On December 2, 2022, We had a wonderful afternoon celebrating Ann Snitow–her book, her life, her influence on so many of us.
We share below the reflections of the panelists. Please feel free to add your memories and thoughts in the comments.
To buy her book, use the discount code for 20% off when you order from NYU Press: VISITORS20-FM.
Save the Date: March 8, 2023, when we will celebrate the 1,950 books that Ann donated to the European Solidarity Center.
Why we went to Eastern Europe in the 1990s
by Sonia Jaffe Robbins, co-founder of the Network East-West Women
I first met Ann when we were in the feminist guerrilla zap action group No More Nice Girls in the early 1980s, when we were doing skits against various sexist Reagan policies. Then I joined her Sex, Gender, and Consumerism seminar when I started teaching journalism at NYU. Then, in the fall of 1990 I went to a meeting at Ann’s, where she was in the midst of bringing together feminists in the newly noncommunist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, what would become the Network East-West Women, or NEWW.
Ann’s book has a well-thought-out chapter about why she kept going back to that region. She wrote that chapter in part in response to her father’s implicit question, why go to these places that hate Jews? Her answers included the political: a sense of loss on the left after the fall of communist governments throughout the region, feminism in the U.S. suffering from backlash during the Reagan era, feeling the need to be serious and have an effect. They also included the personal: meeting and making new friends, finding a way to be free of cultural expectations, enjoying the feeling of becoming a foreigner to others.
My reasons were a mix of these, but mostly personal. All my grandparents had come from what was then the Russian empire. Plus I was a red diaper baby: one grandfather had been forced to retire from his job as a labor union official because of the Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-Commuist affidavit; other grandparents had belonged to the International Workers Order, a fraternal organization forced to close during the McCarthy period; and my father as a teenager had belonged to the Young Communist League and was blacklisted from regular work for 10 years after the end of WWII.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of one communist government after another in the region felt like an invisible anchor I hadn’t known existed had broken loose. A historical moment was unfolding, and I wanted, I needed to see it up close. I was a feminist, but not sure if I was a socialist-feminist.
Through the fall I went to meetings at Ann’s, where we were organizing what would become our first gathering in Dubrovnik. I wrote letters of invitation and sent feminist books to three Bulgarian women. After we got a grant of several thousands dollars, we carried it in cash, in money belts under our clothes, because we’d been told our Yugoslav contacts would get a much better exchange rate on the black market than we’d get at a bank.
It was only my second trip to Europe, the first to the continent. In the lobby of our hotel, I felt instantly at home. My name, Sonia, is a very uncommon name for someone growing up in 1950s America. I never met anyone with my name until I was 30. Yet in that hotel in Dubrovnik there were three Sonja’s and Sanja’s. This is where I come from, I thought, even if my ancestors’ reality was thousands of miles away from still-existing Yugoslavia. As Ann wrote in her book, the threat of war was looming, and sitting at cafes or wandering the cobbled streets of Dubrovnik, I wondered if this is what it felt like just before World War I broke out.
At our first conference, listening to women from the region talk about life under really-existing socialism in 1991 was eye-opening for me. Yes, women worked in professions they were far less likely to in the States — scientists, doctors, judges — but services like daycare were either nonexistent or of such poor quality few wanted to use them if they had a choice. Women also had the double burden of paid full-time work, but also all of the domestic labor of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and arranging child care. Some of these women revered capitalism as a system that would give them what they didn’t have in socialism: consumer goods, choices. Some saw Ronald Reagan as a hero whose challenges to the Soviet Union had brought down the system that oppressed them.
I began to see that the women at our Dubrovnik meeting wanted equality, to be whole human beings able to make our own choices in the world, but those in the East and those in the West were coming at our goal from opposite directions. Women in the East had the full-time work and professions we in the West wanted, but often the professions that were primarily held by women there were low paid and low status. Women in the West had consumer goods up the wazoo, but were then considered trivial and uninteresting, even when, perhaps especially when, they were home caring for children.
I felt we had a lot to learn from each other, from the various vantage points that each envied in the other. I always wanted our exchanges to be symmetrical, never thinking that we from the West had some magic bullet — and we certainly didn’t have the only solutions for their situations, which they knew far better than we did. Ann’s political reasons for returning many times to the region were certainly more deeply thought through than mine. Over the years, I envied Ann’s ability to listen to a conversation or presentation of a paper and be able to distill the speaker’s salient points and ask the questions that could move us to new ways of thinking or new questions. Ann’s frequent visits and every year teaching her Theories of Gender class at the New School’s summer institute in Poland continually reinforced her connections. Ann brilliantly united theory and practice/activism, while my skills are more in organizing and practical details.
