Toward a Feminist Poetics

Elaine Showalter



In 1977, Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, contributed to a London symposium of essays by six male critics called Contemporary Approaches to English Studies. Professor Edel presented his essay as a dramatized discussion between three literary scholars who stand arguing about art on the steps of the British Museum:


There was Criticus, a short, thick-bodied intellectual with spectacles, who clung to a pipe in his right hand. There was Poeticus, who cultivated a Yeatsian forelock, but without the eyeglasses and the ribbon. He made his living by reviewing and had come to the B.M. to look up something or other. Then there was Plutarchus, a.lean and lanky biographer wearing a corduroy jacket.


As these three gentlemen are warming to their important subject, a taxi pulls up in front of them and releases “an auburn-haired young woman, obviously American, who wore ear-rings and carried an armful of folders and an attaché case.” Into the museum she dashes, leaving the trio momentarily wondering why femininity requires brainwork. They are still arguing when she comes out, twenty-one pages later.[1]


I suppose we should be grateful that at least one woman - let us call her Critica - makes an appearance in this gathering, even if she is not invited to join the debate. I imagine that she is a feminist critic-in fact, if I could afford to take taxis to the British Museum, I would think they had perhaps seen me
- and it is pleasing to think that while the men stand gossiping in the sun, she is inside hard at work. But these are scant satisfactions when we realize that of all the approaches to English studies current in the 1970s, feminist criticism is the most isolated and the least understood. Members of English departments who can remember what Harold Bloom means by clinamen, and who know the difference between Tartu and Barthian semiotics, will remark that they are against feminist. criticism and consequently have never read any. Those who have read it, often seem to have read through a glass darkly, superimposing their stereotypes on the critical texts. In his introduction to Nina Auerbach’s subtle feminist analysis of Dombey and Son in the Dickens Studies Annual, for example, Robert Partlow discusses the deplorable but nonexistent essay of his own imagining:


At first glance, Nina Auerbach’s essay . . . might seem to be a case of special pleading, another piece of women’s’ lib propaganda masquerading as literary criticism, but it is not quite that . . . such an essay could have been . . . ludicrous

. . . it could have seen dark phallic significance in curving railroad tracks and upright church pews-but it does not. [2]


In contrast to Partlow’s caricature (feminist criticism will naturally be obsessed with the phallus), there are the belligerent assumptions of Robert Boyers, in the Winter 1977 issue of Partisan Review, that it will be obsessed with destroying great male artists. In “A Case Against Feminist Criticism”, Boyers used a single work, Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (1973), as an example of feminist deficiency in “intellectual honesty” and “rigor”. He defines feminist criticism as the “insistence on asking the same questions of every work and demanding ideologically satisfactory answers to those questions as a means of evaluating it,” and concludes his diatribe thus:


Though I do not think anyone has made a credible case for feminist criticism as a viable alternative to any other made, no one can seriously object ‘to feminists continuing to try. We ought to demand that such efforts be minimally distinguished by intellectual candor and some degree of precision. This I have failed to discover in most feminist criticism. [3]


Since his article makes its “case” so recklessly that Joan Mellen brought charges for libel, and the Partisan Review was obliged to print a retraction in the following issue, Boyers hardly seems the ideal champion to enter the critical lists under the twin banners of honesty and rigor. Indeed, his terminology is best understood as a form of intimidation, intended to force

women into using a discourse more acceptable to the academy, characterized by the “rigor” which my dictionary defines as strictness, a severe or cruel act, or a “state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.” In formulating a feminist literary theory, one ought never to expect to appease a Robert Boyers. And yet these “cases” cannot continue to be settled, one by one, out of court. The absence of a clearly articulated theory makes feminist criticism perpetually vulnerable to such attacks, and not even feminist critics seem to agree what it is that they mean to profess and defend.


