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ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature
- The Classical Feminist Tradition
In this lecture on feminist criticism, Professor Paul Fry uses Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a lens to and commentary on the flourishing of feminist criticism in the twentieth century. The structure and rhetoric of A Room of One’s Own is extensively analyzed, as are its core considerations of female novelists such as Austen, Eliot, and the Brontës. The works of major feminist critics, such as Ann Douglas, Mary Ellman, Kate Millett, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, are mentioned. The logocentric approach to gender theory, specifically the task of defining female language as something different and separate from male language, is considered alongside Woolf’s own endorsement of literary and intellectual androgyny.
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Introduction to Theory of Literature
ENGL 300 - Lecture 20 - The Classical Feminist Tradition
Chapter 1. Transition into Feminist Theory: Tony the Tow Truck [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Fry: This lecture, I think, starts with a series of preliminaries. The technical term for preliminaries of this kind in literary study is “prolepsis”–that is to say, the form of anticipation which, in a certain sense, covers what will be talked about later. They are prolepses of this kind. First, I wanted to say that in entering upon the phase of this course which concerns a series of particular identities as perspectives, as points of departure, we’re still thinking about the literary text; and, of course, in thinking about identity itself, we come upon a form of critical endeavor which is, in practical terms, incredibly rich and productive. It is simply amazing how, as Jonathan Culler once put it, “reading as a woman,” or reading as an African-American, or reading as any of the other sort of identity that we’re going to be talking about–it’s simply amazing how this kind of reading, if it’s done alertly, transforms everything. That is to say, it has an incredible practical payoff.
Last time in the context of the New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant anecdote begins with Queen Elizabeth saying, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” Well, Stephen Greenblatt isn’t concerned with investigating a pronouncement of that sort from the standpoint of feminist criticism, or indeed from the standpoint of something we’ll be taking up later on–gender theory; but still, it’s rather an amazing thing for Queen Elizabeth to say, isn’t it? It suggests really that it’s, after all, remarkable that she, a woman, would find herself in a position not so much needing to endure the kind of suffering and peril that her own sex has traditionally endured but rather potentially enduring the suffering and peril that one would experience in the masculine gender position, made perhaps even more interesting and complicated by the fact that Elizabeth knows perfectly well that despite the rarity of her being Richard II, it’s nevertheless not a unique position. She has subjected [laughs] Mary Queen of Scots to precisely that position. She has deposed and beheaded her, ultimately, in just the way that she fears the Earl of Essex will depose and behead her. So the way in which this remark, “I am Richard II, know you not that?”–so easily commandeered and made use of from the standpoint of the New Historicism–can come to life in a completely different way when we think about it as a question of a gendered experience is, I think, in itself a fascinating one.
Now at the end of the last lecture, by way of further preliminary, I told a little fib. I said that there were no women in Tony the Tow Truck, and of course in your prose text of it–the one that you’ve been clutching to your bosom feverishly for the entire semester–there are no women. There are just guys talking. However, if to the prose text, and I’ve told you about these, you add the illustrations–this [gestures to board] is one of them, roughly speaking, and I did it from memory–if you add the illustrations, you’ll have to realize that it’s not just the cars. You see the little smiles on the faces of the houses there: it’s not just the cars that are happy about what’s going on when Bumpy finally comes along and pushes Tony, but it’s the houses in the background which have been expressing disapproval at the reactions of Neato and Speedy to the predicament. There are big frowns on the faces of those houses in those illustrations, houses that now express beaming approval when the morally correct thing is done.
Now in the Victorian period–and in a certain sense I think Tony the Tow Truck in this regard harkens back to the Victorian period–there was a poet named Coventry Patmore who, actually a rather good poet, became notorious, however, in the feminist tradition for having written a long poem in which he describes woman as “the angel in the house.” You’re probably familiar with that expression, and it’s an idea which is also, I think, embodied in a monumental book of some twenty-five years ago by Ann Douglas called The Feminization of American Culture. The idea is that moral and aesthetic and cultural values are somehow or another in the hands of women in the drawing room, at the tea table, dictating to the agencies of society–all of which are strictly male prerogatives–what a proper ethical sense of things ought to be. In other words, the role of the angel in the house is not just to wash the dishes and take care of the kids, although that’s a big part of it. The role of the angel in the house is also to adjudicate the moral aspect of life at the domestic level, and that’s exactly what these houses, obviously inhabited by angels–how else could they be smiling and frowning?–that’s what these houses are doing. So it is the case after all that there are women in Tony the Tow Truck.