I worked for the Network for five years after we started, gathering information for our occasional printed newsletter; at the dawn of the Internet age in 1995, helping to organize our Internet connection and co-writing a manual on using the Internet of those early days for feminist organizing; helping to organize international board meetings via e-mail, before zoom and other video meeting technology existed. Nanette Funk and I coordinated this workshop from its beginning in 1994 until a couple of years ago, when it has been well taken over by Janet Elise Johnson and Mara Lazda. And in 1997 I wrote this report on NEWW’s founding and our early work.
But I have also come to know and become friends with some of the women I’ve met through the Network, among them:
–Vesna Kesic, a journalist from Zagreb who shared a birthday with my husband. She showed me the statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, the first Croatian feminist, in Zagreb; alas, Vesna died from Covid a year ago
—Indira Kajosevic, a young Montenegrin journalist who moved to the U.S. and started the nonprofit Raccoon, Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network, for antinationalist former Yugoslavs in the States, and now lives in Vermont;
—Joanna Regulska, who tried to teach me how to write grants, but I was a very poor student;
—Lepa Mladjenovic, lesbian activist from Belgrade, who I marched in a Pride parade with in 1994 when she was awarded the Felipa de Souza award;
—and others I’ve visited, Slawka in Krakow, Agnieska in Warsaw, Tatiana in Berlin.
And last but definitely not least,
—Gosia Tarasiewicz, now the president of the Network, which is now headquartered in Poland. When she and her family were in New York for a year, I took her husband and young son to their first baseball game, which they found odd and confusing.
Reflections on Visitors in the context of developments in feminism in Central and Eastern Europe during the period of transition and now.
Małgorzata Tarasiewicz, President, Network East-West Women
Ann’s friends often start the discussion on current developments in the world by saying it is interesting to consider what Ann would say, what her reflections would be on COVID, the Ukrainian war, reproductive rights in the U.S. after the Supreme Court’s reversing Roe v. Wade. The reason for that seems obvious. Ann was a visionary looking at social and political processes in a revealing way. Hence her vision of the transition in Central and Eastern Europe presented in her last book is such a perfect companion and necessary context to feminist activism from the 1990s till now and for the future.
It is difficult to read Visitors without also having in mind Ann’s previous book, The Feminism of Uncertainty. The very title suggests that for Ann feminism is not a doctrine or an ideology. Feminism’s strength lies in the fact that it is constantly changing, reacting to the context. Its attractiveness lies in the fact that it is flexible. According to Ann: “feminism is not a consistent ideology promising knowable ends or a panacea applicable in all situations.(…) I believe feminism has great longevity, but only if it is a continuous shape-changer, capable of responding to new conditions and expectations.”
The above quotemakes it easier to grasp the special kind of interest Ann had in feminism in our part of the world when the period of transition started. She wrote in the beginning of Visitors that 1989 was a beginning of fundamental change for women in CEE, and Ann not only wanted to observe it but also to support it and participate in it with her open feminism, full of questions and doubts, with her sensitive interest in our lives and destinies. Ann Snitow’s book, which is a personal account of her meetings in Central and Eastern Europe, a description of her travels and political transformations, is a very personal record, just as Ann’s involvement in the region was very personal.
However, it may sound surprising but the title of the book, Visitors, turned out to be difficult to translate into Polish. The word “visitors” in Polish is ambiguous — it means “guests,” but it can also mean “migratory birds”. I certainly know that Ann, after nearly 30 years of visiting Poland and Central and Eastern Europe, did not see herself as a guest simply visiting this region, but as its co-resident. Moving hundreds of times over the ocean, she actually became part of the feminist movement in Poland and Central Europe, not an outside observer or expert. At the same time, the term ”migratory bird” was attractive, too, as it included not only Ann and American feminists, but our entire group of friends and colleagues who wandered around the region, discussing feminism, acting together, but also deriving great joy from our activism by living in various places of the region and of course in New York. In the end the title was translated as “guides” with a subtitle “how we were building an equal world on the ruins of communism.”