A second obstacle to the articulation of a feminist critical practice is the activist’s suspicion of theory, especially when the demand for clarification comes from sources as patently sexist as the egregiously named Boyerses and Mailers of the literary quarterlies. Too many literary abstractions which claim to be universal have in fact described only male perceptions, experiences; and options, and have falsified the social and personal contexts in which literature is produced and consumed. In women’s fiction, the complacently precise and systematizing male has often been the target of satire, especially when his subject is Woman. George Eliot’ s impotent structuralist Casaubon is a classic instance, as is Mr. Ramsay, the self-pitying philosopher in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. More recently Doris Lessing’s Professor Bloodrot in The Golden Notebook lectures confidently on orgasm in the female swan; as Bloodrot proceeds, the women in the audience rise one by one and leave. What women have found hard to take in such male characters is their self deception, their pretense to objectivity, their emotion parading as reason. As Adrienne Rich comments in Of Woman Born, “the term ‘rational’ relegates to its opposite term all that it refuses to deal with, and thus ends by assuming itself to be purified of the nonrational, rather than searching to identify and assimilate its own surreal or nonlinear elements.” [4] For some radical feminists, methodology itself is an intellectual instrument of patriarchy, a tyrannical methodolatry which sets implicit limits to what can be’ questioned and discussed. “The God Method,” writes Mary Daly,


is in fact a subordinate deity, serving higher powers. These are social and cultural institutions whose survival depends upon the classification of disruptive and disturbing information as nondata. Under patriarchy, Method has wiped out women’s questions so totally that even women have not I been able to hear and formulate our own questions, to meet our own experiences. [5]


From this perspective, the academic demand for theory can only be heard as a threat to the feminist need for authenticity, and the visitor looking for a formula he or she can take away without personal encounter is not welcome.

In the United States, where women’s-studies programs offer degree options in nearly three hundred colleges and universities, there are fears that feminist analysis has been coopted by academia, and counterdemands that we resist the pressure to assimilate. Some believe that the activism and empiricism of feminist criticism is its greatest strength, and point to the flourishing international women’s press, to new feminist publishing houses, and to writing collectives and manifestos. They are afraid that if the theory is perfected, the movement will be dead. But these’ defensive responses may also be rationalizations of the psychic barriers to women’s participation in theoretical discourse. Traditionally women have been cast in the supporting rather than the starring roles of literary scholarship. Whereas male critics in the twentieth century have moved to center stage, openly contesting for primacy with writers, establishing coteries and schools, speaking unabashedly (to quote Geoffrey Hartman) of their “pen-envy,” [6] women are still too often translators, editors, hostesses at the conference and the Festschrift, interpreters; to congratulate ourselves for working patiently and anonymously for the coming of Shakespeare’s sister, as Virginia Woolf exhorted us to do in 1928, is in a sense to make a virtue of necessity. In this essay, therefore, I would like to outline a brief taxonomy, if not a poetics, of feminist criticism, in the hope that it will serve as an introduction to a body of work which needs to be considered both as a major contribution to English studies and as part of an interdisciplinary effort to reconstruct the social, political, and cultural experience of women.


Feminist criticism can be divided into two distinct varieties. The first type is concerned with woman as reader - with woman as the consumer of male produced literature, and with the way in which the hypothesis of a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text, awakening us to the significance of its sexual codes. I shall call this kind of analysis the feminist critique, and like other kinds of critique it is a historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena. Its subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions of and misconceptions about women in criticism, and the fissures in male-constructed literary history. It is also concerned with the exploitation and manipulation of the female audience, especially in popular culture and film; and with’ the analysis of woman-as-sign in semiotic systems. The second type of feminist criticism is concerned with woman as writer - with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women. Its subjects include the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history; and, of course, studies of particular writers and works. No term exists in English for such a specialized discourse, and so I have adapted the French term la gynocritique: “gynocnt-

ics” (although the significance of the male pseudonym in the history of women’s writing also suggested the term “georgics”).