Chapter 2. Overlapping Identities [00:06:35]
All right. Now, as I say, this moment is not exactly a crossroads in our syllabus. It’s not like moving from language to the psyche to the social, because obviously we’re still very much in the social. In fact, it’s not even as though we haven’t hitherto encountered the notion of perspective. Obviously, we have in all sorts of ways, but particularly in the work of Bakhtin or Jameson, we’re introduced to the way in which class conflict–that is to say, being of a certain class, therefore having an identity–gets itself expressed in literary form dialogically and gets itself expressed either as the expression of conflict between or among classes or as a more cacophonous and yet, at the same time, very frequently harmonious chorus of voices of the sort that–in notions of “carnivalization” and other such notions–one finds in Bakhtin. In other words, the way in which the language of a text, the language of a narrative or of a poem or of a play gets itself expressed, is already, as we have encountered it, a question of perspective. That is to say, it needs to be read with notions of identity, in this case notions of class identity, in mind if it’s to be understood.
Well, what’s also interesting, though, about turning to questions of identity is that perhaps more sharply now than hitherto–although I have been at pains to point out certain moments in the syllabus in which one really does arrive at a crossroads, and you simply can’t take both paths–nevertheless, within the context of thinking about identity in these ways as literary theory, we begin to feel an increased competitiveness among perspectives. I’m going to be pointing this out from time to time in the sequence of lectures that we now undertake, but from the very beginning there is a sense of actually a competition which is in some ways unresolved to this day–for example, between the feminist and the Marxist perspective. That is to say: what is the underlying determination of identity and consciousness? Is it class or gender, just for example? This is not a new topic. This isn’t a topic that we stumble on today as a result of some belated sophistication we have achieved. Listen to Virginia Woolf on page 600 of A Room of One’s Own where she says, top of the left-hand column:
Now in a way, Woolf is pulling her punches here. She is not saying class has priority over gender, nor is she saying gender has priority over class, if we’re to understand the history of the oppression of women or the history of the limits on the forms of women’s expression. She’s pulling her punches, and yet at the same time I think we can see a point of view in Woolf’s Room of One’s Own which is, after all, rather surprising. Think of the title. Think of the later title of a tract in some ways similar about the possible scope for contemporary activity for women, Three Guineas. These titles are grounded in material circumstances. Woolf stands before her audience, her Oxbridge audience of women, and says all she really has to say is just this one thing: if you’re going to expect to get anything done in the way of writing or in the way of any other activity that’s genuinely independent of patriarchal limitation, you’ve really got to have 500 pounds a year and a room of your own.
That’s all she really says she has to say. In fact, as you read through the six chapters of A Room of One’s Own, you find that, as if on an elastic band after the extraordinary range of impressionist thinking that each chapter manifests, she is pulled back to this one particular–as she sees it–necessary practical precondition, a material precondition. If you want to get anything done–you’re not Jane Austen, you’re not a genius sitting in your parlor whisking your novel-in-progress under a piece of blotting paper every time a servant comes in to the room, you’re not like that–you really do need today the independence of having 500 pounds and a room of your own. In other words, I think one could show that even in A Room of One’s Own–which is, if not the greatest, certainly the most eloquent feminist treatise on the conditions of women’s writing ever written–one could show that even in that, there is a certain priority given to the perspective of class, as opposed to the perspective of gender. Gender will continue to be conditioned by the effects of money and power if in fact something isn’t done–let’s face it–to redistribute money and power. This is a perspective which, by the way, is even clearer in Three Guineas and suggests that despite its main agenda, which is a feminist one–that underlying that there is a sense of the priority of class.
