It’s March 1st: day one of Women’s History Month. For me, every month is Women’s History Month. It seems so much of my professional life has been devoted to researching, writing about, programming, and directing work by historical and contemporary women writers. So really, this month is just another month of doing what I do. Currently, my focus is finishing a manuscript about the history of gender inequality in professional theatre. This work has led me down paths I have tread many times, and it continues to lead me down new ones. Lately, I’ve been trying to find Elizabeth Fisher, a second wave feminist writer who in 1969 founded the magazine APHRA, named after Restoration playwright Aphra Behn (see my previous post). It’s funny (and frustrating) how research goes. I have been struggling with the impulse to keep searching in the face of very little evidence or leads. I can’t actually physically find Fisher because unfortunately she is long deceased. I also can’t find anyone living who worked with her. This especially frustrates me because interviewing artists and scholars is a cornerstone of my research practice. The 1970s and 1980s weren’t that long ago, and I have had great success connecting with wise women (and some men) in their actual 70’s and 80’s themselves now, who have shared fascinating stories about (not) doing feminist activism when it was timely and popular, working in theatre, rediscovering early modern women writers, and staging the plays of Behn in particular. I printed out the picture of Elizabeth Fisher embedded in this post and hung it above my desk. I have been looking at it daily. I think, great glasses, Elizabeth, and cute, practical haircut and outfit. I wonder if this shot was candid or posed. And as I take her in, she peers back at me in a way that ghosts beckon us, to keep going, while we can.
Elizabeth wrote a book entitled Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. She was working on the manuscript throughout the decade, during which time she was also editing and contributing to APHRA (which shuttered in 1976). She actually thanks the writers and editors of APHRA in the acknowledgements page of her book and explains that her work with these women, “the very real life of women helping women,” played an important part in her early formulation of its ideas and methods. How can so little traces remain about someone whose legacy includes a Pulitzer nomination and ties to such a considerable network of feminists? (I’m really hung up, you see.) Anyway, last week I was reading a chapter in Allan Johnson’s immensely compelling and digestible study The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (2014), and to my surprise, I encountered several pages (three, to be exact) that cite and discuss Fisher’s book. I was thrilled; Elizabeth was not forgotten, but alive in this scholarly thread. It was something. And it was my first introduction to her argument, which is quite fascinating. Fisher was one of several feminist historians (Riane Eisler, Marilyn French, and Gerda Lerner were others) who sought to locate the origins of patriarchy. (There is, in fact,no single origin to pinpoint.) Fisher argues that the groundwork for patriarchy was laid approximately 9,000-11,000 years ago when humans learned how reproduction worked in plant and animal species, presenting humans with the opportunity to control and dominate non-human life forms and enjoy economic benefits. Fisher suggests that this insight led to the realization that human reproduction also had economic value, which incentivized the control of women’s reproductive potential. More babies, more workers, more surplus, more masculine power and male domination, repeat. I’d love to be able to ask Elizabeth when and where she first encountered Aphra Behn and what about Behn struck such a chord that she decided to found a magazine bearing Behn’s name. Did Elizabeth even read Behn’s writings? I want to believe that she did. Confronted with more questions than answers, I will simply continue to gaze for a moment each morning around 5am into the wise eyes behind those rad vintage specs and allow them to lure me forward. This is research.
Elizabeth Fisher: Writer at Work