The feminist critique is essentially political and polemical, with theoretical affiliations to Marxist sociology and aesthetics; gynocritics is more self-contained and experimental, with connections to other modes of new feminist

research. In a dialogue between these two positions, Carolyn Heilbrun, the writer, and Catharine Stimpson, editor of the journal Signs: Women in Culture and Society, compare the feminist critique to the Old Testament, “looking for the sins and errors of the past,” and gynocritics to the New Testament, seeking “the grace of imagination.” Both kinds are necessary, they explain, for only the Jeremiahs of the feminist critique can lead us out of the “Egypt of female servitude” to the promised land of the feminist vision. That the discussion makes use of these Biblical metaphors points to the connections between feminist consciousness and conversion narratives which often appear in women’s literature; Carolyn Heilbrun comments on her own text, “When I talk about feminist criticism, I am amazed at how high a moral tone I take.”  [7].


The Feminist Critique: Hardy


Let us take briefly as an example of the way a feminist critique might proceed, Thomas Hardy’ s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which begins with the famous scene of the drunken Michael Henchard selling his wife and infant daughter for five guineas at a country fair. In his study of Hardy, Irving Howe has praised the brilliance and power of this opening scene:


To shake loose from one’s wife; to discard that drooping rag of a woman, with her mute complaints and maddening passivity; to escape not by a slinking abandonment but through the public sale of her body to a stranger, as horses are sold at a fair; and thus to wrest, through sheer amoral wilfulness, a second chance out of life - it is with this stroke, so insidiously attractive to male fantasy, that The Mayor of Casterbridge begins. [8]


It is obvious that a woman, unless she has been indoctrinated into being very deeply identified indeed with male culture, will have a different experience of this scene. I quote Howe first to indicate how the fantasies of the male critic distort the text; for Hardy tells us very little about the relationship of Michael and Susan Henchard, and what we see in the ear1y scenes does not suggest that she is drooping, complaining, or passive. Her role, however, is a passive one; severely constrained by her womanhood, and further burdened by her
child, there is no way that she can wrest a second chance out of life. She cannot master events, but only accommodate herself to them.


What Howe, like other male critics of Hardy, conveniently overlooks about the novel is that Henchard sells not only his wife but his child, a child who can only be female. Patriarchal societies do not readily sell their sons, but their daughters are all for sale sooner or later. Hardy wished to make the sale of the daughter emphatic and central; in early drafts of the novel Henchard has two daughters and sells only one, but Hardy revised to make it clearer that Henchard is symbolically selling his entire share in the world of women. Having severed his bonds with this female community of love and loyalty, Henchard has chosen to live in the male community, to define his human relationships by the male code of paternity, money, and legal contract. His tragedy lies in realizing the inadequacy of this system, and in his inability to repossess the loving bonds he comes desperately to need.


The emotional center of The Mayor of Casterbridge is neither Henchard’s relationship to his wife nor his superficial romance with Lucetta Templeman, but his slow appreciation of the strength and dignity of his wife’s daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. Like the other women in the book, she is governed by her own heart-man-made laws are not important to her until she is taught by Henchard himself to value legality, paternity, external definitions, and thus in the end to reject him. A self-proclaimed “woman-hater,” a man who has felt at best a “supercilious pity” for womankind, Henchard is humbled and “unmanned” by the collapse of his own virile façade, the loss of his mayor’s chain, his master’s authority, his father’s rights. But in Henchard’s alleged weakness and “womanishness,” breaking through in moments of tenderness, Hardy is really showing us the man at his best. Thus Hardy’s female characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge, as in his other novels, are somewhat idealized and melancholy projections of a repressed male self.


As we see in this analysis, one of the problems of the feminist critique is that it is male-oriented. If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics, and the limited roles women play in literary history, we are not learning what women have felt and experienced, but only what men have thought women should be. In some fields of specialization, this may require a long apprenticeship to the male theoretician, whether he be Althusser, Barthes, Macherey, or Lacan; and then an application of the theory of signs or myths or the unconscious to male texts or films. The temporal and intellectual investment one makes in such a process increases resistance to questioning it, and to seeing its historical and ideological boundaries. The critique also has a tendency to naturalize women’s victimization by making it the inevitable and obsessive topic of discussion. One sees, moreover, in works like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal, the bittersweet moral distinctions the

critic makes between women merely betrayed by men, like Hetty in Adam

Bede, and the heroines who make careers out of betrayal, like Hester Prynne

in The Scarlet Letter. This comes dangerously dose to a celebration of the

opportunities of victimization, the seduction of betrayal. [9]



