We write this introduction from our isolated homes across the United States in the fall of 2020 while many of us are homeschooling our kids, teaching classes from our kitchen tables, and worrying about the health and economic stability of our families, friends, and communities. We write as the world is witnessing a great upheaval in neoliberal patriarchal white supremacist business as usual. From the start, our collective wanted to address these structures head-on. We had planned to write this introduction together during an editorial retreat over a long weekend away in late March 2020; writing collectively while sharing food, drinks, and camaraderie was central to how we imagined the praxis of creating this volume. Losing the possibility for that type of embodied, collective feminist world making is, in the end, a tiny loss within the unspeakably enormous losses created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the traumatic events of state violence. Yet the many losses and structural inequities that the pandemic exposes and the rising collective voices opposing them are now, and always will be, the context from which we, along with our contributors, produced this volume. Remembering context and history, building and fostering relationships of mutual care, and collectively generating knowledge are central to the feminist approach that we hope Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies reflects.
While some volumes might begin with an account of what the book is, we intentionally begin this introduction with an account of how it came together. The work of creating this Keywords volume began as a scholarly endeavor that was also a commitment to collectivity, both as politics and as practice. Before the coronavirus shut down our ability to see each other and write in person, we were able to gather together three times to write, plan, and lay out the process for editing the keywords. It was important to us to think about, commemorate, and work in honor of the collective practices that gave birth to some of the most important feminist publishers and texts of our time: Kitchen Table Press, Sister Vision Press, and Third Woman Press and works such as This Bridge Called My Back; All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave; Nice Jewish Girls; “The Combahee River Collective Statement”; Women of All Red Nations; and Indigenous Women and Feminism. Pushing through the crises that arose during the COVID pandemic, even at the scale of daily life, led many of us to reflect even further on the centrality of care to the labor of editing and writing. We told our contributors and each other that while we were going to continue to push through, we would do so while keeping each other’s well-being in mind.
These acts of intellectual, feminist caring ensured that this amazing array of feminist scholars could manifest this book. We arranged writing dates, phone calls, and consults with each other and contributors. We wrote together in pomodoro sessions, brainstormed entries, or sometimes just let deadlines slide until people could manage. When someone stumbled under the weight of family duties, illness, or other burdens, we took up the load for each other.
For many of us, these practices are based in the activist, queer, disabled, immigrant, Indigenous, anarchist, and feminist communities we grew up in, as well as those we have learned from. We are all grateful to have been able to lean on each other and to have created an editorial process that felt smooth, democratic, trusting, and centered on the well-being of its workers.
This melding of theory and practice is a theme of this Keywords volume, as well as, indeed, a theme of the genealogy of feminist studies itself. Gender and sexuality studies has found institutional purchase in universities and colleges throughout North America for almost five decades. Initially organized under the rubric of women’s studies, the feminist and queer political struggles that found a home in the university emerged from multiple civil rights and anticolonial efforts ranging from women’s and gay liberation, movements against racial oppression and for Indigenous sovereignty, and global struggles against apartheid, colonialism, capitalism, and enslavement. As a reflection of these multiple origins, the field that we are calling “gender and sexuality studies” in this volume continues to be multiple, contested, and fluid. The overlapping investments of queer studies with feminist and gender studies and the emergent field of trans studies also shape the present contours of gender and sexuality studies.
Gender and sexuality studies is a vast set of methods, questions, and concerns that each refract across multiple fields, from the humanities to the social sciences to the sciences, and refuse to be contained by any one discipline. The editors of this volume similarly come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and institutional locations. We designed this volume to be geared toward introductory gender/feminist/sexuality/women’s studies courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels that serve as gateways into the field. Including our fierce colleague Shona N. Jackson, who later needed to withdraw from the project, and our brilliant research assistant Anisha Ahuja, together the eight of us brainstormed a working list of keywords, cowrote the book proposal, and came up with a list of tentative contributors. We also coconceived and planned out an editorial process that would ensure that each of us carried an equal editorial load and that each keyword would be handled by two editors at all times.
As many of us have taught such introductory courses ourselves, our aspiration for Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies is that it provides readers, including but not limited to teachers and students, with a set of terms that will aid them in understanding the central methodological and political stakes currently energizing queer and feminist studies in gender and sexuality. Our vision is oriented toward showing the different ways that gender and sexuality must be conceptualized through the prisms of racialization, coloniality, nation, and class. As a result, we worked hard to approach the vastness of this field by centering intersectional feminist knowledge as it is located in relation to anticolonial and civil rights struggles that foreground how gender and sexuality get configured through these other vectors. The ethics of naming origins and practicing correct and thorough citation are central to this project. For instance, we do not use the term intersectionality lightly. Rather, we take up intersectionality as “part of a cohort of terms that black feminists created in order to analyze the interconnectedness of structures of domination” (Nash 2019a, 6).
