Revelations in Isolation
In late March, faced with the new shelter-in-place order and only a faint understanding of the damage COVID-19 was to bring, I turned to my mother’s bookcase for a chance to escape. Luckily, I live with a parent who is a writer, poet, and voracious reader. Her staggering collection of books reflects her appreciation of literature. I scanned the shelves until the title Revelations: Diaries of Women (edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter) caught my eye. The intrigue was all there: a worn-down paperback cover, a 1974 print date, and two editors who once taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the same university I once attended. This was a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about women in history, since the book is an anthology of diary entries by female writers. I began reading, forgetting the power a book can hold over your psyche, especially during times of confinement. How naive I was.
The weeks dragged on, and I struggled every day with the book. I am a rather idealistic person, and I had to face the hard truth that the book’s pages, while vintage and compelling in appearance, were quite out of date in material. Mary Jane Moffat writes in the foreword, “This use of the diary may become even more important in the coming years when both sexes face freer choices in the way they will love and work.” The certainty with which she describes the future is disheartening. While women have accomplished much since this book’s release, Moffat’s statement was a reminder of the work that must still be done, work she couldn’t have anticipated. At another point in time, this may have been simply an opportunity for conversation. However, as I read from the confines of my room, the separation in time I felt between Moffat and myself only intensified the feeling of being cut off from society.
All but three of the thirty-two women chosen for Revelations are white, a testament to an era of exclusionary feminism. The exceptions are Sei Shonagon (a Japanese woman born a thousand years before the rest of the diarists featured), Carolina Maria de Jesus (a Black writer from Brazil), and Unknown Japanese Woman (whose diaries were found, translated, and contextualized by Lafcadio Hearn, a white man). The only diarists included from the antebellum American South were two white women who were married to enslavers and profited from the slave trade. This book clearly prioritized white stories over the experiences of Black women. Moffat and Painter’s decision to uplift the voices of these “white saviors” contributes to the false narrative that white women have been passive participants in the establishment of white supremacy.
All but three of the thirty-two women chosen for Revelations are white, a testament to an era of exclusionary feminism.
A perhaps accidental feature of Revelations was its inclusion of queer stories, which I initially interpreted as an attempt towards inclusivity. Anne Frank’s excerpt includes her saying in earnest, “I remember that once when I slept with a girl friend I had a strong desire to kiss her, and that I did so.” With surprise, I turned to the start of the chapter, expecting the editor’s introduction to acknowledge Anne’s distinct articulation. I only found discussion of “the changes her mind and body were undergoing,” and how “she prized being a woman.” Painter and Moffat saw Anne’s attraction to her friend as an appreciation of womanhood, especially given that that same diary entry includes Anne saying, “I go into ecstasies every time I see the naked figure of a woman, such as Venus.” In the process of highlighting the voices of women, the editors contribute to the erasure of their experiences.
This erasure is also evident within Anaïs Nin’s diary entries. Her excerpts center around her obsession and relationship with June Miller, a woman known for her marriage and role as a muse to the writer Henry Miller. When profiling Anaïs Nin, the editors offer further examination than what they offered of Anne’s writing, labeling Nin’s feelings towards June an “attraction.” Aside from this single word, the editors ignore the romantic aspects of Nin and June Miller’s relationship, and frame this attraction by explaining Nin’s “sense of obligation to write about the June that both women felt Henry Miller had failed to grasp in his writing” (because, as Nin makes clear, Henry Miller’s portrayal of June is lacking in complexity). In other words, the passage was not chosen because of the presence of queerness; it was chosen to reveal how Nin helps another woman loosen the binds of patriarchy.
Revelations views the experiences of women through a feminist lens, and one might argue that it is not the responsibility of the editors to explicitly acknowledge any same-sex romantic attraction. Yet the editors use a feminist lens to overshadow queer experiences for the sake of their own ideology. Indeed, when queerness is re-framed as a way to celebrate “womanhood,” it suggests that being attracted to women is a political decision, rather than a person’s authentic truth (perhaps this celebration of “womanhood” is the reason there is no mention in the introduction to George Sand of her affinity for dressing as a man).
As I remained indoors, day in and day out, reading about woman after woman devoting themselves to men, my own containment became unbearable.
As I finally reached the end of the anthology, I was gratified to see the afterword, titled “Psychic Bisexuality” by Charlotte Painter. Finally, I thought, some real discussion of these queer moments in history. I was about halfway through Painter’s essay when I realized that it wasn’t about bisexuality at all, but rather the theory that male and female thought exists within everyone. While such a concept may be worth examining, it was a disappointment to realize that bisexuality would not be acknowledged by this essay, or by the book at large.
Despite my reservations, I often found myself relating to the women and girls featured in this book, many of whom I had no knowledge of previously. When the early 20th century Russian teenager Nelly Ptaschkina wrote, “Give me my golden horizon. Let me live a full life, with all the strength of my soul,” I thought of my own fears of not living up to my potential. It was astonishing to see how often I connected with the thoughts of people who lived more than a century ago; it was also incredibly saddening to see the same stories of dissatisfaction, particularly within marriage and heterosexual relationships, repeat over and over again. This recurring theme specifically was what drove me to the edge during my own isolation. As I remained indoors, day in and day out, reading about woman after woman devoting themselves to men (re: Dorothy Wordsworth, Anna Dostoevsky, Sophie Tolstoy, and even George Eliot in the instance of this book), my own containment became unbearable.
After finishing, I asked my mom about the book. She explained that “the book was published in the 1970s, but I was reading it in 1995. The class [I read it for] was on women writers, and I don’t think we read any women of color,” an issue she hadn’t considered twenty-five years ago. Revelations was designed for white, cisgender women like my mom and myself, who haven’t had to consider the importance of representation because of our privilege. Were it not for the many feminists of color who have advocated for intersectionality and inclusivity, my mother and I might have remained unaware of the problems this book poses, and less capable of looking at it with a critical eye. I’ve heard that exclusion is the legacy of feminism, and that this is why some women reject this identity today. My visit to the 1970s was a reminder of the reputation that feminism has held and a sign of the need for intersectional feminism. Let us reverse the effects of an insulated ideology and open ourselves up.
My visit to the 1970s was a reminder of the reputation that feminism has held and a sign of the need for intersectional feminism.
Olivia E. Joyce
Olivia E. Joyce is a writer with a B.A. in Literature from UC Santa Cruz. She has been a guest editor for the children’s literary magazine, Stone Soup, and a co-founder and contributing editor for Roundhouse News & Review. She is currently based in the greater Sacramento area, and is the fiction editor for the online literary journal, West Trestle Review. Find her on Twitter @oliofthesea and on Instagram @oliviaejoyce.
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