Gynocritics and Female Culture


In contrast to this angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is 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. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture. This is comparable to the ethnographer’s effort to render the experience of the “muted” female half of a society, which is described in Shirley Ardener’s collection Perceiving Women. [10] Gynocritics is related to feminist research in history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology, all of which have developed hypotheses of a female subculture including not only the ascribed status, and the internalized constructs of feminity, but also the occupations, interactions, and consciousness of women. Anthropologists study the female subculture in the relationships between women, as mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends; in sexuality, reproduction, and ideas about the body; and in rites of initiation and passage, purification ceremonies, myths, and taboos. Michelle Rosaldo writes in Woman, Culture, and Society:


The very symbolic and social conceptions that appear to set women apart and to circumscribe their activities may be used by women as a basis for female solidarity and worth. When men live apart from women, they in fact cannot control them, and unwittingly they may provide them with the symbols and social resources on which to build a society of their own. [11]


Thus in some women’s literature, feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them; and women have imaginatively engaged the myths of the Amazons, and the fantasies of a separate female society, in genres from Victorian poetry to contemporary science fiction.


In recent years, pioneering work by four young American feminist scholars has given us some new ways to interpret the culture of nineteenth-century American women and the literature that was its primary expressive form Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay “The Female World of Love and Ritual

examines several archives of letters between women, and outlines the homosocial emotional world of the nineteenth century. Nancy Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835 explores the paradox of a cultural bondage, a legacy of pain and submission, which nonetheless generates a sisterly solidarity, a bond of shared experience, loyalty, and compassion. Ann Douglas’s ambitious book, The Feminization of American Culture, boldly locates the genesis of American mass culture in the sentimental literature of women and clergymen, two allied and “disestablished” post-industrial groups. These three are social historians; but Nina Auerbach’s Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction seeks the bonds of womanhood in women’s literature, ranging from the matriarchal households of Louisa May Alcott and Mrs. Gaskell to the women’s schools and colleges of Dorothy Sayers, Sylvia Plath, and Muriel Spark. Historical and literary studies like these, based on English women, are badly needed; and the manuscript and archival sources for them are both abundant and untouched. [12]



Gynocritics: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Muriel Spark


Gynocritics must also take into account the different velocities and curves of

political, social, and personal histories in determining women’s literary choices and careers. “In dealing with women as writers,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1929 essay, “Women and Fiction,” “as much elasticity as possible is desirable; it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides their work, so much has that work been influenced by conditions that have nothing whatever to do with art.” [13] We might illustrate the need for this completeness by looking at Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856) has recently been handsomely reprinted by the Women’s Press. In her excellent introduction Cora Kaplan defines Barrett Browning’ s feminism as romantic and bourgeois, placing its faith in the transforming powers of love, art, and Christian charity. Kaplan reviews Barrett Browning’s dialogue with the artists and radicals of her time; with Tennyson and Clough, who had also written poems on the “woman question”; with the Christian Socialism of Fourier, Owen, Kingsley, and Maurice; and with such female predecessors as Madame de Stäel and George Sand. But in this exploration of Barrett Browning’s intellectual milieu, Kaplan omits discussion of the male poet whose influence on her work in the 1850s would have been most pervasive: Robert Browning. When we understand how susceptible women writers have always been to the aesthetic standards and values of the male tradition, and to male approval and validation, we can appreciate the complexity of a marriage between artists. Such a union has almost invariably meant internal conflicts, self-effacement, and finally obliteration for the woman, except in the rare cases

- Eliot and Lewes, the Woolf’s - where the husband accepted a managerial rather than a competitive role. We can see in Barrett Browning’ s letters of the 1850s the painful, halting, familiar struggle between her womanly love and ambition for her husband and her conflicting commitment to her own work. There is a sense in which she wants him to be the better artist. At the beginning of the decade she was more famous than he; then she notes with pride a review in France which praises him more; his work on Men and Women goes well; her work on Aurora Leigh goes badly (she had a young child and was recovering from the most serious of her four miscarriages). In 1854 she writes to a woman friend:


I am behind hand with my poem… Robert swears he shall have his book ready in spite of everything for print when we shall be in London for the purpose, but, as for mine, it must wait for the next spring I begin to see clearly. Also it may be better not to bring out the two works together.