We have fundamentally operated from the knowledge that the term feminism has often been appropriated by a white liberal vision of women’s empowerment or equality without acknowledging how race, colonialism, political economy, gender, and other structural inequalities differentiate women’s experiences. The corollary to that insight is that feminist political concerns have often emerged in political and intellectual spaces not explicitly named or framed as feminist because they did not always foreground “woman” as a primary subject. Gender and sexuality studies in our framework does not regard “woman” as its primary object of study or understand identity and representation as the field’s central concerns—in part because we understand that gender binarisms, such as the one that upholds biological womanhood as an essential category, are themselves in league with the project of white supremacy, which reserves normative gender identity for white subjects.
We also take the “wave” model of feminist history—in which feminism can be categorized chronologically as “first wave,” “second wave,” or “third wave”—as insufficient because the significant events on that time line refer overwhelmingly to white and middle-class feminist history. Instead, in this volume, we are eager to highlight the richness of work that complicates single-axis or linear time line analyses of gender and sexuality. The essays gathered in this volume trace various intellectual strands, sometimes interwoven at key historical moments and sometimes running parallel across disparate contexts. Many essays think with queer of color critique, trans studies, and/or disability studies in their overlapping challenges to normativity; others focalize structural contestations to a range of institutions, from the state and securitization to biomedical health industries and extractive capitalism.
Drawing from Indigenous feminisms, critiques of settler colonialism, and queer engagements with matter and ecology, many keywords call attention to the fundamental assumptions of humanism’s political and intellectual debates—from the racialized contours of property and ownership to eugenicist discourses of improvement and development. Across the volume, we see feminisms explicitly working with the cleavages that Blackness produces in concepts of gender and sexuality; transnational critiques that are oriented around subjugated knowledges and decolonial thought; queer studies that prioritize diffuse understandings of relationality, intimacies, and sexualities; and movements for abolition imbricated with analyses of both care and carcerality. Reflecting the disciplinary breadth of the field, the essays in this collection weave together methodologies from science and technology studies, affect theory, and queer historiography. As a whole, these essays move alongside the distinct histories and myriad solidarities of gender and sexuality studies.
In conceptualizing the volume this way, we considered some of the rhetorical dead ends and theoretical cul-de-sacs we often find ourselves in as teachers in gender and sexuality studies classrooms. Some of these dead ends, we thought, consisted in the terms that seem to define the conditions within which we speak to, and labor alongside, each other: oppositions, for instance, between theory and praxis, the university or college and the “real” world, academic and nonacademic communities, speculation and fact. Students and professors alike often use these binaries to challenge the value of the knowledge we produce, leaving us caught in a drama that pits seemingly different kinds of feminist actors against each other: the scholar and the activist, the teacher and the worker, the professor as producer of knowledge and the student as recipient of that knowledge.
What do these inherited conflicts have to do with feminism, queer theory, or gender and sexuality studies today? Often the birth of women’s studies is narrated as the institutionalization of what used to be a movement. The story goes like this: Once upon a time, by which we mean the 1960s, there was a political grassroots movement called feminism, or women’s liberation, and in the 1970s and 1980s, some in the movement agitated to get their knowledge included in academia, even at the expense of others. Soon those ideas became professionalized as women’s studies. At that point, the story tells us, feminism began to lose its political edge. The serious activists and workers stayed in the “real” world, while only the select few joined the privileged ranks of the ivory tower. Academic knowledge regularly superseded that produced from elsewhere. Only certain thinkers became “experts.”
Without a doubt, the institutionalization of women’s studies produced and continues to produce very real and unequal distributions of institutional access, power, money, social and cultural capital, and precarity between and among feminists. We do not intend to minimize those disparities. But we do wish to ask, What do we lose when we refuse to accept the distance between these terms and the disparities between these feminist actors as simply natural and given, and what might we gain when we become attentive to how they are related? What other histories of activism and theory—past, present, and future—can we see when we refuse these distinctions and this single narrow history?
It is here we might recall the rich tradition of working people’s organizing, of feminist consciousness-raising groups, of woman of color caucuses, of community and neighborhood and union study groups, that came together in different historical periods to read what we now think of as critical theory, whether Marxist, socialist, anarchist, gay and lesbian or queer; from the radical Black tradition; or from Black, Chicana/Latina, Asian diasporic, Indigenous, Muslim, or Jewish feminisms as well as other political traditions. For these groups, discussing and exchanging political theory of many sorts were simply ways to think about the project of making worlds otherwise to the deeply flawed one in which we live. If a text was challenging, the work of unfolding its challenges was part of the raising of a collective understanding, together. Here, again, we can bear witness to historic expressions of collectivity as praxis and as pedagogy. Perhaps it is time to return to these histories of collaborative praxis to rethink what learning can be.
