Fresh thinking on history of feminism

For many, feminism just took a flying, sword-wielding leap with “Wonder Woman,” the new film in which Amazonian warrior-princess Diana of Themyscira serves as protector of the free world. The Patty Jenkins-directed movie, the first superhero feature with a woman in the leading role, grossed $223 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the third-biggest launch for a DC Comics movie.

Though an important milestone for some, others consider the film just one more step on the long, complicated road to gender equality, a road Harvard cultural historian Phyllis Thompson and her class of undergraduates explored during the spring term.

Thompson’s class “The History of Feminism: Narratives of Gender, Race and Rights,” a new Harvard offering that examined the evolution of major feminist narratives, aimed to replace the notion of a steady stream of progress with a more nuanced appreciation of the many actors, seen and unseen, responsible for advancing women’s rights over time.

“There have been extraordinary thinkers from many places and many intellectual orientations and a broad variety of racial backgrounds who have had extremely progressive ideas ahead of their time,” said Thompson, a lecturer in studies of women, gender, and sexuality. “And if we periodize the history of feminism strictly along a chronological basis it’s really easy to lose track of that.”

To help students dig into history and develop a more “honest appreciation for the past,” Thompson structured her course around four themes: the fight for political and economic citizenship; the regulation of family and domestic life; the struggle for the freedom of sexual expression and reproduction and identity politics; and the significance of utopian visions, idealism, and manifestos.

“My thinking was that each time the students would go through the history from a different approach they would be forced to wrestle with what they knew, what they didn’t know, what the real genealogy is for any particular person or action,” said Thompson.

Despite disrupting the “progress narrative,” the class put chronology at the center of one important assignment, a timeline designed to illuminate understudied facets of feminism. The online record created by students starts in the fourth century B.C. with Agnodice, the first Athenian female physician, and ends with Viola Davis, who became the first black actor to win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony when she took home an Academy Award on Feb. 26 for her supporting turn in the film “Fences.”

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