After the fall of totalitarian rule, when it was practically impossible to travel or study abroad, meeting an American feminist was something very creative. It broadened the context of perceiving the process of change (called transformation), offering a new perspective that often contradicted the flood of propaganda from advocates of shock therapy for the economy, or supporters of the return to “normality,” that is, traditional stereotypes regarding male and female roles.
Ann describes in Visitors how at a meeting in Dubrovnik, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Balkan war, a group of feminists established a “network,” which for the next years bound its members with activism, but also friendship and common fun among writers, journalists and scientists of the economically changing and democratizing Central and Eastern Europe. Because the political and economic transformation processes were taking place without women and their opinions, the Network of East-West Women, initiated in Dubrovnik, fell from heaven to us feminists.
Ann noted in Visitors the differences between the activism she had known and the ways it operated in Poland and the rest of Central Europe. She was surprised by the mass institutionalization, the registration of organizations in the form of so-called NGOs, that is non-governmental organizations. It was completely out of place with the loose international group of activists and intellectuals that was the Network of East-West Women. Initially registered in Washington as a “nonprofit,” it looked more like a bottom-up informal movement rather than an NGO, which is often blocked by the impossible need to combine bureaucratic requirements with fresh ideas and spontaneous action.
The typical activity of the Network would be driving in the middle of the night in the winter of 1994 to the 24-hour post office in Manhattan since there were few customers at that hour, to send books in mailbags. The addresses on the mailing forms made the postal clerk dizzy: Ulaanbaatar, Zagreb, Krakow, and Tirana! This was one of many shipments of the Book and Journal Project, which has led to many PhDs and enriched feminist libraries in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe. Last year, at a meeting of women’s organizations in Iassy, near the Romanian-Moldovan border, a woman approached me during a break, thanking the Network of East-West Women for the books that her organization still has in the library. Isn’t that the greatest evaluation of Ann’s project?
In 2003, just before Poland’s accession to the European Union, the Network of East-West Women changed its seat. From Washington, it moved to Gdańsk.
Nevertheless Ann was constantly afraid that her actions in the region would take a colonial form of imposing “American” ideas and growing from experiences gained in different conditions. Nothing could be more wrong. Ann asked questions, learned and listened. At her house, we discussed with American activists and scholars including Mariam Chamberlain, Nanette Funk, Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Isabel Marcus, Elżbieta Matynia, Shana Penn, Joanna Regulska, and Sonia Jaffe Robbins — but also with guests from other European countries like Delina Fico, Vesna Kesic, Sonia Licht, Lepa Mladenovic, or Sławka Walczewska to mention just a few.
Ann could not have foreseen how, soon after her death, events with tragic global consequences, such as the COVID pandemic or the military invasion of Ukraine by Russia, would follow. Nevertheless the multitude of initiatives and activities she described in Visitors that were inspired by her and NEWW offered us insights that are now helpful to deal with the current challenges. She also wrote: “knowing so many over so many years has been the making of us.” That is why now people from Ukraine we met from the 1990s and later during meetings and projects have helped to be a support for those women and organizations who stayed in Ukraine and those who became refugees. This is one of the broader opportunities given to us by our journeys from country to country and across the Atlantic.
The clash of two worlds, the dynamic world of Ann and the slow bureaucracy of the European Union, was a constant source of our jokes. Ann couldn’t accept that the European Union had funded a wonderful building where many officials work collecting gender data, when at the same time women’s organizations in Central and Eastern Europe are very poor.
Indeed, after Poland’s accession to the European Union, the situation of small organizations such as NEWW paradoxically deteriorated. Funders who financed such organizations decided that accession to the Union was the ultimate success, after which funding is actually unnecessary. In order to obtain funding from the EU, it was necessary to have a lot of strength to get through the bureaucratic requirements. Small organizations started to disappear. Finally we arrived at the point where in order to continue meaningful activities many organizations became affiliated with political parties and lost their independence. This process is still continuing. Recently the fight for women’s rights has been supported by the mainstream opposition, but one has to keep in mind that women’s rights will be supported as long as they can be used by a political party to win an election. Often women’s organizations lack stability and after the election, when they are no longer needed, they will be left without support.
After the neoliberals came to power in 2007 and many organizations lost their financial support, representatives of NEWW’s Board met a director of one of the largest foundations in Poland. He told us, in the neoliberal spirit, that the Book and Journal Project was a niche activity! NEWW should get to work and implement projects commissioned by municipalities to NGOs in the field of social assistance, conduct training on the functioning of the European Union in the area of equality between women and men, and collect data on gender.