These sorts of tensions continue to haunt not just feminist criticism, but other forms of criticism having to do with other forms of identity really to this day. Conferences featuring a variety of identity perspectives very typically develop into debates on precisely this issue, and the one-ups-persons of conferences of this kind are always the ones who somehow get in the last word and say, “You’re all naïve. You suppose that this is the basic issue, but there’s an underlying issue which is the basic issue, and that’s the one that, I’m going to demonstrate, must absolutely prevail.” It’s not necessarily always the Marxist card which is played in this context, although it frequently is. It could be some other card, but it’s always a card played. It’s always the last word at the conference which makes everybody go away and say, “Oh. I thought this was about women. Oh, dear. It must be about something else.” We will have to come back to that because in a way, the material we cover today and the way that we’re enabled to discuss it by its own nature is something that calls for another lecture and a lecture that we will actually provide. There’s a very real sense, as I hope to show by the end of the lecture, in which traditional–I call this “classical feminist criticism”–in which traditional or classical feminist criticism needs to be supplemented, perhaps in the Derridean sense, by something more, which is gender theory. As I say, at the end of the lecture I’ll try to explain what that might entail, and then come back to it when we discuss Judith Butler and Michel Foucault a few lectures from now.
Chapter 3. The Structure of A Room of One’s Own [00:15:29]
All right. So A Room of One’s Own is an absolutely amazing tour de force. It’s actually one of my favorite books. I read it like a novel, and in many ways it is a novel. I think immediately that that might give us pause because if Charlotte Brontë is to be called to task for tendentiousness–that is to say, for writing from the standpoint of complaint, of perceived oppression; and if Charlotte Brontë’s tendentiousness gets in the way of the full expression of what she has to say–which is to say, the unfolding of a novel; and if as Virginia Woolf, I think, actually rightly remarks, at least from an aesthetic point of view, we wonder why on earth Grace Pool suddenly appears after Jane’s diatribe about wishing that she could travel and wishing that her horizons had been broadened, that somehow, Virginia Woolf says, Grace Pool is out of place and there’s been a rift in the narrative fabric: if this criticism of Charlotte Brontë is fair, and we’ll be coming back to it in other contexts, then of course it could be turned against the choice of narrative style, of narrative approach, in A Room of One’s Own itself.
This, I suppose, could only strike you forcefully if you read the whole of A Room of One’s Own, all six chapters, which I urge you to do because it’s so much fun. If you read the whole of A Room of One’s Own, you’d say, “Well, gee. This is sort of a novel, too.” The speaker says, “Oh, call me anybody you like,” not unlike Melville’s speaker saying, “Call me Ishmael.” You can call me Mary Beton. You can call me Mary Seton, call me Mary Carmichael. It doesn’t really matter, but I’ve had certain adventures. At least that person speaking has had certain adventures which are fictitious, or at least I reserve the right to have you suppose that they are fictitious. In other words, this is a narrative that moves quite by design in the world of fiction.
In other words, Virginia Woolf is saying it really isn’t true, as she tells us in the first chapter, that she, Mary Beton, after sitting at the river thinking, wondering what on earth she’s going to tell these young ladies about women and fiction–as she’s been thinking about that, finally she gets a little idea. It’s like pulling a bit of a fish out of the river, and the fish starts swimming around in her head. She becomes quite excited and she walks away across the grass. At that point up arises a beadle, a formidable person wearing Oxonian gowns and pointing at the gravel path where she, as an unauthorized woman, should be walking, as the grass is the province only for the men enrolled in the university; and then she has repeated encounters of that kind. She goes to the library unthinkingly, only to be told by an elderly wraithlike gentleman that since she’s a woman she needs a letter of introduction to get in. And so her day, her fictitious day of thinking about what on earth she should say to these young women about women and fiction, begins, somewhat unpleasantly for her character, as a presented fiction. In other words, A Room of One’s Own is, in a sense, a novel.
It continues with a very pleasant lunch that she has. She’s been invited to the campus as a distinguished writer. It’s okay to be a woman who is a novelist as long as you don’t rock the boat too much. In that regard, she can have been invited to such a lunch and has a very pleasant lunch because it’s provided by men in an atmosphere which is designed for men. Then she goes to visit a friend who is teaching at this fictitious college. She has dinner with the friend in that college’s dining hall, and the dinner is extremely inferior and plain, and then they go to her rooms and they start talking about the conditions in which this college was built. A bunch of women in the nineteenth century did all they could do to raise 30,000 pounds, no frills, thank you very much. None of them had any money. There were no major donations and so the grass never gets cut, the brick is plain and unadorned, and that’s the way life is in this particular women’s college.
