Remembering Sandra Lee Bartky as We Fight On

As many readers know all too well these days, it’s not easy being a feminist. Promoting social change inevitably involves disappointments and, when people around you seem to draw different conclusions than you from recent events, alienation and self-doubt. But, as singularly articulated by pioneering feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky, my friend who passed away at age 81 in October, it’s of course still worth it.

Sadly, among those lost in 2016 is one of the leading feminist intellectual minds of women’s interior lives—a woman who theorized on everything from the pain and pleasure of consciousness raising to affirming women’s sexual fantasies—but her work will live on to help support and inspire the next generation.

In the first chapter of her book, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, Bartky argues that “in spite of its disturbing aspects,” feminist consciousness is an “immeasurable advance over that false consciousness which it replaces.” That was the foundation of her belief in the liberation of feminism:

The scales fall from our eyes. We are no longer required to struggle against unreal enemies, to put others’ interests ahead of our own, or to hate ourselves. We begin to understand why we have such depreciated images of ourselves and why so many of us are lacking any genuine conviction of personal worth.

Understanding, even beginning to understand this, makes it possible to change. Coming to see things differently, we are able to make out possibilities for liberating collective action and for unprecedented personal growth, possibilities for which a deceptive sexist social reality had heretofore concealed…It is a fitting commentary on our society that the growth of feminist consciousness, in spite of its ambiguities, confusions, and trials, is apprehended by those in whom it develops as an experience of liberation.”

In this, her most famous book, a 1990 collection of published essays, Bartky cemented her reputation as a scholar of feminist political consciousness and inventor of the related field of “feminist phenomenology.”  She was also a pioneer in the field of feminist philosophy and co-founder of the Society for Women in Philosophy in Chicago in 1971. But for feminists both academic and non-academic, her main role—in the 1970s and beyond—has been as a scholar and advocate of consciousness raising and helping others see the world through a critical feminist lens. In short, she helped us define how the personal was political.

“To be a feminist,” Bartky said once in a likely riff on the words of 1950s predecessor Simone de Beauvoir, “one has first to become one.” Bartky emphasized this process as common ground for all feminists, even the most or least radical, no matter how widely differing their resulting political beliefs may be.

This sentiment rings true across generations. Hollace Graff of Oakton Community College in Skokie, IL, one of the only community colleges in the country with a large gender studies department, says that Bartky’s work is surprisingly timeless and accessible to the wide diversity of her students new to feminism. This is especially true for some of Bartky’s most noted work about body image, how women internalize outside pressures and become their greatest—and most unrelenting—critic. “I don’t even tell [my students] how old she was before assigning her work,” Graff told Ms., “and they are totally astounded and suddenly begin to want to read many works from that period.”

Graff, who is now chair of the Humanities and Philosophy Department at Oakton, started her academic career in 1969 as a teaching assistant for Bartky at the University of Illinois in Chicago—also with an extraordinarily diverse student population, and where Bartky taught through her retirement. Having grown up in Highland Park, IL, Bartky also obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Illinois.

I met Graff at a memorial in the lounge of the UIC Philosophy Department lounge on a recent bleak, rainy day. There, many colleagues and former students observed Bratky’s personal impact. Cordelia Callaway, now a UIC administrator, spoke about Bartky’s support of her and how much it meant in her career. “Sandy provided a ‘safe space’ for women students of all races before it became popular to do so,” she told the group. “As a Black woman, I look back on my undergraduate experience in the mid to late 70s at an urban public university as a story of survival. She was one of a handful of people who helped me make it. For that, I’m grateful.”

“Her generosity and her lightly-worn brilliance were most in evidence with her students,” Dr. Norma Claire Moruzzi, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies, said in a tribute to Bartky, “and part of a fundamentally democratic personality.” She went on to give an example of her humility and wry humor while teaching:

Sitting in the back of the room I observed Sandy introduce the discussion of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble to the baffled multi-disciplinary students of GWS 501, the graduate concentration’s required course in Feminist Theory. She opened the discussion by airily announcing that it was fine if the students didn’t understand Butler, as she didn’t understand Butler either.

But during this class, we were going to try to understand her together. At that moment, I realized that I could only hope to become the kind of scholar and teacher that Sandy was embodying for me. Of course Sandy understood Butler’s project and was familiar with all the vocabulary and arguments of French feminist theory. But her side-stepping of her own authority provided the intimidated students with a collaborative basis from which to join in a shared challenge. … Sandy empowered them and helped them learn, by displacing her authority in favor of a collective intellectual endeavor. And through that process, she helped me learn as well.

Moruzzi observed the wide ranging global influence today of Bartky’s work. She recalled recently reading a dissertation in French by a Belgian-Iranian student and finding “Sandy’s theory of femininity and domination being used with great insight and accuracy to demystify the gender dynamics of contemporary Iranian youth culture.”

Other less academic readers may recognize references to her work in popular writing about body image. “The disciplinary project of femininity is a ‘setup,'” Bartky once wrote. “It requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined to some degree to fail.” In her posthumous 2003 memoir about her anorexia, Appetites, the late memoirist Caroline Knapp described how she learned from Bartky how she judges and polices herself, in a manner that is “so ingrained it almost feels like a second self.”

But Bartky’s work also endures in other forms. The Brown University Library has archived her papers. An ambitious oral history project, “Feminist Philosophers: In Their Own Words, offers in-depth interviews on DVD with Bartky, as well as with other scholars. That project is being partly organized by Dr. Joan Callahan, Professor Emerita of philosophy and gender studies at the University of Kentucky, who also started a Facebook page in tribute to Bartky. “Sandra Bartky’s ‘Femininity and Domination” ‘completely transformed my professional trajectory,” Callahan told Ms. “I had read nothing like it in my journey through a B.A., M.A., and PhD in philosophy. And then I picked it up at a conference when I was doing my first round of job interviews. Its effect on me was immediate and profound. In those days, it was bad enough being in so-called applied ethics—now I was committed to feminist philosophy as well.”

“So many of us owe her so much,” Callahan added. “There was no one like her.”

Indeed, Bartky’s death leaves a hole of the lives of her many friends around the world. That includes her closest and newest one—Juliet Rogers, who over the summer became a neighbor of hers on the Lake Michigan shores of Douglas, Michigan. It turns out that Rogers taught Bartky’s work as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and is now a professor in the School of Public Health there. Amazingly, Rogers purchased her land from Bartky without realizing that she was the same person who had been the major feminist intellectual influence of her life.

In Bartky’s final days, Rogers thanked her in a letter, quoting lines of Bartky’s writing from memory:

When I saw your name on the records, it rang a bell of familiarity inside of my head that I could not ignore. I said to (my partner) Mary, “I know that name. I swear I taught her work to my women’s studies students.” And I was correct – I did know your work. In college, I devoured your work like a starving child handed bits of food. I drowned myself in the complexity of your feminist theory, submerging my entire being into the pages of explanations of why we feel so inadequate, so disenfranchised, and so objectified. …

I accept now that we will not have that time together on earth. So I leave you with this letter as a small expression of my gratitude for the myriad of ways that you have influenced my life, my work, and my being. You said in the introduction of one of your books that you had hoped that your work be consciousness raising, but also be an instrument for political intervention. Please know that you have succeeded. You have made a difference and that the feminists that you helped to create will nurture, mentor, and support the next generation and the one after that… for years to come. You gave us the tools and we will take it from here.




Paula Kamen is the author of four books and the play Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been performed at many college campuses. Her first book, Feminist Fatale, was about the importance of consciousness raising for the post boomer generation. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Women’s Review of Books and McSweeney’s, among others. She tweets @paulakamen.