When the Walls of the City Are Shaken: Thinking with Ann Snitow’s Feminist Voice of Uncertainty

—Katheryn M. Detwiler

When feminist activist and writer Ann Snitow finished the manuscript of Visitors: An American Feminist in East Central Europe, shortly before she died in August 2019, she had no idea that the world into which the book would be published would be so suddenly and dramatically altered. Visitors came out on March 24, 2020, two days after New York State entered its first lockdown and as the country and world entered a period of precipitous change, engulfed in a global pandemic and a global economic meltdown.

Written about another period of cataclysm—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet communism—and its aftermath over a period of twenty-five years, Visitors arrived in a maelstrom of shock, grief, fear, confusion, and outrage. It arrived, too, amid the flickering knowledge that the dysfunctional neoliberal system under which we have lived for forty years had cracked.

Ann Snitow was a veteran and theorist of many periods of swift change and struggles over what she called, in a 1985 essay, “retrenchment versus transformation.” She was a key player in the U.S. Women’s Movement from the astonishing beginning of the Second Wave in the late 1960s. She chronicled the immediate, fierce backlash to feminism in the United States and the consequent distortions to and narrowing of feminist desires in the 1980s. In 1991, she began traveling to East Central Europe, connecting U.S. feminists to the fledging feminist movements emerging from the shambles of Soviet communism. In 2015, she was working with East Central European feminists to organize in response to the rise of the Right to political power across Europe, a prelude to what was soon to happen in the United States and all over the world.

Because she was a participant, observer, and analyst of several periods of revolutionary change, at the outset of the rampage of COVID-19—like many of Snitow’s friends and comrades—I longed to know what she would make of the situation into which we were plunging. I worked with Ann Snitow from 2009 until her death, riding shotgun with her through a wide range of intellectual and activist projects, the last of which was working together to finish the manuscript of Visitors, completed eleven days before she died. Though I knew both Ann and the story she tells in this bookintimately, it was of course impossible to know quite what she would say about the political dangers and new grounds for action arising from the instabilities of this pandemic time.

Snitow was always updating, questioning, and revising her own formulations—working in the mode of thought and action she described as the “feminism of uncertainty.” She was a theorist deeply leery of false confidence, who also had confidence in the capacity of human beings to change our situation; a teacher who was wise counsel to generations of students and activists, who also had pinned on the corkboard above her writing desk a quote from the author Doris Lessing: “No one knows anything, and they pretend they do.” The permanent dialectician of feminist doubt, Snitow would have resisted the idea that she was any more enlightened than anyone else about how to characterize our shaken present.

Moreover, she had written repeatedly about the limits of thinking that periods of historical change are really comparable to previous ones. When she began traveling to East Central Europe in 1991, as the co-founder of the international feminist organization the Network of East-West Women (the amazing trajectory of which is recorded in Visitors), Snitow had at first imagined that 1989 might usher in a period of revolutionary awakening like that of 1968. She was disabused at once of this fantasy, though, as she writes, she maintained the value of the “initial, thrilling illusion.”

With all of these doubts—or call them caveats—in mind, still, with her last book before me, I find in this account of historical transformation, composed as it was just before the upheavals of the past year, lessons, warnings, and prompts to thought and action that speak mysteriously but with urgency to our not-quite-shared present. Though it is neither strictly antecedent nor parallel to our weird “now,” Snitow gives us not only analyses with which we might reground ourselves and remind ourselves of what we already knew about the crises unfolding all around us, but also a model of bold, vividly rendered political desire that may prove vital to all of us now living, differentially, across a rift.

Thedramaof Visitors begins in 1989, when a stark confrontation of East and West that had structured the maps of the political universe for half a century came to a sudden and unexpected finish. All in the Soviet bloc were tossed overnight into a new reality. Received political rhetoric was thrown in the air, Snitow writes, like a “crazy confetti”; “everything changed: in both meaning and horizon of expectation.” She observes that “such dramatic changes feel general, shared; but they were not,” a point that is keenly felt today.

The story that Visitors tells is of building international feminism in the confusion of post-communism. With the Yugoslav writer Slavenka Draculic and others both East and West, Snitow co-founded the Network of East-West Women to build international solidarity and exchange among feminists working in very different circumstances, with different constructions of what feminism could do and become. The story of the Network is a story of new connection, of feminists in former East Bloc countries emerging from intense isolation and finally able to meet each other; feminists who were, with other dissidents, finally free to move and act in new ways—and to find others seeking to foster an international feminist movement.