The next day she goes to the library because she decides she’s really got to find out something about what people think of women; and so, what is a woman? I don’t know so I’d better look it up in the library, she thinks. She finds out that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men have written books about women: on the inferiority of women, the moral sensitivity of women, the lack of physical strength of women, on and on and on. She lists them as items in the library catalog which actually are there [laughs] in the library catalog–all of them, of course, getting themselves expressed in these hundreds and hundreds of books about women by men. Well, this is very frustrating but, as you can imagine, it’s an occasion for wonderful satire–one has to say tendentious satire, because obviously it’s male-bashing. My point is that she wouldn’t let Charlotte Brontë get away with that. Charlotte Brontë has to suspend her anger, Virginia Woolf wants to say, if she’s going to get the whole of what’s on her mind expressed. Well, Virginia Woolf, who sort of doesn’t sound very angry, but you could well be mistaken about that–she’s venting her anger in comic effects–Virginia Woolf allows herself, because that really is the case, a measure of anger.
So it is in that chapter. Then she goes home and the rest of A Room of One’s Own takes place in her home. She’s in her study pulling books off the shelf of her library, and this is more or less chronological. It starts with a time when she looks on the shelf where the women writers ought to be and there aren’t any women writers, and then later, yes, there are women writers, there are quite a few novelists. Then later in the twentieth century, women writers get a little bit more scope for their activity, and as she passes all of this in review, we continue to get her reflections on the state of literary possibility for women in literary history.
Chapter 4. Feminist Criticism and A Room of One’s Own [00:22:32]
That’s the structure of A Room of One’s Own overall and it is within this structure, which is an impressionistic and narrative, undoubtedly novelistic structure–there are precedents for it. Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Mr. W. H. is one in particular–and which is, in a way, itself what it’s talking about: It is a novella, and in the context of the novella, as I say, there’s a certain tension or contradiction in an author who is allowing herself tendentious opinions while denying the right to have such opinions on the part of one of her predecessors. As you can imagine, what she says about Charlotte Brontë has been controversial in subsequent feminist criticism. There are a number of ways in which feminist critics feel that Virginia Woolf is misguided or needs to be supplemented, and this is one of them. By and large, feminist critics feel that Charlotte Brontë, or any other writer, has the right to be tendentious. We’ll have more to say about Virginia Woolf’s criterion of androgyny, which is not thinking like either sex, in part. We’ll come back to that, but most feminist criticism has felt for a variety of reasons that androgyny isn’t necessarily the ideal toward which women’s prose ought to be aspiring and takes Virginia Woolf to task therefore for having taken this view of Charlotte Brontë.
Now yes, feminist criticism has taken A Room of One’s Own to task in a variety of ways, but at the same time–and I think this is freely and handsomely acknowledged by feminist criticism–it is amazing–when you read the whole text, and even when you read the excerpts that you have in your anthology–it is amazing how completely Virginia Woolf’s arguments anticipate the subsequent course of the history of feminist criticism. I just want to point out a few of the ways in which it does. As Showalter points out, the first phase of modern feminist criticism was the kind of work that primarily paid attention to men’s treatment of women in fiction. Mary Ellmann’s book of 1968 called Thinking about Women, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics in 1970 are both books which focus primarily on sexist male novelists whose demeaning treatment of women is something that the feminist perspective needed to bring out. This criticism is superseded in Elaine Showalter’s account by what she calls, and prefers, “gynocriticism” or “the gynocritics.” Gynocriticism is not so much concerned with men’s treatment of women in fiction as with the place of women as writers in literary history and as characters–regardless of whether they are characters in men’s or women’s books in their own right–in the history of fiction. In other words, gynocriticism turns the topic of feminist criticism in the late sixties and early seventies from the history of oppression by men to the history of a women’s tradition.
Now this sense of the unfolding of things, it seems to me, is already fully present in Woolf. She, too, wants to talk about the possibilities for women writers, about the need for women writers to feel that they’re not alone. Above all at the same time, however, she frames this emphasis on the woman’s perspective with the sort of trenchant, frequently satirical observations about men’s treatment of women and men’s way of demeaning women and keeping them in their place–as, for example, all the men, most of them professors, who wrote books about women, as she discovered in the British library, do. All of this is very much in the tradition of that first phase of feminist criticism that Showalter identifies with Ellmann and Millett and others of that generation. So the capaciousness of Woolf’s approach in one sense can be understood as precisely her ability to bridge both sorts of modern tradition–no longer chronological as Showalter presents them as being, correctly–but rather as a kind of simultaneity in which the emphasis on men’s marginalization of women and the emphasis on women’s consciousness and traditions can be set forth at the same time.
