Ann Snitow, a feminist writer, teacher, and passionate activist, who insisted on turning an analytical — even critical — eye toward feminism even as she organized relentlessly at its grassroots, died Saturday under hospice care at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.
The cause was bladder cancer, her brother, Alan Snitow, said.
Over nearly half a century, Snitow mobilized feminists, often at her kitchen table in Soho, and chronicled their ebbs and flows in six books and scores of articles in publications including The Village Voice, The Nation and Dissent.
In the 1970s she became a regular commentator on “Womankind,” one of the first American radio shows dedicated to feminism, which aired on WBAI in New York. In the 1980s she established gender studies at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, where she also taught literature. In the 1990s, she became a kind of ambassador of feminism to Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
She weathered the feminist faction fights of each era, including the virulent “sex wars” of the ’70s and ’80s, when women fought bitterly over matters of sexuality and, especially, pornography.
In that particular pitched battle — between “pro-sex” advocates, who opposed censorship, and “anti-porn” advocates, who saw pornography as misogynistic — Snitow came down on the “pro-sex” side. Trying to police pornography, she argued, would only drive it underground and would distract feminists from their ultimate goal of liberation. (The “pro-sex” forces prevailed in the courts.)
Taking sides in that debate was almost unavoidable. But generally, Snitow was known for being analytical, not polemical, for raising questions, not supplying answers, and above all, for embracing ambiguity and uncertainty.
Uncertainty — her watch word for knowing that feminism was always evolving, but not knowing what it might become — might even be said to have been her signature trait.
“The feminism I love and that has sustained a lifetime of engagement is the feminism of uncertainty,” she said in April at her retirement party from the New School, where she taught for more than three decades. “Feminism keeps changing — and should. Uncertainty: What an odd banner to fly under — but there it is.
And it suited her.
“As much as she was an activist, her temperament was intellectual and literary,” said author Susan Faludi (“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” 1991). “She abhorred easy and reductive stances and relished complexity and the gray areas.”
This gave her credibility with all sides in the roiling debates of the day, Faludi said, allowing her to bridge divides “between generations, geographies, ideologies, intersectional quarrels, vanities.”
Snitow’s approach is captured in the title of her best-known book, “The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary” (2015), a collection of essays from her years on the front lines.
“I believe feminism has great longevity, but only if it is a continuous shape-changer, capable of responding to new conditions and expectations,” she wrote.
Snitow is survived by her husband, Daniel Goode, her brother and her niece, Tania Chelnov-Snitow.