Walls came down, barbed wires were cut, and exuberance followed for many, with people “moving in every direction.” Visitors is full of gatherings, parties, meetings, demonstrations, fresh and dizzying encounters that crackle with the electricity generated by the collision of wildly different constructions of feminist politics and desires. Snitow recounts these collisions with enduring fascination and offers them as evidence of feminism’s lability and irresolvability. At present, the rich and surprising social experiences recorded in Visitors seem as if they are from a suddenly distant reality.

But Visitors also describes a time when, amid this new freedom to move, to meet, and to exchange ideas, came, too, a dramatic pulling apart, a rush to separate from an enforced communist unity; new ways of sorting people into reductive categories. Vicious post-communist nationalism became xenophobic racism and, with sly maneuvering, became the war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. This war arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia, just a few weeks after the founding meeting of the Network of East-West Women had taken place there in June 1991.

Snitow and her feminist comrades had worked doggedly to find as many self-declared East and Central European feminists as they could and to bring them all together to this first meeting. Then, suddenly: “The phone lines were down; the train tracks cut.” The cracking apart of Soviet communism ushered in both new possibilities for independent action, such as above-ground feminist activism, and also the return of concentration camps, torture, and mass rape as a weapon of war to Europe for the first time since WWII. But in “the two breaths before a dreadful war,” the Network had been established, and feminists in countries suddenly in violent conflict with each other were able to route messages to one another through the Network’s initial headquarters in New York City.

Visitors is full of such examples of danger and new possibility arising from transformative change. The “new democracies” of post-communism brought new freedoms and, in the same moment, intense restrictions on women’s rights. Among the first acts of the newly independent Polish government was a ban on abortion, a right that women had had since 1956. “Women were an easy sacrifice to lay on the altar of a return to a pre-Communist ‘normal,’” Snitow writes. They were positioned as symbolic keepers of the hearth who would be asked to glue the fractured world together again.

What was required then—as now—was vigilance and, in fact, refusal. But as Snitow describes, women were “an unorganized and powerless constituency,” and even beyond overt hostility to feminism, women—even politically active women—were deeply ambivalent about feminism, since gender equality was regionally caricaturized as a tainted Stalinist leaving. With communist parity laws gone, women hemorrhaged from political office just as new constitutions were being written and new laws governing daily life were enacted. Women (and men) were rapidly losing supports for the guaranteed work, paid childcare, and healthcare that had been taken for granted under communism; the “new politics” was, for many, to become a “new poverty.” Women were to pick up the slack for failing social supports for free—out of love and duty. “The irony of repressing women at the moment of general liberation was lost on nearly everybody beyond a small cluster of feminists.”

Snitowrecords how though post-communism “knocked all norms and expectations sidewise,” nationalists and traditionalists sought to resuscitate the enchanting identities of a (mythologized) pre-Communist past and new liberals created an amalgam of these forms, as they embraced the absolute individuality of a free market society. Feminists, by contrast, “kept running, because several old worlds were just behind them, while the new made them skeptical as well.”

Snitow describes the stunning trajectory of the inventive feminists of the Network of East-West Women over a period of twenty-five years. They establish women’s centers, feminist libraries, and university Gender Studies programs. They train feminist lawyers and, through the Network’s Book and Journal Project, exchange feminist literature and conduct feminist research, translation, and publishing projects. They enter local governments, national parliaments, and international institutions. Feminism is more and more recognized, among early Left and liberal critics, as a call for a more thoroughgoing democracy than what had been offered after 1989. Then, toward the end of Snitow’s account, the political atmosphere grows dark—in Hungary, Poland, the U.K., the U.S., and indeed everywhere—as proudly “illiberal” and autocratic governments overtly hostile to feminist demands are installed one after the other across the world.

Visitors provides a trenchant account of how the phobic anti-feminism and xenophobic racism that bloomed in post-communism were used to ramp up public outrage and turn countries throughout the region to the Right. In Poland in 2016, the Church mounted a campaign to “Stop Gender,” a hysterical reaction to any mixing of politics with the supposedly natural, while Poland’s Right-wing Law and Justice party—the first political party to secure single-party rule in the country since 1989—moved to ban the word “gender” from public policy documents. This July 2020, the Law and Justice Party’s Andrjez Duda, who ran a campaign against “an imported LGBT ideology” and “Jewish interests,” won re-election to the presidency by a slim margin.