Chapter 5. Women’s Language and the Male Sentence [00:28:23]
Now also in Virginia Woolf there is what–Since the publication of the fascinating book by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar called The Madwoman in the Attic–this is also an allusion to Jane Eyre, you remember Bertha, the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre–since the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic, feminist criticism has talked about the madwoman thesis: the idea, in other words, that because they could not openly express themselves creatively as writers or as artists of other kinds, women were forced to channel their creativity into subversive, devious and perhaps psychologically self-destructive forms, as in, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. You find Woolf already on page 600–just actually below the passage about class and gender that I read before–you find her touching on this madwoman theme long before Gilbert and Gubar. She says:
There, in other words, one strongly suspects that there is a person whose creativity has been oppressed and unfortunately channeled in unsocial or antisocial directions. This, as I say, is a tradition that’s sustained. It still exists in Showalter. In her gynocritical perspective–that is to say, her insistence on our registering, chronicling, and becoming familiar as scholars with the history of women as well as the history of women’s writing–the recognition of such forms of repression as witchcraft, as madness, as herbalism, as whatever it might be, need to be taken into account.
Also very much on the mind of Woolf already, as it still is particularly for Showalter because this is Showalter’s understanding of the task of gynocriticism, is the notion that one needs a tradition, that one of the great difficulties and shortcomings facing the woman’s writer is that, yes, there are a few greats–the same ones always named, Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot–but there is not a sense of an ongoing tradition, of a developing tradition within which one could write; so that Woolf on page 606, the right-hand column, talks about “the man’s sentence,” the difficulty of coming to terms with not having, not just a room of one’s own, but a language of one’s own. This is toward the top of the right-hand column: “Perhaps the first thing she would find, setting pen to paper, was that there was no common sentence ready for her use.” All the literary models, all the models of novelistic prose–most of them, in any case, are engendered male; because the atmosphere of writing–and this is a point that we’ll be getting to soon–the very fact of writing is something that we have to understand as having a male stamp on it.
Further down in the right-hand column:
By the way, this is disputable because certainly it’s possible to understand Jane Austen’s prose style as emerging from the work of Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson, in particular, so it is disputable. At the same time, Woolf’s point is that Austen was able to shake herself free from this terrible problem of wanting to say something but finding that one doesn’t have one’s own language, a language suitable to– appropriated by and for and as one’s identity–for saying it. “So I want to write as a woman, I want to say the things that a woman wants to say, but all I’ve got to say it with is a man’s sentence.” That’s Woolf’s point, and of course it has many and long ramifications.
I’m holding at bay the criticism of a great deal of this that has to be leveled at it by feminist criticism and gender theory roughly since 1980, but in the meantime the ramifications are interesting and they are reinforced by the theoretically very sophisticated wing of feminist criticism that we call French feminism. Some of you may know the work of Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. Writers of this kind insist that there is such a thing as women’s language. Women write not just with their heads and their phalluses but with their whole bodies. Women don’t write carefully constructed periodic sentences. Women write ongoing paratactic, impressionist, digressive, ad hoc sentences: sentences without ego–being without structure more or less corresponding to being without ego. We’ll come back to this in a minute in Showalter, but in the meantime French feminism was willing to settle on and for an idea of women’s writing and, implicitly behind this idea, an idea of what a woman is that is very easy to identify as somehow or another essentializing.
Why can’t a woman write a rigorous periodic sentence? After all, that’s the kind of sentence that Jane Austen did, in fact, write. In a whole variety of ways that one might think of, why can’t a woman, if she is to be free to be whatever she wants to be, write a sentence which isn’t necessarily of this gendered feminine sort? Why does women’s writing, in other words, have to be women’s writing?
