On Being in the Footnotes of Famous Feminist Scholars

I was thrilled when the late University of Chicago Prof. Lauren Berlant sent me an email in late 2020 with the subject line: “one more thing: from my book bibliography  :-).” The email contained an alphabetical list of publications by authors whose last names began with “B” including several by me! Their book, On the Inconvenience of Other People, was published posthumously in 2022. I picked it up at my local independent bookstore and searched for the reference while still standing in the store. I found my work referenced in Chapter Two, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times.” Footnote 58 on page 98 states: 

“I learned to think about the pressures and cadences of contact improvisation from conversations with and the writing of Michele Beaulieux. See Beaulieux, “Starting by Believing Maria”; Beaulieux, “Shift from Rape Culture”; Beaulieux, “How the First Rule”; and Beaulieux, “Can’t We Just Dance?

I am happy for the acknowledgement and that my writing on creating safer brave spaces for Contact Improvisation jams could inform a book much more intellectually sophisticated than I am. Just as I was challenged to keep up with Lauren in person, I am challenged to understand the sentence that my work apparently informed. 🙂 Unfortunately, I cannot now discuss it with them. I am saddened for all of us and the world that we lost Lauren too soon.

This mention is the second time my work has been acknowledged in a footnote of a book by a well-known feminist scholar. In her 1980 book, Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane Mansbridge cited what she and I had referred to as “the box.”

In the fall of 1979 in my sophomore year in college at the University of Chicago, I was assigned to write a paper on the topic of my choosing for a sociology class. I went to Prof. Richard Taub’s office hours and vaguely described my interest in small group governance. He urged me to go talk to Prof. Jane Mansbridge in the political science department. She was working on a book on that topic. I scurried across the quad to Jenny’s office. The book was still in manuscript form, typed out (on a typewriter!) double-spaced. The only way to read it in time to write my paper was to pay to have the stack of paper copied. The copy fee was a small fortune for a college student, but I was excited and splurged. 

The book explains that egalitarian groups exist on a continuum from common interests to conflicting interests. Problems arise when groups use decision-making mechanisms inappropriate to their group dynamic, such as high conflict groups using consensus, which works best for groups with common interests. 

I suggested that there was another continuum: from egalitarian groups to hierarchical groups. In the first of many matrices I’ve created in my life, I developed a box to explore the two dimensions: commonality of interests in one direction and equality of participants in the other. (I later created a cube to explore a third dimension: group size.) Jenny said that the box belonged in the body of the text, but all she could do at that late date was put it in a footnote.

When the book was published, I immediately searched for the footnote. In “Chapter 3: The Inner Logic of Unitary Democracy,” I was happy to see the box, although it was depicted as a table (and I’m not sure that I would have included slavery as that brings in other issues). Jenny had embellished, but my insight was there! Footnote 23 in the chapter states:

It is worth repeating that this volume addresses itself only to democracy and democratic theory, although other types of polity also run the spectrum from common to conflicting interests. A two-by-two table indicates the most obvious alternatives:

DemocracyHierarchy
Common InterestsUnitary democracyBenevolent dictatorship
Conflicting InterestsAdversary democracyTyranny, slavery

A decade later, I asked her why she hadn’t credited me. She felt terrible about her omission. We talked about it. She apologized. She acknowledged her mistake and was genuinely sorry that her (in)action had hurt me. She wanted to make it up to me, but she wasn’t able to correct the error publicly as the paperback had just come out and more printings were unlikely. So she sent me the paperback with the following inscription, which I cherish:

for Michele,

with gratitude that I should have expressed in print, for the important idea in footnote 23, pages 344-345, for crucial last-minute work on the index, and for your friendship throughout

— Jenny

Sept 1990

I forgave her. A proper apology makes forgiveness so much easier!

When we talked about the missing attribution for the box, I was surprised when Jenny brought up another insight of mine on which she put even more stock but that hadn’t registered as that significant to me. As her research assistant, I had looked at measuring “public-regardingness” — that is, people’s altruism or concern for the community. I realized that we generally hail people for being public-regarding only when it is against their personal interests, but people may also be public regarding when it is in their interests. In fact, we want to try to find and support situations in which personal and public interests align. 

Jenny also sent me a copy of Beyond Self Interest, an anthology that she edited. It includes her essay exploring the relationship between altruism and self interest. On the title page, she wrote:

for Michele,

whose work ten years ago on public-regardingness, and whose recent conversations helped me to some of the conclusions in “On the relation of altruism and self-interest.”

It may be too late now to acknowledge my debt publicly, but let me do it now between us, and hope a more public occasion will present itself.

Love,

Jenny

Sept. 1990

I am grateful to have known and dialogued with such brilliant feminist scholars, and I am honored that my ideas warranted footnotes in their books. While Lauren is no longer with us, Jenny and I remain in touch, and she has continued to support me and my work. I shared this post with her before publishing it and she was happy for me to share her inscriptions as the more people who know of my contributions, she wrote, the better. 


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© 2023 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 1.7.2023

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