Thus we want to use the occasion of this book to throw out some of the tired old narratives about intellectual and activist labor that continue to haunt us. The university is a workplace, implicated and intertwined with the workings of a state that is also in the world. While professors teach students, students are teaching professors at every step along the way. Many scholars engage in activism even as we teach or become other kinds of workers. Sometimes our workplace is the site of our activism. But writing, too, is valuable labor, not some luxury meant to be pitted against other kinds of work, to the detriment of its social and political value. More than that, feminist and queer theory, particularly as it emerges from woman of color and transnational feminism, is and has always been a knowledge that travels, confusing the professional and disciplinary lines that are meant to unevenly distribute theory’s critical value, lines that try to elevate theory into some mythical realm where its trenchant relation to the world as it is, and as it could be, is somehow erased. Feminist knowledge has always traveled from the shelter to the state and back again, from the psychoanalytic couch to the artist’s body and back again, from the front lines of racial protest to the poet’s notebook and back again, from the reservation to the courtroom and back again, from the kitchen table to the union boardroom and back again, from the dance floor to the text and back again, from the text to the bedroom. And back again.
Theory is praxis and praxis is theory. And nowhere has this ever been so true than in the genealogies of literature, writing, activism, art, and institutional life that have come to constellate the worlds we now call gender and sexuality studies. As the reader will see, then, we frame gender and sexuality studies as an opportunity to deepen analyses of the relationships among race, gender, sexuality, nation, ability, and political economy as foregrounded in the rich history of justice-oriented intersectional movements. This volume centers scholarship enacting these analyses: Black, Indigenous, and woman of color feminisms; transnational feminisms; queer of color critique; trans, disability, and fat studies; feminist science studies; and critiques of the state, law, detention centers, and prisons that emerge from within queer and woman of color justice movements.
We define a keyword as a genealogical inquiry that reflects upon the field in terms of its elaboration across diverse disciplines, geographies, and communities. In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams writes that he aims to examine each of his keywords as “a field of meanings” or “the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical—subject to change as well as to continuity… a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view” ( 2014, xxxv). A keywords project, Williams argues, is something different from a dictionary project, and although his volume follows the conceit of alphabetical organization, he makes the argument that such a project cannot be, nor should aim to be, encyclopedic.
We agree that keywords projects are partial and perspectival, more generative than definitive; we see that as a strength of the genre. Following the approach laid out by Williams, our goal is that each of the keywords in this volume is a site of explication and critique that generates new political formations and engagements on many possible levels. Some contributors frame their keyword entries to address central debates animating the field. Some contextualize their keywords vis-à-vis related concepts or terms. Others produce critical genealogies of a given term and show how these genealogies have shaped its emergence or critical reception. Many authors speak from their own activist work. For all contributors, though, the main task has been to connect the work each keyword does in its constitutive fields to what it animates in the field of gender and sexuality studies.
Even as this keywords project addresses the need for a discrete volume emphasizing gender and sexuality, we seek to establish a dialogic relationship with other Keywords volumes. This relationship emerges from the multi-institutional and multifield positionality of the editorial team, within whose work gender and sexuality constitute a “gaze from below” reorientation of knowledge production in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields. Collectively, the keywords in this volume underscore the integral nature of gender and sex-based distinction as the a priori genre of the human and, as such, central to all aspects of the human experience and thought. While, for example, colonialism, imperialism, and settler colonialism are central to the field of African American studies—as shown in the recently published Keywords for African American Studies—locating these keywords in gender and sexuality studies critically reorients our lens to centralize how processes of racialization and colonial and imperial exploitation are deeply gendered and sexualized. Several keywords in this collection overlap with those in Keywords for Disability Studies, Keywords for Environmental Studies, and Keywords for Children’s Literature, including citizenship, education, gender, queer, girl, race, ecology, sexuality, and space. Many of our contributors’ intersectional orientation to these fields and others, including Asian American studies and Latinx studies, means this volume offers a sustained and far-reaching engagement with the previous volumes. These crossovers are crucially important, as they signal the interrelated development of these fields of study and the necessity of their being in conversation in order to produce a deep and meaningful intersectional understanding of shared core concepts.
Although we have included a robust list of keywords, this would not be a feminist project if we did not pay attention to what was inevitably left out. Throughout this collective editorial process, we have described our approach to the question of what to exclude as one of “tops and bottoms.” This playful description obviously signals queer sexual practice. But concretely, it means that we have imagined “tops” to be the dominant terms listed in the table of contents; “bottoms” refers to terms that were subordinate but nonetheless powerful within each essay. For example, femme became the keyword under which butch is accounted for, in a reversal of the prevailing conception of femme as an adjunct to butch; girl is included but not boy; education but not pedagogy.