It seems to me that it is French feminism and the possible critique of French feminism that Virginia Woolf is anticipating when she embarks on this perilous idea of androgyny, of the kind of mind that needs to be both male and female and that needs to write in a way that Virginia Woolf says is actually very sexy, precisely in the moment when one is not thinking about one’s sex–the moment, in other words, when there is no longer a question of the man’s sentence and the woman’s sentence. I think it has to be said that although one could emphasize in A Room of One’s Own this sort of advanced criticism of French feminism, and also of the idea that there is essentially something that we call woman–and I’m not through with that topic–I think it has to be said that although we could read A Room of One’s Own in this way, at the same time we have to recognize an ambivalence on Virginia Woolf’s part on this subject. There is a difference between her insistence that Jane Austen wrote like a woman, that she shrugged off the tyranny of the man’s sentence and wrote her own kind of sentence, a woman’s sentence–regardless of whether or not that is actually in literary historical terms true–between the idea, on the one hand, that it’s important to write like a woman and the idea, on the other hand, that it’s important to write androgynously.
We have to concede, I think, the impressionistic form of these lectures that she’s giving. We have to concede that she wavers on this point; that somehow or another it’s very difficult to pin down in Woolf the question of whether there is essentially something to be called “women’s writing”; just as the question behind that, whether there is essentially something to be called “woman,” or the question on the contrary–whether the ideal of all writing is to shed as fully as it can precisely its gendered aspects. There is perhaps a kind of creative or rich inconsistency on this point that, it should be said, one also finds and needs to take into account in reading A Room of One’s Own.
Chapter 6. Complications and Implications of Classical Feminism [00:39:18]
All right. Now getting a little closer to this whole question of beyond the gynocritical–because Showalter, for example, in talking about the history of the novel talks about those three phases: first the “feminine,” the phase in which women try very much to write as though they were men by deferring completely to male values in all the ways that they can; perhaps introducing a kind of, again, “angel in the house” cultural benevolence and benignity into perspectives of men that can be sometimes rather militaristic and harsh. but nevertheless hiding behind frequently male names like Currer Bell, Acton Bell, George Eliot, and so on, and not really entering into questions of the place of women in society. Showalter then says this is a phase supplanted by a feminist moment in the history of the novel in which novels like the late work of Mrs. Gaskell, for example, and other such novels become tendentious, and the place and role of women becomes the dominant theme of novels of this kind. By the way, this takes Woolf’s critique of Charlotte Brontë a little bit out of chronology, because presumably Charlotte Brontë belongs to what Showalter is calling “the feminine phase” in the history of the novel, and so it’s interesting that Woolf finds a kind of proto-feminism, damaging to the texture of Jane Eyre, already in Charlotte Brontë’s novel.
Then finally what Elaine Showalter likes best: the supplanting of the feminist novel–because Elaine Showalter, too, is nervous about the tendentiousness of fiction–the supplanting of that by what she calls “the female novel,” which is the novel that simply takes for granted the authenticity and legitimacy of the woman’s point of view, writes from that point of view but, as in Virginia Woolf, having shed or shaken off the elements of anger or adversary consciousness that earlier novels had typically manifested. This history of the novel is very similar to what Showalter is doing with her sense of the history of recent feminist criticism. That’s in two phases: first the feminist, as she calls it, when the treatment of women by men in fiction is the main focus; and then the gynocritical, which is the appropriation for women of a literary tradition. Showalter is at pains to point out that much of the most important work of recent feminist scholarship, the feminist scholarship of the 1970s, is in simply the unearthing of and expanding of a canon of women’s writing not exclusively novelistic, because there had been a time when the novel was sort of half conceded to women as a possible outlet for their writing. But this concession was accompanied by the sovereign assertion that they couldn’t write poetry and plays, and so an expansion of the canon such that all forms of writing are available and made visible and recognized as actually existing in a tradition–so that we can trace women’s writing, as Showalter puts it, from decade to decade and not from great book to great book, so that there really is a tradition comparable to the male tradition that one can think about, think within, and draw on as a creative writer oneself, is necessary. So both Showalter’s history of the novel and her history of modern feminist criticism–or modern women’s criticism, one had better say–end at the point when it is still a question of the woman’s perspective.
