Ann Snitow (1943–2019)

Ann Snitow was at the heart of the radical feminist movement in the 1960s and '70s. She spent the next several decades working for a feminism that never shied away from robust debate — but always demands liberation.

Ann Snitow. (Mieczysław Michalak)

Reflecting on her experiences in the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, Ann Snitow, who died last week at seventy-six, wondered, “Have we written enough about how erotic those new freedoms sometimes felt? Most of us were young of course, but that can’t fully explain the general atmosphere of passion set free, the literal embodiment of the name the movement had then: ‘Women’s Liberation.’”

Snitow was at the heart of that movement, cofounding important groups like New York Radical Feminists and No More Nice Girls. Throughout her many years as an activist, writer, and teacher, Snitow documented and worked through the meaning of that period and that early sense of liberation and freedom while never getting stuck in nostalgia or allowing the significance of those years to temper her engagement with new conditions and possibilities.

Feminists of Snitow’s generation saw writing and activism as mutually reinforcing in part because their intellectual work was collective; perhaps no one embodied this more than she did. Appropriately, among Snitow’s most influential works were several anthologies. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, the volume she coedited in 1983, featured new historical scholarship on sexuality and queerness along with personal reflections and poetry. In containing both a piece like Atina Grossman’s “The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimer Germany” and Joan Nestle’s “My Mother Liked to Fuck,” the volume recaptured the vitality the feminist press had created during the movement’s peak.

In 1998, frustrated with the emergence of histories of the sixties that ignored or dismissed feminism, Snitow coedited The Feminist Memoir Project with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, an undertaking she described as the result of six years of “pulling the pieces . . .  out of the humble, the busy, the still passionate, and the disappointed.” The oral history showed how individuals of diverse backgrounds and identities experienced political transformation and the rich culture this activism created: there were, of course, countless political collectives and publications, but there was also the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band. And Snitow sought to capture the voices of more obscure women as well: her long-running radio show on WBAI, a noncommercial radio station in New York City, used diaries to tell their stories.

Despite bearing her name alone, The Feminism of Uncertainty, a 2015 collection of pieces written across the decades gives the reader as rich a collection of voices as these anthologies. Most writers note on their acknowledgments page that writing is the result of countless hours of dialogue and discovery and then proceed as if they alone discovered everything they are writing and have always known it. Here, instead, Snitow gave us accounts of intellectual conversations: what she took from her mentor Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a psychological study of how gender determines “how people parcel them out, dividing up the various capabilities that lie in being human,” and the delight she found in the reconstituted myths of Angela Carter’s fiction. In “A Gender Diary,” she described a key debate in feminism: whether the category of “woman” should be defended from its pejorative connotations or dismantled to make way for a more fluid sense of gender. Throughout this and all of her other writings, Snitow took pains to correctly characterize the positions of those she disagreed with, not only out of a sense of fairness but a genuine curiosity as to what lay behind those positions.

Yet she never lacked conviction. Snitow’s writing on the so-called sex wars of the 1980s and ’90s — over sex work, pornography, and censorship — was bracing: she was sympathetic to those driven by revulsion to male violence but clear about the dead end of moral outrage at sexual expression, the weapon of a femininity that appeals for protection instead of demanding liberation. In her tribute to Ellen Willis, she quoted her friend and comrade’s sense of what was at stake in these struggles: “Feminism is a vision of active freedom, of fulfilled desires, or it is nothing.” By looking at the history of sexuality, Powers of Desire pushed back against the vision advanced by Andrea Dworkin of a timeless sexual war of all against all. The stakes were real: Caught Looking, an anthology put together by the Feminism Anti-Censorship Taskforce, included a range of historical and queer images that would have been open to censorship under the ordinance Dworkin supported.

In this historical perspective, Snitow’s work found a guard against despair. In the eighties, as the backlash against feminism took hold, she visited the women’s peace encampment at the Greenham Common missile site in England. Though skeptical of the appeal to women’s peaceful nature, she characteristically wanted to see for herself, and was happy to have her own position shifted.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Snitow began a decades-long relationship with feminists in Eastern Europe (the subject of a book that will be published posthumously next year). They faced a nationalist backlash, eroding social services, economic hardship, political cynicism, religious revival, and more. But Snitow refused to dwell on this soon-familiar litany: “The list remains static, while the social reality, country by country, is extremely complex and undertheorized. Women’s situation is too often treated — by politicians and social theorists alike — as unavoidable collateral damage, rarely as an indication of central problems, or a key point of intervention.”

She helped organize protests against the repeal of abortion rights in Poland, traded away as part of a deal to thank the church for its anticommunist role; a few years ago, networks she helped build fought further attacks on women, which have laid bare the central role of regressive gender policies in the far right’s global rise. In keeping with her embrace of contradictions, she founded an NGO, the Network of East-West Women, while also critiquing politics dependent on NGOs. (A Russian feminist is quoted as noting: “We used to live from party congress to party congress. Now we live from grant deadline to grant deadline.”)

These engagements offered inspiration to younger activists: her piece on the Greenham Occupation was reprinted in the Occupy Gazette, and one of her last pieces for Dissent, where she served as a longtime editorial board member, was about the #metoo movement. Like many second-wave feminists, she worked to establish a foothold for feminism in universities without giving in to careerism, building the gender studies program at the New School, and reflecting on the necessary inside-outside positions radicals occupy in the academy: “Feminist professors are travelers between their roots in a great social movement and their equally important role as critics able stand outside that fray . . .  In our insecure identity as both insiders and outsiders, at our best, we are among the most brilliant survivors in a tottering academic system.”

The Feminism of Uncertainty also offered powerful accounts of her experiences of teaching feminism in Krakow and film in a men’s prison in New York, giving voice to the challenges that come not from a lack of engagement, that familiar lament of self-satisfied professors, but from its presence:

“It is summer in the mid-nineties, Reka is in my class . . .  The feminist material in my course clearly fascinates her and disturbs her. She is engaged, but I get the feeling that she is feeling this excitement somewhat against her will . . .  She plunks down beside me and begins in on me at once: “What am I supposed to with all this stuff we’ve discussed? How can I go home now, knowing all this?”

Snitow cannot answer this student, but the recent tributes from students, friends, and activists across generations speak to how we might find the way. As she wrote to younger feminists about the purpose of the memoir project: “Interpret the meaning of our lives as you will, and as you need.”