Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Four— Women, Literature, and National Brotherhood

The Nation As "Imagined Community"

In the previous section reference was made to the limitations within bourgeois republicanism for creating or imagining women as subjects of history. The term "imagining" is introduced here as it is used by Benedict Anderson in his stimulating book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism .[3] Anderson explores the idea of the nation as an imagined political community whose totality can never be experienced concretely: "The members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (15). In fact, Anderson argues, all


human communities tend to be imagined entities. Communities differ, he argues, "not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (15). Anderson introduces three useful terms to characterize the style in which the modern nation is imagined:

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them . . . has finite, if elastic boundaries beyond which lie other nations. . . . It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical, dynastic realm. . . . Finally it is imagined as a community , because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship . Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.(16)

Anderson's analysis of the character of modern nationalism is of particular interest to Latin Americanists. One of his most radical, though not entirely convincing, suggestions is that the modern nation as a political idea arose not in Europe but in the Americas, in the republicanist movements that fought for independence. (Hence perhaps the stress on autonomy and sovereignty in ideologies of the nation.) As the nation-states of continental Europe sought to consolidate themselves and define national destinies in the nineteenth century, Anderson argues, it was to the American republics that they looked for guidance and example. Anderson's analysis is of considerable interest to literary scholars as well, because he singles out print culture, notably the novel and the newspaper, as the necessary condition for creating the invisible networks that form the basis of the imagined national community. This factor is of particular interest with respect to women.

The language of fraternity and comradeship used in the passages just quoted displays (without commenting on) the androcentrism of the modern national imaginings. Indeed, Anderson's three key features of nations (limited, sovereign, fraternal) are metonymically embodied in the finite, sovereign, and fraternal figure of the citizen-soldier. Anderson goes on in the book to discuss cenotaphs and tombs of the unknown soldier as some of the "most arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism" (17). Military service and electoral politics, domains originally limited to males, have been obvious central apparatuses for producing the imagined community of the modern nation-state, along with mass print culture, in which women have participated.

Though he does discuss the ways ethnic, racial, and class subgroups are incorporated into national self-understandings, Anderson does not take up the question of gender. His own terms make clear, however, that the issue is


not simply that women "don't fit" the descriptors of the imagined community. Rather, the nation by definition situates or "produces" women in permanent instability with respect to the imagined community, including, in very particular ways, the women of the dominant class. Women inhabitants of nations were neither imagined as nor invited to imagine themselves as part of the horizontal brotherhood. What bourgeois republicanism offered women by way of official existence was what Landis and others have called "republican motherhood," the role of the producer of citizens. So it is that women inhabitants of modern nations were not imagined as intrinsically possessing the rights of citizens; rather, their value was specifically attached to (and implicitly conditional on) their reproductive capacity. As mothers of the nation, they are precariously other to the nation. They are imagined as dependent rather than sovereign. They are practically forbidden to be limited and finite, being obsessively defined by their reproductive capacity. Their bodies are sites for many forms of intervention, penetration, and appropriation at the hands of the horizontal brotherhood.

In the case of Europe, Landis argues that such gender asymmetries were sharply resisted by late-eighteenth-century feminists as bourgeois challenges to absolutism unfolded. Ultimately, however, their resistance was either defeated or co-opted. In England, this historical shift is neatly borne out in the writings of the famous mother-daughter pair Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her famed Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a clear revolutionary spirit in which a much fuller recognition of women in society was an imaginable possibility. Thirty-some years later, in her daughter's book Frankenstein , what has become imaginable is a nightmarish world in which women are elided altogether as the man of science obsessively seeks, and finds, a way to reproduce on his own. In Shelley's story, it is the monster (associated often in the story with the wild Americas) who reasserts a "primitive" need for female companionship; the idea of female citizenship is nowhere to be found.

As bourgeois democracy consolidated itself, so the argument goes, women's legitimate political sphere was narrowed down to the home (regardless of where women were actually spending their time). The agenda of nineteenth-century feminism can be seen as both reflecting and resisting this domestication. Obviously, one cannot assume that this Europe-based argument holds identically for Spanish America; however, it is illuminating at certain points, as I hope the discussion below will show.

The fundamental instability accorded to women subjects may be one of the features that most distinguishes the modern nation from other forms of human community. But, of course, to say that women are situated in permanent instability in the nation is to say that nations exist in permanent instability. Gender hierarchy exists as a deep cleavage in the horizontal fraternity,


one that cannot easily be imagined away. While subaltern ethnic and class groups can sometimes be contained as separate regional entities or as distinct genetic kinds, women cannot readily be dealt with in these ways. They are, after all, expected to cohabit with men, not to live in separate parts of the city or national territory. The efforts of Dr. Frankenstein aside, it is through women that the horizontal brothers reproduce themselves. At the same time, the reproductive capacity so indispensable to the brotherhood is a source of peril, notably in the capacity of those nonfinite, all-too-elastic female bodies to reproduce themselves outside the control of the fraternity. It was no accident that modern nations denied full citizens' rights to illegitimate offspring, and that women's political platforms continuously demanded those rights.

Women remain especially anomalous with respect to the one right that for Anderson sums up the power of the imagined community: the right to die for one's country. On one hand, women have mainly been excluded from this privilege; on the other hand, and perhaps more important, they have never as a group sought it. In the face of their exclusion from the national fraternity, as the work of Francesca Miller has shown (this volume, for example), women's political and social engagement became heavily inter nationalist, and often anti nationalist. Elite women activists established a long-standing presence and commitment in such spheres as the Pan-Americanist movement, international pacifism, and syndicalism, and in transnational issues of health, education, and human rights. Perhaps it is the vociferous, relentless pacifism of these activists that expresses most clearly their dissociation from the fraternal, soldierly imaginings of nationhood.

Other ambiguities emerge in the domain of culture. In the eighteenth century, women of privilege had gained access to the all-important networks of print culture that "underwrote" the imagined national communities. As writers, readers, critics, salon-keepers, and members of literary circles, they were legitimate, though far from equal, participants in the sphere (republic?) of letters. In the nineteenth century, despite pressures toward domesticity, women retained their foothold in lettered culture (though they were constantly obliged to defend it). Hence, though lacking political rights, they remained able to assert themselves legitimately in national print networks, engage with national forms of self-understanding, maintain their own political and discursive agenda, and express demands on the system that denied them full status as citizens. To a great extent, this entitlement was anchored in class privilege, which the women of letters shared with their male counterparts. One might suggest four elements then, that in part came to define the conflicted space of women's writing and women's citizenship: access to print culture (class privilege); denial of access to public power (gender oppression); access to domesticity (gender privilege); and confinement to domesticity (gender oppression).


Four— Women, Literature, and National Brotherhood

Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.