Snitow repeatedly shows how inadequate is the language of “rupture” and post-communist transition-to-capitalism-and-democracy; how a failure to publicly reckon with what was being lost with the fall of communism—and to grapple with common public emotions of grief and humiliation—poisoned the “new democracies” of East Central Europe and helped to lead us to our recent season of political reaction. Recent, that is, until fourteen months ago.

Visitors does indeed provide a detailed roadmap to how the recklessly anti-social mechanisms for the provisioning of income, care, and basic security, which failed dramatically and at once at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic—and have since continued to fail daily, grindingly, and lethally—came to global dominance. What Snitow calls the “awful triumphalism” of capitalism after 1989 drowned out the observations of feminists and other critics that market fundamentalism was a weak, inefficient, incomplete, arrogant, and—very often, for very many—cruel way to manage collective life. Visitors adds to a chorus of voices that insist that we do not fail to know that the devastation of COVID-19 wasn’t cut from whole cloth.

The racist distribution of health and harm laid bare for all to see by COVID-19; the instrumentalization and underpayment of essential workers; the cruel exclusion of many immigrants, including many essential workers, from pandemic relief; the obvious consequences of the lack of public support for childcare, eldercare, healthcare, sick leave, and family leave; the criminal insanity and dysfunctionality of vaccine apartheid—all have led huge numbers of people in the United States, even the formerly somnolent, to a new understanding that we must not, under any circumstances, accept a return to a pre-COVID normal.

Though now named as “essential” work and, in the U.S., debated as “basic infrastructure,” it remains highly indeterminate what the revaluation of care and of the work of sustaining social life will mean. Similarly, we are compelled to see the precarious existences, forced burdens, and differential states of vulnerability under which millions and millions of people live and labor—everywhere, all at once.

This laying bare over the past year has resulted in reactive measures to popular outcry and to rebellion that make the time we are living in extremely dangerous. As with the events of post-communism, more domestic and geopolitical shocks arising from this time of pandemic instability are likely to come. So too the expansion of forms of confinement, surveillance, detention, incarceration, and deportation. So too the further criminalization of political protest and everyday resistance. Reactionary identities and habits of daily life whether nostalgic, resurrected, or newly minted will be offered up as a bulwark against advances toward liberation and against uncertainty itself—as things which are familiar and safe, but are not. In all of this, Visitors offers lessons in the urgency of acting.

But there is something else that Visitors suggests. Toward the end of Visitors, we are with Snitow as she addresses generations of activists and students she has come to know throughout her twenty-five years of working in East Central Europe. The 2015 Polish election is around the corner and everyone assembled in Snitow’s audience knows that the Law and Justice Party will win, though few anticipated the landslide victory that would in fact transpire.

On the eve of disaster, Snitow speaks to the cherished feminist comrades and students she has known for a quarter century and asks about the meaning of holding passionate political commitments to such long-term struggles as gender, racial, and economic justice. “We are in this for the long haul,” she says. And the long view that is demanded of those who work in liberation struggles is also a source of survival: “We are more free, more able to live in a capacious view of history than our detractors. They want to seal us up into a narrow seam of time, while we see how complex is our long-term global struggle.”

The story of the Network of East-West Women that Visitors tells is, finally, a story of the political value of forging connections, exchanges, friendships, solidarities, and communities of care that survive across vast distances of time and space and across political and personal reversals of fortune; across forced separation, isolation, and fracture, when the “train tracks are down, the phone lines cut.” Ann’s prescient message, delivered in Visitors, is that despite collective shocks, “we are beleaguered but not alone.” “Sometimes,” she writes, “I can feel the net that connects us shake.”

Diagnosing what she encountered as a dangerous aversion to all politics in the precipitous years of post-communism—often paired with an abstract and easily manipulated desire for “normalcy”—Snitow acknowledges that, in times of weird instability, “to formulate desires for the future can feel futile.” And yet, she insists, “without such thinking, the narratives of the past expand to cut off any view.” Snitow would greet the broad resurgence of the radical, utopian political horizons and demands that we now witness in the U.S. and all over the world with unambiguous delight—that indispensable companion of feminist uncertainty. New visions of feminism tend to bloom, she observes, “when, for any of number of reasons, the walls of the city are shaken.”

Katheryn Detwiler is a PhD candidate in anthropology at The New School for Social Research. She worked closely with Ann Snitow from 2009-2019, including as director of The Book and Journal Project of the Network of East-West Women. Along with Judith Levine, she worked with New Village Press to bring Visitors: An American Feminist in East Central Europe to publication. 

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