Simultaneously, our choice of keywords indexes conceptual frameworks or intellectual traditions rather than specific practices or identity categories; these choices reflect the fact that while popular terms change, the logics governing how knowledges, practices, and identity categories come to circulate have a longer historical reach. Thus we include identity but not specific identity categories; heteronormativity but not marriage; biology but not medicalization, pathologization, or technology; justice but not equality or equity. We include gender, trans, and cis as intellectual and conceptual frameworks rather than identity terms (and not nonbinary, genderqueer, and multiple other terms indexing gender nonconforming practices that are nonetheless referred to in these essays). Relatedly, we have not included any entries that trace the historical genealogies of any particular form of feminism: Black feminism, Indigenous feminism, Latinx or Asian American feminism, or even Liberal feminism. This is because we are committed to an open and changing idea of what those traditions might mean rather than defining their perspectives and limitations and because we did not want to endorse multiculturalist pedagogies that give each of these genealogies a module of their own, ultimately forfeiting their complexities and interweavings. Instead, we simply asked Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Arab, Muslim, and other writers to take up the central terms that we thought every queer feminist scholar needed to know.
There were some cases in which important keywords fell beyond the structure of the volume because they seemed too large to cover adequately in a keyword essay, or any essay for that matter. For example, the table of contents does not include some of the biggest terms in the field, such as feminism, violence, relationality, activism, assimilation, or resistance. However, each of these arises over and over again across the volume. One of our more experimental attempts at navigating the tricky terrain of inclusion was an imagined entry titled “LGBTQIAA2S+,” indexing the emergence and limitations of acronyms across the recent history of queer and trans politics. Although these particular entries never ended up getting spoken for, we leave the door open for a future edition to take up the project of identifying the ever-expanding umbrella of terms without foreclosing other possibilities we cannot even imagine at this moment.
We also felt that input from those outside the collective was critical to our project, particularly from those who might teach the book. To that end, we reached out to fellow teachers, activists, and thinkers at the 2019 National Women’s Studies Association conference in San Francisco, in part to test our intuitions about what to include and how. We presented our provisional keywords list to our peers at a keywords panel and asked them to tell us what they thought was missing. From that meeting, we gained six more terms—intersex, lesbian, agency, identity, sports, and religion—that we had either not thought of or eliminated from the earlier list; to the attendees of that panel who so generously and brilliantly helped us resee our own table of contents, we extend our sincerest thanks. While no single volume could successfully encompass the complexity of the frames, investments, and methodologies of these fields or the global complexities that shape them, we believe that this volume ultimately does offer a snapshot of the intellectual depth of the field in its current and emerging forms. Our hope, again, is that this volume will see enough use that in a next edition, we can even further expand what we were not able to accomplish here.
One last word did not end up in our table of contents: collectivity. We began the project in deep historical sympathy with and gratitude for our foremothers and our lesbian and queer and trans ancestors who wrote, edited, published, and organized in collective and cooperative formations. And as the state and our social and political worlds broke down around us across 2019 and 2020, the importance of collective action as well as the resurrection of mutual aid, cooperative, and care pod formations in the pandemic and its historic uprisings against state and police violence resounded even more profoundly for each of us in our various locations, as we participated in and witnessed organizing to support Black Lives Matter and abolition movements within the everyday struggle of trying to survive a pandemic.
It is collectivity that has led to what restructuring and redistributions we have had and collectivity that will lead to a just future. Instead of writing that entry, however, we had to step up to write the entry on race, for which we had a great deal of difficulty finding an author—no surprise given the traumas of the last few years. In lieu of a formal entry on collectivity, we offer up this process, this introduction, and our collectively written “race” keyword entry as evidence of the importance of collectivity to feminist praxis. These intersectional, collective engagements are now more than ever important in a world struggling to deal with the violent entanglements of white supremacy.
While we recognize the promise of collectivity, we also do not want to romanticize the term or oversimplify the sometimes contradictory dynamics it implies. These very dynamics call us to confront and grapple with dissensus and even sometimes incommensurability. It is through this powerful, if imperfect, promise of collectivity that we recognize we cannot afford to move forward without supporting each other and imagining new worlds that take into account all of us and the “we”s that might emerge through our collective efforts.
In the classrooms, kitchens, cafés, parks, bookstores, bedrooms, and meeting rooms in which we hope that this volume will have a life, we hope that the reader will take a moment or two to step away from the text to imagine for themselves different, less individualistic, more collectivized ways of being, creating, organizing, living, and thriving. And we hope that this practice and all these words will travel further—back to the kitchen tables and working people’s circles, reading groups, unions, and book clubs that foment change and then perhaps back into classrooms again. And then perhaps even further toward a better, more just world.