Women’s experience as encountered in female fictional characters, the reactions of women readers, and the careers, techniques, and topics of women writers was the focus of the most accessible feminist criticism in the United States and Britain by the mid-1970s. A goal became the detection and further cultivation of a women’s tradition in literature. Originally opposed to theory as male-inflected, scholars engaged in these projects have gradually acknowledged and cultivated it.
Initially, feminist critics of this group had part-time, adjunct, or assistant-professor status in academic institutions, and they turned their activism toward the formation of the women’s studies programs that now exist in most U.S. universities. By the early 1990s, institutions that had been slow to start women’s studies programs were recruiting feminist scholars at the top level. Feminists Florence Howe and Catharine R. Stimpson had been elected to the presidency of the Modern Language Association of America, Phyllis Franklin had become executive director, and Women’s Studies in Language and Literature had developed into the third-largest division in the organization and a major force in its programming.
The process of recovering neglected work by women writers was greatly assisted by feminist reprinting houses, such as the Feminist Press in the United States and Virago Press and the Women’s Press in Britain. Founded by Florence Howe, the Feminist Press published its first book in 1972 and regularly offers work that recovers marginal cultural subjects—the working class, race—and 1930s texts. Howe reaffirms experientially centered feminist study in her introduction to Tradition and the Talents of Women, a 1991 collection that includes the borderline geopolitics of Chicanas and disperses work on lesbian and black women’s experience into various categories. Howe prefers strategically to argue a singular tradition of women, because she is “convinced that to imagine a series of separate, ‘monumental’ traditions is only to establish (or to continue) a hierarchy among them, in which the traditional white male canon would survive dominant” (13).
Feminist periodicals such as Signs, Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Women and Literature, and Chrysalis have provided a forum for feminist theoretical discussion. Founded in 1975 by Catharine Stimpson, Signs set out to publish “the new scholarship about women” as “a means to the end of an accurate understanding of men and women, of sex and gender, of large patterns of human behavior, institutions, ideologies and art.” In the experiential vein, it wanted its audience to be able to “fix and grasp a sense of the totality of women’s lives and the realities of which they have been a part” (Signs 1 : v). It has also published landmark French feminist work in translation. In its second number, Elaine Showalter presented a review essay on feminist scholarship in literature that moved into the project of a separate women’s tradition.
Signs declared itself interdisciplinary. Theoretical borrowing from history, sociology, and psychology has remained crucial to literary study. Signs publishes special numbers and debates on emerging issues, such as lesbian identification, and the uses of Nancy Chodorow‘s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978) in theoretical revision of the mother (vol. 6). Chodorow’s post-Freudian theory reconstructs the Oedipal crisis for men and women, and its continuing post-Oedipal mother/daughter relation has served the theorizing of women’s traditions. The first issue of Signs contained historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “Female World of Love and Ritual,” which relies on women’s correspondence to recover a tradition of “long-lived, intimate, loving friendship between two women” (1) and all-female rituals and customs as focal events of nineteenth-century American women’s lives.
Virginia Woolf offered the most important literary-critical model to feminists interested in recovering the experience of women writers. Now a standard text, A Room of One’s Own (1929) gives an account of the frustrations that a fictional female researcher must go through to arrive at a theory of women and fiction. Gender bias hampers her access to the resources of the university, and historical and imaginative male accounts of woman, whether distorted by anger or by the imagination, fail history and experience. Woolf imagines historical woman writers in their social contexts and searches out the sources of the bitterness she reads in their works. Jane Marcus has been the most active editor of feminist Woolf collections. In Art and Anger, Marcus identifies her own training as American New Criticism and intellectual history and attributes what theory she exhibits to “the texts under discussion in relation to their historical context, as well as to a problematizing of the issue of reading by gender gained from reading Virginia Woolfs fiction” (xiii). She identifies Woolf as a socialist feminist and has collected work on her mystical aspect, women in her contexts, and Bloomsbury Group misogyny, revising views expressed in the family biography by Quentin Bell. In “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet” (in Art and Anger), Marcus resists the contemporary hierarchy that privileges language-centered deconstruction . She argues for the importance of studying the production of a literary work in process and identifies with the mythos of Penelope “the tradition of making the art object,” rooted in daily experience, as a feminine aesthetic. Like Lillian Robinson in Sex, Class, and Culture, Marcus asserts the importance of Woolfs radical feminist work Three Guineas.