And she adds wryly, “If mine were ready I might not say so perhaps.” [14]


Without an understanding of the framework of the female subculture, we can miss or misinterpret the themes and structures of women’s literature, fail to make necessary connections within a tradition. In 1852, in an eloquent passage from her autobiographical essay “Cassandra,” Florence Nightingale identified the pain of feminist awakening as its essence, as the guarantee of progress and free will. Protesting against the protected unconscious lives of middle-class Victorian women, Nightingale demanded the restoration of their suffering:


Give us back our suffering, we cry to Heaven in our hearts -suffering rather than indifferentism-for out of suffering may come the cure. Better to have pain than paralysis: A hundred struggle and drown in the breakers. One discovers a new world. [15]


It is fascinating to see how Nightingale’s metaphors anticipate not only her Own medical career but also the fate of the heroines of women’s novels in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To waken from the drugged, pleasant sleep of Victorian womanhood was agonizing; in fiction it is much more likely to end in drowning than in discovery. It is usually associated with what George Eliot in Middlemarch calls “the chill hours of a morning twilight,” and the sudden appalled confrontation with the contingencies of adulthood. Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Olive Schreiner’s Lyndall, Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier wake to worlds which offer no places for the women they wish to become; and rather than struggling they die. Fe-

male suffering thus becomes a kind of literary commodity which both men

and women consume. Even in these important women’s novels - The Mill

on the Floss, The Story of an African Farm, The House of Mirth - the fulfillment of the plot is a visit to the heroine’s grave by a male mourner.


According to Dame Rebecca West, unhappiness is still the keynote of contemporary fiction by English women. [16] Certainly the literary landscape is strewn with dead female bodies. In Fay Weldon’s Down Among the Women and Female Friends, suicide has come to be a kind of domestic accomplishment, carried out after the shopping and the washing-up. When Weldon’s heroine turns on the gas, “she feels that she has been half-dead for so long that the difference in state will not be very great.” In Muriel Spark’s stunning short novel of 1970, The Driver’s Seat, another half-dead and desperate heroine gathers all her force to hunt down a woman-hating psychopath and persuade him to murder her. Garishly dressed in a purposely bought outfit of clashing purple, green, and white - the colors of the suffragettes (and the colors of the school uniform in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) - Lise goes in search of her killer, lures him to a park, gives him the knife. But in Lise’s careful selection of her death-dress, her patient pursuit of her assassin, Spark has given us the devastated postulates of feminine wisdom: that a woman creates her identity by choosing her clothes, that she creates her history by choosing her man. That, in the 1970s, Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Goodbar is not the sudden product of urban violence but a latent truth fiction exposes. Spark asks whether men or women are in the driver’ s seat and whether the power to choose one’s destroyer is women’s only form of self-assertion. To label the violence or self-destructiveness of these painful novels as neurotic expressions of a personal pathology, as many reviewers have done, is to ignore, Annette Kolodny suggests,


the possibility that the worlds they inhabit may in fact be real, or true, and for them the only worlds available, and further, to deny the possibility that their apparently “odd” or unusual responses may in fact be justifiable or even necessary. [17]


But women’s literature must go beyond these scenarios of compromise, madness, and death. Although the reclamation of suffering is the beginning, its purpose is to discover the new world. Happily, some recent women’s literature, especially in the United States, where novelists and poets have become vigorously involved in the women’s liberation movement, has gone beyond reclaiming suffering to its reinvestment. This newer writing relates the pain of transformation to history. “If I’m lonely,” writes Adrienne Rich in


it must be the loneliness

of waking first, of breathing .

dawn’s first cold breath on the city

of being the one awake

in a house wrapped in sleep [18]


