlined by Joanna Russ in How To Suppress Women's Writing: False Categorization, Isolation, Double Standard of Content, Denial of Agency, Pollution of Agency, and Anomolousness. Because of these forces of patriarchy, I am unable to properly imagine Withycombe or Yonge or their relationship - until I do a lot of work, research and thinking.

I now look forward to reading C.M. Yonge's novels.

Reading Charlotte's novels and looking for essays by Ceza is one way that I can join them in the Fourth World, in the world of Les Guˇrill¸res where we rampage and riot and celebrate. I find that it is important to me to believe in Les Guˇrill¸res as a legend or history that is on some level completely true. It is read as experimental, as science fiction. Rewriting myth and history to create past matriarchies, looking at the importance of women or goddesses, is treated often as a new-agey and inherently silly activity. The mythical pasts Wittig builds in Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary builds a world where women wrote the histories. The ways that the Mothers defined what happened opens up possibilities for me: This Is Possible.

I feel the same way about The Songs of Bilitis, a book by Pierre Louys. In 1894 he published this book of prose poems, in French, claiming that they were translations of a previously undiscovered Greek text written by a woman who had known Sappho. The world of women's love, passion and writing exposed by the poems created a general public literary furor. It was fairly quickly exposed that Louys' work was "fraudulent". I see his framing of the work as genuinely historical as not fraudulent, but as asserting a post-modern concept of truth and history as constructions and re-constructable. He made that world seem possible and thus made it real or acheivable. "This little book of ancient love is respectfully dedicated to the young ladies of the society of the future," LouŲs wrote in the beginning of his book of poems (9). It certainly seems likely that Wittig would have encountered LouŲs and Bilitis at some point in her life, and lived with Bilitis and her women on the island of Lesbos. "To what country have I come, what isle is this, where love is comprehended in this fashion..." (LouŲs 69). The women of that island where Bilitis was shipwrecked, maenids tenderly, violently, angrily, riot and write each other's names in poetry - as Wittig's guˇrill¸res do in their war-torn country.

Social change and personal change seems to me to need myths to build upon. I compare Les Guˇrill¸res not only to Bilitis but to James Macpherson's Ossian books. Macpherson began in 1760 to publish the poems of Ossian as scholarly translations of fragments of newly discovered Celtic epics; the poems were hailed as genius and helped to fuel Scottish nationalism and the beginnings of European romanticism, even as, and after, his "literary fraud" was argued and exposed (Macpherson). Wittig's work reveals and struggles against patriarchy, but also gives myths, gives building blocks, to build a non-patriarchal world; Feminist Nationalism, or feminist identity. L. Timmel Duchamp writes eloquently of the excitement she felt and still feels upon encountering the building blocks of Wittig's deconstruction and reconstruction of historicity: "The women say" this and "the women say" that in a constant litany, hailing the creation of new myths, new historical narratives, a new material reality."

I don't think that many people today question the ways that Milton took over christian symbolism and re-wrote it to make it his own vision. Dante's vision of spiritual reality also is now a building block of the literary and mythological canon, not a revolutionary challenge. Might Wittig, or someone like her, build similar mythological structures that make new thinking possible? I feel that I am stumbling in the dark around this idea, but I find it very exciting.

I was led to read about the "Saint-Simonians" Ń a dynamic community of women who are still offensively and irritatingly named after a man whose political movement and political successors opposed and obstructed them Ń and this was the best path I went down in my research this year. The history of French feminists I learned from reading Claire Goldberg Moses' French Feminism in the 19th Century underlies all the work I have done on this project. I had known a little bit about Olympe de Gouge and the women of the French Revolution, but I had no knowledge at all about the 19th century feminist movements in France. I read about riots, newspapers, magazines, political figures - women immensely active and interactive. I then went through the book and pulled out all the first names of the women mentioned and put them into the Digital Feminary.

I would like to find out if the newspapers of the 1830s and 1840s, like Tribune des Femmes, are in print or have been translated into English. Here is a possible future project for me, if no one has done it. I long to read the manifestos of Pauline Roland, Jeanne Deroin, Claire Demar, Suzanne Voilquin, and articles by the women who wrote for those papers identified only by their first names: Angelique, Sophie-Caroline, Isabelle, Cˇlˇstine, Amanda, Nancy, Josˇphine-Fˇlicitˇ, Christine-Sophie (Goldberg Moses 65-70). Work like this Feminary and like the possible future translation and re-publication of feminists who are mostly forgotten, I think, are good first steps toward building connections and enlarging the space of LouŲs' Isle of Lesbos, G—mez-Pe–a's Fourth World, and Wittig's Large Country. It is the disjunction between the canonical histories and these alternate histories that fuel the postmodern creation of culture.

Works Cited

Allason, Julian and Keith Marshall. "Models for Characters in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. 2002. .

Duchamp, L. Timmel. "In Memoriam: Monique Wittig". Fantastic Metropolis. 25 Jan 2003. .

"Macpherson, James". Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition. 1911. 6 May 2004. .

Goldberg Moses, Claire. French Feminism in the 19th Century. Albany: State U of NY P, 1984.

G—mez-Pe–a, Guillermo. The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems, and Loqueras for the End of the Century. San Francisco: City Lights, 1996.

LouŲs, Pierre. The Songs of Bilitis. Trans. Alvah C. Bessie. NY: Dover, 1988.

Powell, Anthony. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant. A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Proust, Marcel. The Guermantes Way. Remembrance of Things Past, Book 3. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff. New York: Random House, 1934.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: U of TX P, 1983.

Withycombe, E.G. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1945.

Wittig, Monique. Les Guˇrill¸res. Trans. David Le Vay. Boston: Beacon P, 1985.

Wittig, Monique and Sande Zeig. Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary. Trans. Wittig and Zeig. NY: Avon Books, 1979.

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