The importance of female experience is marked in the significantly titled collection The Authority of Experience (1977), edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards. Although they collected their essays “practically and intuitively,” the editors found that theory was emerging. They saw “concern with society’s beliefs about the nature and function of women in the world” as the concern of feminists and brought “personally felt reality” to the fore as a criterion. Their authors examined art as “the product of a particular cultural milieu, sometimes embodying a society’s most deeply held convictions, sometimes questioning these values, sometimes disguising an artist’s own ambivalence with regard to these matters” (ix-x). Unlike in subsequent studies by Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter, there was a balance between male and female writers. Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Richardson come off well in rendering the historical experience of women through their female characters. The Diamond and Edwards collection is an early example of the importance of anthologies and collections to the development of feminist theory, enriching the sense of women’s experience of specific historical periods and new genre traditions. Diverse examples are Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays in Women Poets, edited by Sandra Μ. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979); Women Reading Women’s Writing, edited by Sue Roe (1987); The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock (1988); The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (1983); Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, edited by Helen Μ. Cooper, Adrienne Ausländer Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier (1987); Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (1989); and The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott (1990). Among the theoretical collections incorporating diverse practices, see The Poetics of Gender, edited by Nancy K. Miller (1986); Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Benstock (1987); and The New Feminist Criticism: Essays in Women, Literature, and Theory (1985) and Speaking of Gender (1989), both edited by Elaine Showalter.
Judith Fetterley wrote on Hemingway for the Diamond and Edwards collection. Her book The Resisting Reader (1978) considers the writing of additional male writers from Washington Irving to Norman Mailer, including canonized figures such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and James. Fetterley discusses the loss and mental confusion of the “immasculated” woman reader, forced to identify against herself with male characters, whose essential experience is betrayal by the female, and forced to see women characters scapegoated and killed off in the typical scenarios. Against this politics of male empowerment, Fetterley offers the female reader the power of naming what is real, in terms of her own experience. Fetterley’s strategy for re-vision of the reading process for women was inspired by Adrienne Rich and Kate Millett and has been further theorized by Patrocinio Schweickart, who suggests the importance of establishing the subject-object relations between the female reader and the text. Fetterley’s representation of American literature as a “masculine wilderness” and of America as a female to be discovered and conquered is resonant with Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land (1975) and with the ecofeminism of Susan Griffin (Woman and Nature, 1978). Studies of James Joyce can represent the continuing analysis of male writers. Joyce was credited with a degree of cultural realism in representing the familial, vocational, and artistic experiences of women characters (Women in Joyce, ed. Suzette Henke and Elaine Unkeless, 1982, and Joyce and Feminism, by Bonnie Kime Scott, 1984). By the late 1980s Joycean feminist analysis favored psychoanalytic and French feminist approaches.
Marginal development of a female countercanon posed a challenge to the central literary canon and contributed to a questioning of canonicity itself. Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978), for example, introduces an alternate tradition of trivialized women writers. Her essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” encourages a reexamination of criteria of greatness, noting the masculine limitation of concepts such as that of America as a nation and the myth of individual opportunity in the wilderness. Lillian S. Robinson’s “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon” questions limitations of both old masculinist and new feminist canons. Feminists also tested the adequacy of periodization based exclusively on male literary production and introduced gender as a factor in genre. Annette Kolodny introduced the concept of a coded language of a female subculture in “A Map for Rereading,” its title a reaction to the narrow literary culture defined in Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading.
“Gynocritics” is the name Elaine Showalter has given to those critics who wish “to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories” (“Toward a Feminist Poetics,” New Feminist Criticism 131). In a series of essays, Showalter is increasingly willing to talk about various schools of feminist theory. She finds the social theory of subcultures useful to gynocriticism in “Feminist Theory in the Wilderness.” In “Critical Cross- Dressing,” she is skeptical about the ability of prominent male critics (Jonathan Culler and Terry Eagleton, in particular) to turn feminist as readers without surrendering “paternal privileges.” What she fears is that “instead of breaking out of patriarchal bounds,” they will merely compete with women, failing to acknowledge women’s feminist contributions (143). She includes feminist aesthetics and French feminism in the introduction to her edited collection The New Feminist Criticism and begins talking more about men through the category of gender in her later edited collection Speaking of Gender.