Regardless of his advice, we decided that it was better to remain faithful to our ideals as an independent group that would not operate under the dictates of funders or political parties, but in accordance with our mission we will take up even unpopular topics (among funders) and continue sending books to feminist libraries, financing printing of a poster for a demonstration in a small town, or a feminist trip to an important conference. Even now when the Network of East-West Women is a member of Europe’s largest women’s rights organization, the European Women’s Lobby, it has not abandoned its grassroots mission.
I think that thanks to such grassroots activities change may happen without a need to enter the uncertain terrain of the power struggle of political parties where women’s needs and women’s groups are often treated in an instrumental way.
A few days ago a journalist from a mainstream TV station interviewed the director of one of the major theaters in Warsaw, Monika Strzępka, who had just been suspended from her duties by a district representative of the national government, called the voivode, for placing in the foyer of the theater a sculpture of a vagina. In his opinion, she intended to turn the theater into a “feminist cultural institution” and promote a repertoire “with connotations of left-wing ideology”.
The voivode also did not like the anthem of the theater proposed by the director, with the words: “Witches, come scream. Ours is the city, ours are the streets” (…) “Viva la vulva, cheers lightning.” The voivode also mentioned that the inaugural event of the new director’s five-year term of office was the ostentatious presentation of her radical feminism by placing a sculpture of a “golden vagina” in the foyer of the theater, which had been brought there by the new director and the artists of this institution by a parade.
According to the district representative, the new director wanted to make the theater “a place for minorities, for non-normative identities, for queer [people]. He did not like that Monika Strzępka, the director, “will use and strengthen the energy of social change created by women’s protests, climate movements, people fighting for minority rights, human rights and democracies as well as promotion of non-heteronormativity”.
The journalist asked Strzępka if she was not worried that there were no longer mass women’s demonstrations in the streets and what that might mean for women’s rights. Strzępka answered straightforwardly: “There was a time for demonstrations and now they are not necessary because everything is changing already. Women in our country are tired of men telling us what is right for us and what is not. We are at the moment when the patriarchy gives its last breath.”
And my strong feeling is that Strzępka, the director, is right and also that Ann’s and the Network’s activities have contributed to bringing this moment of change.
Rupture and dislocation, and what we can learn about utopianism for feminist organization
Katheryn M. Detwiler, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, The Stevens Institute of Technology
In May of 2021, I was asked to write a short piece for the NYU Press blog about Visitors. I had been Ann’s assistant for a decade, from 2009 onward, and, for almost as long, the Manager of the Network of East-West Women’s Book and Journal Project. Through the Book and Journal Project I came to know and work with many members of the Network of East-Women Women and to follow their far-flung organizing, publishing, research, translation, and other activist work. I worked closely alongside Ann while she wrote Visitors, completing the manuscript shortly before she died in August 2019. I then worked with Ann’s longtime friend and comrade, feminist activist and writer Judith Levine, to bring the book to publication with New Village Press.
I can say what all who have read or will read the bookwill also know. Visitors is a political memoir (or, as Ann insisted, a book length personal essay) about the adventure of feminist organizing; about how being a part of any movement for liberation creates lived meaning, contributing to a life of significance understood as a life lived self-consciously in historical time. It is a history of the stunning trajectory of the Network of East-West Women and of the rising and falling fortunes of feminism in East Central Europe over the course of Ann’s more than twenty-five years organizing and teaching in the region. It is a meditative exploration of the personal and political implications of this long-term feminist engagement with the people and movements Ann came to know. In other words, it is an exploration of the elusive and multifaceted nature of political motive. It is also a love letter: to individual comrades; to East Central Europe; to Poland; to Krakow; to a forest; to feminist foremothers and familial ancestors; to the Network of East-West Women. It is a love letter that theorizes love—transoceanic, transhistorical—along with joy, the theatrical, the ironic, and the non-closure and non-finality of history as things that sustain feminist work, especially in times of backlash. In this, it is a personal, historical, theoretical, and vividly rendered examination of political desire in feminist movement building.
When I was asked to write about Visitors for the NYU Press blog, I see that I was compelled to surface something else in addition to all of this. To my mind, Visitors is also a profound feminist engagement with questions of time, history, and the perils and promise of disorder, shocks to the system, and even cataclysm for feminist world-making. It stood out to me with particular interest in that pandemic spring how Ann both tracks and insists that disorder and disruption provide new grounds for feminist action—and new, gendered dangers.