Rich is one of the spokeswomen for a new women’s writing which explores the will to change. In her recent book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich challenges the alienation from and rejection of the mother that daughters have learned under patriarchy. Much women’s literature in the past has dealt with “matrophobia” or the fear of becoming one’s mother.[19] In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, for example, the heroine’s mother is the target for the novel’s most punishing contempt When Esther announces to her therapist that she hates her mother, she is on the road to recovery. Hating one’s mother was the feminist enlightenment of the fifties and sixties; but it is only a metaphor for hating oneself. Female literature of the 1970s goes beyond matrophobia to a courageously sustained quest for the mother, in such books at Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, and Lisa Alther’s recent Kinflicks. As the death of the father has always been an archetypal rite of passage for the Western hero, now the death of the mother as witnessed and transcended by the daughter has become one of the most profound occasions of female literature. In analyzing these purposeful awakenings, these reinvigorated mythologies of female culture, feminist criticism finds its most challenging, inspiriting, and appropriate task.



Women and the Novel: The “Precious Specialty”


The most consistent assumption of feminist reading has been the belief that women’s special experience would assume and determine distinctive forms in art In the nineteenth century, such a contribution was ambivalently valued. When Victorian reviewers like G. H. Lewes, Richard Hutton, and Richard Simpson began to ask what the literature of women might mean and what it might become, they focused on the educational, experiential, and biological handicaps of the woman novelist, and this was also how most women conceptualized their situation. Some reviewers, granting women’s sympathy, sentiment, and powers of observation, thought that the novel would provide an appropriate, even a happy, outlet for female emotion and fantasy. In the United States, the popular novelist Fanny Fern understood that women had been granted access to the novel as a sort of repressive desublimation, a harmless channel for frustrations and drives that might otherwise threaten the family, the church, and the state. Fern recommended that women write as

therapy, as a release from the stifling silence of the drawing room, and as a

rebellion against the indifference and insensitivity of the men closest to them:


Look around, and see innumerable women, to whose barren and loveless lives this would be improvement and solace, and I say to them; write! write! It will be a safe outlet for thoughts and feelings that maybe the nearest friend you have has never dreamed had place in your heart and brain.

… It is not safe for the women of 1867 to shut down so much that cries out for sympathy and expression, because life is such a maelstrom of business or folly or both that those to whom they have bound themselves, body and soul, recognize only the needs of the former. . . . One of these days, when that diary is found, when the hand that penned it shall be dust, with what amazement and remorse will many a husband or father exclaim, I never knew my wife or my child until this moment. [20]


Fern’s scribbling woman spoke with fierce indirectness to the male audience, to the imagined husband or father her purpose was to shock rather than to please, but the need to provoke masculine response was the controlling factor in her writing. At the turn of the century, members of the Women Writers Suffrage League, an important organization of English novelists and journalists, began to explore the psychological bondage of women’s literature and its relationships to a male-dominated publishing industry. Elizabeth Robins, the first president of the league, a novelist and actress who had starred in early English productions of Ibsen, argued in 1908 that no woman writer had ever been free to explore female consciousness:


The realization that she had access to a rich and as yet unrifled storehouse may have crossed her mind, but there were cogent reasons for concealing her knowledge. With that wariness of ages which has come to be instinct, she

contented herself with echoing the old fables, presenting to a man-governed world puppets as nearly as possible like those that had from the beginning found such favour in men’s sight.


Contrary to the popular impression, to say in print what she thinks is the last thing the woman-novelist or journalist is so rash as to attempt. There even more than elsewhere (unless she is reckless) she must wear the aspect that shall

have the best chance of pleasing her brothers. Her publishers are not women.[21]


It was to combat this inhibiting commercial monopoly that nineteenth-century women began to organize their own publishing houses, beginning with Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press in the 1870s, and reaching a peak with the flourishing suffrage presses at the beginning of this century. One of the most fervent beliefs of the Women Writers Suffrage League was that the terra incognita of the female psyche would find unique literary expression once women had overthrown male domination. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argued that economic independence was the essential precondition of an autonomous women’s art. Like George Eliot before her, Woolf also believed that women’ s literature held the promise of a “precious speciality:” a distinctly female vision.