Feminist freedom from male theory was a goal for Showalter, but its accomplishment remains problematic in critiques of gynocritics’ practices. There are traces of Freudianism and traditional literary categories in work by Ellen Moers and by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Toril Moi places Showalter in a humanist tradition. For Moi, the empirical methods and close textual analysis of gynocritics links them to the male practice of New Criticism, though their construction of female social history certainly mitigates this. The extensive archival work of Showalter, Baym, Marcus, and Gilbert and Gubar, by their own admission, applies skills learned in traditional graduate study (see Marcus’s “Storming the Toolshed” in Art and Anger). Annette Kolodny has advocated a “playful pluralism” for feminist theory and practice (“Dancing through the Minefield”), a model that excited objections from Grayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose juxtaposition of feminism with Marxism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction discloses some perils. Further discussion by Judith Kegan Gardner offered a political model of several schools of feminist criticism: liberal, socialist, and radical. The radical views of lesbians and black critics had been neglected in the pluralist concept and indeed in much of the 1970s feminist criticism. Myra Jehlen found the self-contained gynocritical position problematic. If, like Archimedes, the feminist would shift the world, she must position her fulcrum on male ground—she cannot work from a totally female stance. In “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Jehlen advocates attending to confrontations along the long border contingent to dominant male traditions, achieving “radical comparativism.” Jehlen’s isolation of politics from aesthetics in literature was regarded as suspect by Moi, although both critics attend to unconscious ideology.
By the late 1970s, major female-centered studies had begun to appear. In Literary Women (1976), Ellen Moers expresses the intention not to impose doctrine on women writers—an attitude that resembles Showalter’s in its distrust of theory. She presents a practical, living history of women writers from the eighteenth century through the twentieth, attempting to shape it with their concerns and language. The account features new anecdotal details and minute observations from manuscript sources, selected for their relevance to women’s unique experiences. Many of the categories she uses to discuss the history and tradition of women writers in the first half of her study are derived from traditional period and genre studies: “The Epic Age,” “Traditions, Individual Talent,” “Realism,” and “Gothic.” In the second half, she sets out to familiarize readers with literary feminism, a heroic structure for the female “voice” in literature that she calls “heroinism.” Her categories of heroinism incorporate characters in roles of loving, performing, and educating. Her discussion of female erotic landscape emerges from an introduction of Sigmund Freud’s sexual dream symbols, assessing male bias that goes back to the naming of female anatomy (vagina = scabbard). This introduction of metaphors of the female body finds a response in French feminist theory, with Luce Irigaray’s “two lips” of the female body and Hélène Cixous‘s concept of writing in mother’s milk.
Showalter’s landmark work, A Literature of Their Own (1977), constructs a history of British women novelists’ literary subculture in three phases, designated as feminine (1840-80), feminist (1880-1920), and female (continuing since 1920, with a new phase beginning in 1960). Showalter’s dates are not to be taken rigidly; they overlap, and multiple phases can be seen in a single writer. Critical of the practice of selecting only great figures for analysis, in an appendix she lists 213 women writers with “sociological” data, writers who provide diversity and generational links. She also avoids concepts of female imagination, preferring to look at the ways “the self-awareness of the woman writer has translated itself into a literary form in a specific place and time-span” and to trace this self-awareness within the tradition (12). Her “feminine” phase includes intense, compact, symbolic fiction that used “innovative and covert ways to dramatize the inner life” (27-28), as well as “an all-inclusive female realism” that was “a broad, socially informed exploration of the daily lives and values of women within the family and the community” (29). “Feminists” confronted Victorian sexual stereotypes, produced socialistic theories of women’s relationships to work, class, and the family, and entertained an “all-out war of the sexes” (29). Some writers fantasized sexual separatism in Amazonian or suffragette communities. Early parts of the “female” phase of self-exploration are seen by Showalter as carrying “the double legacy of feminine selfhatred and feminist withdrawal” (33). It polarized sexuality, but the female sensibility moved from sacred to self-destructive and paradoxically failed to confront the female body. The concept of androgyny, explored from the Greeks to Bloomsbury in male as well as female authors by Carolyn Heilbrun (Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, 1973), comes under attack as an escapist “flight” in Showalter’s controversial handling of Woolf (263-97), a position that echoes the attacks of Queenie Leavis and F. R. Leavis’s Scrutiny. The phase of the female novelists since 1960 operates in Freudian and Marxist contexts and for the first time accepts anger and sexuality as “sources of female creative power” (35).