New visions of feminism tend to bloom, Ann observes in Visitors, “when, for any of number of reasons, the walls of the city are shaken.” At the same time, and characteristically, this is not a naïve celebration of possibility arising from the shambles of falling power structures. Throughout Visitors, Ann is tracking how disorder, disruption, and instability of all kinds also spur heightened forms of gendered reaction. Visitors explores how among the politics that are born from dramatic political and economic change is the revealing fear that it is gender that is in crisis, that it is gender that threatens to become disordered.
For example, we could now say that though briefly named as “essential” work and, in the U.S., very brieflydebated as “basic infrastructure,” it remains highly indeterminate what the revaluation of care and of the raced, gendered, classed work of sustaining social life—all that is hollowed out under neoliberal governance—will mean. There is evidence in the US context that the flash of recognition provoked by the initial shock of the pandemic has led to intense reaction: an intensification of anti-feminist, anti-care, and anti-public policies, along with lethal attacks on reproductive freedom and trans rights.
Additionally, when the walls of the city are shaken, the pressure to keep things together, unsurprisingly, falls with predictability on people in instrumentalized social identities. This includes the instrumentalization of women as well as of the category“women.” What was required in post-communism (as now), Ann shows, was vigilance and, in fact, refusal, including the refusal of the dangerous aversion to politics—often paired with an abstract and easily manipulated desire for “normalcy”—that can be brought on by disruption and cataclysmic change.
In Visitors, Ann shows how when the walls of the city are shaken, reactionary re-investments in rigid identities bloom. Countering this involves, in part, a feminist philosophy of history in addition to utopian thinking—in other words, what Ann would call “the feminism of uncertainty.” We glimpse this toward the end of Visitors, when we are with Ann as she addresses generations of activists and students she has come to know throughout her twenty-five years of working in East Central Europe.
The 2015 Polish election is around the corner and everyone assembled in Ann’s audience knows that the Law and Justice Party will win, though few anticipated the landslide victory that would in fact transpire. On the eve of what she felt would be a time of deep backlash and danger for feminism, Ann speaks to the cherished feminist comrades and students she has known for a quarter century and asks about the meaning of holding passionate political commitments to such long-term struggles as gender, racial, and economic justice. “We are in this for the long haul,” she says. And the long view that is demanded of those who work in liberation struggles is also a source of survival: “We are more free, more able to live in a capacious view of history than our detractors. They want to seal us up into a narrow seam of time, while we see how complex is our long-term global struggle.”
Feminists can make use of history, taking the long view, staying alert to the non-closure of the past and on the non-finality of the present. At the same time, feminism requires utopian and future horizons—political desire and imagination—even in small acts and in repetitious struggles. Ann acknowledges that, in times of weird instability, “to formulate desires for the future can feel futile.” And yet, she insists, “without such thinking, the narratives of the past can expand to cut off any view.”
This, too, is the feminism of uncertainty, an aspect of which is Ann’s belief that even the smallest of political actions include a utopian element, a gesture to the future. It is for us to wonder what new visions of feminism might or must bloom from disorder in our varied locations, contexts, and struggles and to invent them with Ann’s wise counsel against certainty, rigidity, and false closure.
The story of the Network of East-West Women that Visitors tells is, finally, a story of the political value of forging connections, exchanges, friendships, solidarities, and communities of care that survive across vast distances of time and space and across political and personal reversals of fortune; across forced separation, isolation, and fracture, when the “train tracks are down, the phone lines cut.” Ann’s prescient message, delivered in Visitors, is that despite collective shocks, “we are beleaguered but not alone.” “Sometimes,” she writes, “I can feel the net that connects us shake.”
Some other resources on Ann and the NEWW:
- Johnson, Janet Elise, and Mara Lazda. “Ann Snitow (1943–2019)”. Aspasia 14.1 (2020): x-xiv.
- Cîrstocea, Ioana. “Challenges and Pitfalls of Feminist Sisterhood in the Aftermath of the Cold War: The Case of the Network of East-West Women.” Aspasia 14.1 (2020): 1-19.
- Jakubowska, Agata. 2022. Review: Ann Snitow, Visitors An American feminist in East Central Europe, 202. Polish translation in 2020. Narrating Art and Feminisms in Eastern Europe and Latin America