Movement : Hagar Kotef

2.4 Reflections

The fourth, and last layer may begin to provide an answer to the above question. Some philosophers think of politics qua movement. Standing as an opposition to nature, to stable power-structures, to a static state bureaucracy, politics brings the potential carried by instability: the potential of change, of widening the gaps allowing our agency, of redistributing resources, re-aligning power. A set of different (even if tangential) traditions of thinking about the meaning of the political conceptualizes the political as that which moves, as the moment of movement, or as that to which movement is essential.

The political is the domain in which and upon which humans can act, which humans can change, and which is thus defined as inherently unstable. Movement can take here the form of an earthquake—a radical and rare upheaval (as in the case of Rancière ); of a repetitive (potentially slower and more local) operation of undoing in which the movement of the individual body produces a movement of categories—troubles the assumption of given-ness and stability (as in the case of Butler); or as a space wherein the world is revealed as movable, as a space in which and through which the world emerges as the substance, product, and target of action (as in the case of Arendt).

3. A Story: the Bloomer Movement

These four layers open up a vast terrain through which many different paths can be taken. In the limited space I have here I want to try and outline merely one such possible path. Its contours can be marked via an anecdote in the Foucauldian meaning of the term: a short story that nonetheless captures something essential in the logics I set out to expose.21 It is a true story, whose protagonists should be quite familiar to anyone with some background in the history of feminism. Being a story, it has a clear point of beginning: it was one day in 1852, when Elizabeth Miller appeared on the front lawn of her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, dressed in what would later become known as “the bloomer”: wide trousers that narrow at the ankles, covered by a knee-length skirt and a corset-less top.

Stanton, one of the leading suffragists of what is often referred to as First Wave feminism, was enthralled by the new dress. “To see my cousin,” she described it, “with a lamp in one hand and a baby in the other, walk upstairs with ease and grace, while, with flowing robes, I pulled myself up with difficulty, lamp and baby out of the question, readily convinced me that there was sore need of reform in woman’s dress, and I promptly donned a similar attire.22 Following Stanton, many other women’s rights supporters began wearing the new dress and a two year-long campaign for dress reform got underway.

The campaign made two main claims: First, it was argued that the tight, heavy dresses of the period caused severe damage to the bodies of women (lasting damage to their spine and many kinds of nervous diseases) and must therefore be replaced with a new, emancipatory form of dress. Second, and more significantly for our purpose, it was argued that the new dress was indeed emancipatory because it enabled women to move freely. Stanton reported that the change of dress made her feel “like a captive set free from his ball and chain.” She celebrated the new freedom the bloomer bestowed upon her body: “I was always ready for a brisk walk throughout sleet and snow and rain, to climb a mountain, jump over a fence, work in the garden . . . what a sense of liberty I felt with no skirt to hold or brush.”23

This freedom of movement, however, was more than just a matter of leisure and enjoyment (climbing a mountain or working in the garden). It was a matter of life and death (or at least, so it was portrayed). When her son, who stayed at a boys’ boarding school, asked her not to visit him in her new costume (since it was the target of much scorn and was considered quite scandalous), Stanton pleaded with him to reconsider. She asked whether he would enjoy walking down the fields with her when she arrived, and how he expected her to do so with her long and heavy old dress. But even if she were able to take this walk with him, slowly and with much effort, what would happen, she queried, if a bull suddenly ran towards them; how would she be able to run, jump behind a fence, and preserve her life in that dress?24 Since this argument is so preposterous, one cannot but wonder whether it is over-argued to make another point.

When we consider the bloomer episode against the history and symbolism of Victorian dressing, this point may become apparent. What would become known as Victorian women’s dress came into fashion in the eighteenth century together with the establishment of the separate spheres, as a mark, as well as a technology, of confining upper and middle class women to the domestic sphere.25 Accordingly, the appeal for dress reform emphasized locomotion as a form and a symbol of transgressing the private sphere and occupying an equal position in the public, economic, as well as political spheres. Yet “symbol” may be too weak of a term here. At times it seemed that the dress and the freedom of movement it enabled became the essence of women’s liberation. Gerrit Smith (Elizabeth Miller’s father), a keen supporter of woman’s suffrage as well as the bloomer, went as far as refusing to attend the 1856 Woman’s Rights Convention because most suffragists abandoned the new dress:

I believe that poverty is the great curse of woman, and that she is powerless to assert her rights, because she is poor. Woman must go to work and get rid of her poverty, but that she cannot do in her present disabling dress, and she seems determined not to cast it aside. She is unwilling to sacrifice grace and fashion, even to gain her right . . . Were woman to adopt a rational dress, a dress that would not hinder her from any employment, how quickly would she rise from her present degrading dependence on man! How quickly would the marriage contract be modified and made to recognize the equal rights of the parties to it! And how quickly would she gain access to the ballot-box.26

Smith was not exceptional in these words. Similar arguments were repeated throughout the bloomer episode. For two years then, the old style of dress became the emblem, the cause and the foundation of all other types of women’s subjection—from economic dependency to the lack of the vote—and a striking share of the debates concerning women’s political status suddenly passed through the question of clothing and fashion, which was predominantly a question of physical mobility.

21. Adi Ophir, “The Semiotics of Power: Reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish,” Manuscrito XII:2 (1989): 9-34.

22. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 201.

23. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More, 201.

24. Charles Neilson Gattey, The Bloomer Girls (New York: Coward-McCann, 1968), 60.

25. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 27-30; Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” in On Fashion, ed. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 183-184.

26. Cited in Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony (Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1899), 119.

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