Book review:
"Other" voices: disabled feminists, lesbians, and mothers speak out

By Sally Rosenthal

Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.


Exile And Pride: Disability, Queerness And Liberation by Eli Clare. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999. Paperback, 142 pages, $14.00.

Encounters With Strangers: Feminism And Disability edited by Jenny Morris. London: The Women's Press (Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, VT), 1996 (US edition: 1999). Paperback, 234 pages, $17.95.

Bigger Than The Sky: Disabled Women On Parenting edited by Michele Wates and Rowen Jade. London: The Women's Press (Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, VT), 1999. Paperback, 202 pages, $17.95.

Restricted Access: Lesbians On Disability edited by Victoria A. Brownworth and Susan Raffo. Seattle: Seal Press, 1999. Paperback, 312 pages, $15.95.

In the beginning, I didn't know that these voices were those of the "other." More than fifteen years ago when I first began reading taped rather than print books, a blind friend introduced me to Womyn's Braille Press, a radical feminist collective who produced taped copies of feminist and lesbian material, much of which dealt with disability issues. Reading the WBP collection and newsletter, I naively thought that I was reading the prevailing viewpoints of disability culture.

Let's just say that I was rudely awakened when I discovered that, in the 1980s, the prevalent voices of disability literature were generally male -- and heterosexual. Aside from the WBP tapes, I had to search long and hard for disability literature with a feminist slant, either recorded or in print form. The occasional anthology and memoir appeared, but they were not generally part of the mainstream.

Have things really changed today? Although WBP is long gone, the voice of the "other" is heard more. Yet voices of feminism and queerness are still thought of as "other" when it comes to viewpoints of disability. So things still have a way to go in the new millennium. That's why it's good to see these four new books.

One of the clearest of the voices is that of Eli Clare. In Exile And Pride: Disability, Queerness And Liberation, Clare has written a book that, while slim, is full of thought, wisdom, revolution -- and some of the best writing you will ever come across in any genre.

Exile And Pride is not specifically about disability or queerness. It is about Eli Clare, who happens to be both disabled and queer, and about the world as she sees it now and as she would like to see it transformed. Clare, who wants to see a political, social, and economic revolution that leaves no one behind, examines issues that many other writers have not even touched upon; in addition to the overt themes of her book, she examines the often-neglected barriers of class, occupation and geographic residence that divide and disenfranchise us.

This may seem like heavy going, but it's not. Clare presents her viewpoints in a series of deceptively simple autobiographical essays. Looking back at her early life in an Oregon logging town, Clare writes elegantly and openly about class distinction, disability and sexual abuse. Her material is personal, but she weaves it into a larger social context.

It will be interesting to see who claims Exile And Pride. This is one of those rare books that not only crosses boundaries but challenges and expands them. I hope both the larger disability and the gay communities claim Clare's book as their own; Exile And Pride is simply too needed and too good a book to get lost in a categorical shuffle.

Another book attempting to bridge two communities is Encounters With Strangers: Feminism And Disability edited by Jenny Morris. This British anthology, which was originally published in 1996 in England, offers American readers in 2000 something old and something new to consider.

Morris, a spinal cord injury survivor, is no stranger to the British disabled people's movement. An activist and author, she has written and edited a number of books dealing with disabled women, disability rights and single parenthood. Until now, however, only one of her previous books was available in the U.S., so it is good to see the American distribution of Encounters With Strangers.

Reading this compilation of essays on topics relevant to disabled women in the UK is an interesting journey for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. It not only offers American readers a glimpse of disabled women's lives and concerns in another culture, but also touches on issues such as self-concept, prenatal testing and sexual abuse that have been subjects of much writing and debate in this country.

Reading accounts of how disabled women in the UK face and challenge racism, the good and bad aspects of a nationalized healthcare system, and the complexities of motherhood and childcare allows us to view another culture while at the same time acknowledging our similarities of disability experience. Encounters With Strangers is captivating. Despite its overtly political emphasis, at its core it is a very personal compilation. Each contributor combines her own experience with the larger issues, making Morris's book first-rate social commentary.

Bigger Than The Sky: Disabled Women On Parenting, an anthology edited by two English women, bears some similarity to Jenny Morris's book but draws from a wider international field of contributors, making it a bit more relevant to an American audience. Editors Michele Wates and Rowen Jade have compiled a well-rounded collection of writings by women mainly from the UK and the US.

Although the book's main focus is on parenting, many other women's issues arise in the collection: self-image, independent living, personal choices, relationships, and sexuality. Bigger Than The Sky is also a thoughtful, inclusive work: many racial, socioeconomic, cultural, and familial constellations are represented. As with earlier American anthologies by women with disabilities, such as With The Power Of Each Breath and With Wings, Bigger Than The Sky begins with the personal accounts of individual women but ends by presenting a book bigger than the sum of its parts. By drawing on individual experiences, Wates and Jade have created an anthology that looks at an issue little explored in disability literature.

Aside from Anne Finger's Past Due of the late 1980s, there have been few books on disabled parenting issues and rights until this past year with the publication of The Question Of David by Denise Sherer Jacobson (who is included in this anthology). Bigger Than The Sky fills that void eloquently.

Restricted Access: Lesbians On Disability is a less even work. An uneven quality is inherent in most anthologies, though, so it's not a major drawback in the case of this important collection assembled by Brownworth, a disabled lesbian, and nondisabled co-editor Raffo. While there have been some very good memoirs about being disabled and gay/lesbian over the past few years -- Kenny Fries' Body, Remember being one -- they've been few and far between.

One of Brownworth's criteria for this book was, as she puts it, "toughness" She and Raffo created a forum for a wide continuum of viewpoints from not only disability and queerness but racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic struggles.

Restricted Access raises issues that I haven't come across since the days of the Womyn's Braille Press newsletter. Their exploration of how disability and queer culture intersect is still just the beginning of a subject that needs far more exploration. As with Eli Clare's Exile And Pride, I hope Restricted Access is claimed by all the communities its editors intended -- and then some.

book cover image

Exile And Pride:
Disability, Queerness
And Liberation
Order this book for only $11.90
-- you save: $2.10 (15%).

book cover image

Encounters With
Strangers: Feminism
And Disability
Order this book for only $15.26
-- you save: $2.69 (15%).

book cover image

Bigger Than The Sky:
Disabled Women On Parenting
Order this book for only $15.26
-- you save: $2.69 (15%)

book cover image

Restricted Access:
Lesbians On Disability
Order this book for only $14.44
-- you save: $2.55 (15%).



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