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have theorized the position of woman and the literary imagination in the nineteenth century (The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979) and the twentieth (No Man’s Land, 2 vols., 1987-89) and offer a large selection of women authors who conform to their paradigms in their edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Their approach includes historical references to the material, social, and gendered conditions of authors’ lives; to literary canons and archives; and to popular movements and artifacts—typical strengths of American feminist theory. Like Showalter and Moers, they detect historical stages of a female literary tradition, but they ground these in male comparisons and frequently make their points through metaphors and puns, as seen in their titles. According to them, for early nineteenth-century women writers the dominant vision of literary creativity was paternal. Women had to cope further with male fantasies of the female. These fantasies come in angelic and monstrous versions and were imposed as literary models. The madwoman or monster repeatedly created by women writers is the author’s double, expressing her anxiety, rage, and “schizophrenia of authorship” (Madwoman 78). They detect asymmetrical male and female responses to the rise of female literary power. Women have emerged from their liminal position in the attic to wage the battle between the sexes.
In The War of the Words, volume 1 of No Man’s Land, which offers numerous studies of male authors, the battle is manifested in tropes of erotic dueling, the advent of the “no-man” to replace the virile man, and plots of males defeating alarming forms of female sexuality through a theology of the phallus, mutilations, rapes, and campaigns against the mothers of “castrated” sons. Women begin to have literary reactions to preceding female writers, sometimes arriving at parodic or comic treatments, as well as serious and positive ones. Gilbert and Gubar’s collection of stereotypes and misogynistic plot types that progress through the decades is reminiscent of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970). Women writers express belligerence less directly and render characters who are victorious through duplicity, subterfuge, or luck. The suffragist movement gives the early century metaphors of militarism and sacrifice. Modernist women offer private triumphs. Later women writers respond to male backlash with nightmares of defeat or dreams of triumphant women warriors. Volume 2, Sexchanges, sustains the model of sex war refined into the consideration of sexchanges: “The sexes battle because sex roles change, but when the sexes battle, sex itself (that is eroticism) changes” (xi). Major changes include the rebellion against the feminization of the American woman, powerful roles assumed by women in World War I, varied lesbian arrangements, and transvestism. A more tortured experience of women in war emerges in Cooper, Munich, and Squier’s essay collection Arms and the Woman.
Two theoretical models in Gilbert and Gubar are worthy of mention. Their concept “anxiety of authorship,” used perhaps too broadly to describe nineteenth-century women writers—like Harold Bloom’s maleapplied term “anxiety of influence”—derives from Freud’s psychosexual paradigm of the Oedipus complex. If women follow a normative female resolution of the Oedipus complex, the father (the male literary tradition) becomes the object of female desire, and the pre-Oedipal desire for the mother (or her literature) is renounced. Twentieth-century women writers have the option of the “affiliation complex,” which allows them to “adopt” literary mothers and to escape the male “belatedness,” or the “anxiety of influence” theorized by Bloom, which is in effect a biological imperative for literary descent from an originatory father. Normative resolution of the Oedipus complex may leave women anxious about the fragility of paternal power, worried about usurping paternal primacy, and fearful of male vengeance. Non-normative Freudian resolutions of the Oedipus complex offer advantages to authors such as Ge r t r u d e s t e in . The resulting “masculinist complex” grants autonomy, a new maternal relation, and the creative option of male mimicry— a departure from Freud’s negative judgment.
Gilbert and Gubar also implicate fantasies in theory, The War of the Words focusing on linguistic fantasies, and Sexchanges on fantasy identifications. The feminist linguistic fantasy grants an intuitive primacy in language acquisition to the mother rather than to the father, a more powerful position than the male-associated symbolic language and social contract of Julia Kristeva‘s post-Lacanian analysis. Proceeding from Woolf’s remarks on women’s language, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that women fantasize a revision not of women’s language but of women’s relation to language. They would overturn male sentencing—the sentence as definitivein judgment, decree, or interdiction. They see agonistic oral competitiveness and the acquisition of a privileged, priestly language, as theorized by Walter Ong, as a male fertility rite, resisting vernacular and controlling mother tongue. Modernist men such as Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence , James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot and the deconstructionist theory of Jacques Derrida have mystified, claimed, or transformed mother tongue, so as to retain priestly authority. Sexchanges begins with fin de siècle myths of popular culture that have also interested Nina Auerbach (Woman and the Demon) and Elaine Showalter (Sexual Anarchy). Increasingly, women writers find enabling fantasies and roles—Sappho as a predecessor, Aphrodite as an erotic authority, and transvestism as metaphor. In the same sexchanges, men express loss and failure. We must ask whether Gilbert and Gubar establish the victory of a woman’s tradition or another myth. Were there not larger cultural projects, including the problematics of a binary conflict between the sexes? These questions arise in postmodern feminist discussions.
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Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.