But this raises a question–and I’ve been touching on it in a variety of ways–but it really raises the question that has to haunt thinking of this kind. We’re going to be encountering it again and again and again as we move through other forms of identity perspective in criticism and theory. It raises the question whether if I say that a woman’s or women’s writing is of a certain sort, if I identify a woman in a way that I take somehow to be recognizable–let’s say I identify a woman as intuitive, imaginative, impressionistic, sensitive, illogical, opposed to reason, a refuser of that periodic sort of subject-predicate sentence that we associate with men’s writing–I can appropriate that for women like the French feminists and I can identify women in so doing as such people–but isn’t that simply inverting what men say in Virginia Woolf’s discoveries in the British museum in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own–isn’t that just inverting all the negative values that men have attached to women all along? Isn’t it ultimately to accept men’s opinions of women, men’s ways of saying that because they are avatars of reason, science, logic and all the rest of it–isn’t a way of saying that the head is higher than the heart and accepting, in other words, the lower or inferior status of this organ to this organ even though one supposes oneself to have transvalued them and insisted, in promoting women’s consciousness, that the heart is higher than the head? One hasn’t done anything, in other words, to the essential identities that have governed patriarchal thought from the beginning. It is precisely this characterization of women that has enabled and engendered patriarchy. This is where the theoretical problem arises. It calls for, it seems to me, a sense that somehow or another one has to put the possibility–and there’s really no other way to say it, and this is something that Judith Butler frequently says and people who work in the mode of Judith Butler say–one has to put the suggestion that perhaps the best thing one can say as a feminist is there is no such thing as a woman; there is no woman.
Now of course this is perilous, and this is what drives such an unfortunate wedge in the midst of feminist thought. In real life, in real material existence, there certainly are women. They are oppressed by laws, they are oppressed by men, and their rights and their very lives need to be protected with perpetual vigilance. The theoretical idea, in other words, that there’s no such thing as a woman is not an idea that can be sustained in life. Yet at the same time, the implications of what the language of identity politics is always calling “essentialism,” the implications of saying “woman” is one particular thing–and it might be better if we said “woman” was one particular thing, but something other than what men have been saying she was all along–but making the problem worse, saying that “woman” is one particular thing, which is just what men have always said she was–only it’s a good thing, right, that positions of this kind are taken up in this way, despite the fact that they’re absolutely necessary for practical feminism and for real-world feminism–is nevertheless detrimental to a more sensitive theoretical understanding of gender and of the possibilities of gender.
It’s all very well to be intuitive and emotional and impressionistic, but one wants to say two things about that. In the first place, a guy gets to be that if he wants to, right? [laughs] In the second place, why does a woman have to be that, right? It’s perfectly clear in both cases that there are exceptions which go vastly beyond the exception that proves the rule. It’s perfectly clear that in both cases there are sensibilities across gender that completely mix up and discredit these categories, and so for all of those reasons there is a problem.
Just very quickly I want to point out, looking at Showalter’s essay, that this is a bind that criticism around 1980 really hasn’t gotten past. Time’s up. I’m not going to take the time to quote passages, but notice her animus–and here, in a way, we go back to the beginning–her animus against Marxism and structuralism on the grounds–and of course we’ve said this ourselves–on the grounds that both of them present themselves as “sciences.” Aha! They’re gendered male! Marxism and structuralism aren’t anything we want to have to do with because this is just Virginia Woolf’s beadle raising its ugly head again and imposing its will–through its superior rationality–on women. So we don’t want any of that. What we want instead is a form of criticism, and this is what she says in effect at the end of the essay on pages 1385 and 1386, that evades scientificity; a form of criticism that engages with the reality of texts and of the textual tradition but doesn’t trouble its head with theoretical matters. In other words, a form that dissociates itself from the logical, from overarching structure, from scientificity.
Showalter leaves herself in this position, and she leaves feminist criticism in this position as–how might one put it?–a colonized enterprise that can do anything it likes as long as it’s not reasonable. If that’s the case, then of course it imposes an essentializing limit on the possibilities of feminist criticism, just as of course the characterization of men’s criticism in the way that it’s characterized, needless to say, also imposes limits on that. Whether fair and legitimate limits, or perhaps exaggerated limits, is open to question. That’s not nearly as important a point as the reminder that there is a kind of marginalization of the possibilities for feminist criticism involved in saying that it has to be something other than the sort of thing that Marxist and structuralist paradigms make available.
Okay. Now I think that Henry Louis Gates, influenced by Bakhtin, will have a very interesting way of coming to terms with this question of what’s available for a marginalized minority criticism once it avoids or has succeeded in avoiding the terms of the mainstream criticism. I want you to read Gates’ essay with that particularly in mind. Then we’ll come back with the question of, as it were, the future of feminist criticism, in a way since 1980, when we turn to the work of the gender theorists, in particular Judith Butler.
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