Feminine, Feminist, Female


All of these themes have been important to feminist literary criticism in the

1960s and 1970s, but we have approached them with more historical awareness. Before we can even begin to ask how the literature of women would be different and special, we need to reconstruct its past, to rediscover the scores of women novelists, poets, and dramatists whose work has been obscured by time, and to establish the continuity of the female tradition from decade to decade, rather than from Great Woman to Great Woman. As we re-create the chain of writers in this tradition, the patterns of influence and response from one generation to the next, we can also begin to challenge the periodicity of orthodox literary history and its enshrined canons of achievement. It is because we have studied women writers in isolation that we have never grasped the connections between them. When we go beyond Austen, the Brontës, and Eliot, say, to look at a hundred and fifty or more of their sister novelists, we can see patterns and phases in the evolution of a female tradition which correspond to the developmental phases of any subcultural art. In my book on English women writers, A Literature of Their Own, I have called these the Feminine, Feminist, and Female stages.[22] During the Feminine phase, dating from about 1840 to 1880, women wrote in an effort to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture, and internalized its assumptions about female nature. The distinguishing sign of this period is the male pseudonym, introduced in England in the 1840s, and a national characteristic of English women writers. In addition to the famous names we all know - George Eliot, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell - dozens of other women chose male pseudo-

nyms as a way of coping with a double literary standard. This masculine disguise goes well beyond the title page; it exerts an irregular pressure on the narrative, affecting tone, diction, structure, and characterization. In contrast to the English male pseudonym, which-signals such clear self-awareness of the liabilities of female authorship, American women during the same period adopted superfeminine, little-me pseudonyms (Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Fanny Forester), disguising behind these nominal bouquets their boundless energy, powerful economic motives, and keen professional skills. It is pleasing to discover the occasional Englishwoman who combines both these techniques, and creates the illusion of male authorship with a name that contains the encoded domestic message of femininity-such as Harriet Parr who wrote under the pen name “Holme Lee.” The feminist content of feminine art is typically oblique, displaced, ironic, and subversive; one has to read it between the lines, in the missed possibilities of the text.


In the Feminist phase, from about 1880 to 1920, or the winning of the vote, women are historically enabled to reject the accommodating postures of femininity and to use literature to dramatize the ordeals of wronged womanhood. The personal sense of injustice which feminine novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Frances Trollope expressed in their novels of class struggle and factory life become increasingly and explicitly feminist in the 1880s, when a generation of New Women redefined the woman artist’ s role in terms of responsibility to suffering sisters. The purest examples of this phase are the Amazon utopias of the 1890s, fantasies of perfected female societies set in an England or an America of the future, which were also protests against male government, male laws, and male medicine. One author of Amazon utopias, the American Charlotte Perkins Gilman, also analyzed the preoccupations of masculine literature with sex and war, and the alternative possibilities of an emancipated feminist literature. Gilman’s utopian feminism carried George Eliot’s idea of the “precious speciality” to its matriarchal extremes. Comparing her view of sisterly collectivity to the beehive, she writes that


the bee’ s fiction would be rich and broad, full of the complex tasks of comb-building and filling, the care and feeding of the young… It would treat of the vast fecundity of motherhood, the educative and selective processes of the group-mothers, and the passion of loyalty, of social service, which holds the hives together.[23]


This is Feminist Socialist Realism with a vengeance, but women novelists of the period - even Gilman, in her short stories - could not be limited to such didactic formulas, or such maternal topics.


In the Female phase, ongoing since 1920, women reject both imitation

and protest-two forms of dependency-and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature. Representatives of the formal Female Aesthetic, such as Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, begin to think in terms of male and female sentences, and divide their work into “masculine” journalism and “feminine” fictions, redefining and sexualizing external and internal experience. Their experiments were both enriching and imprisoning retreats into the celebration of consciousness; even in Woolf’s famous definition of life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” [24] there is a submerged metaphor of uterine withdrawal and containment. In this sense, the Room of One’s Own becomes a kind of Amazon utopia, population 1.



Feminist Criticism, Marxism, and Structuralism


In trying to account for these complex permutations of the female tradition, feminist criticism has tried a variety of theoretical approaches. The most natural direction for feminist criticism to take has been the revision and even the subversion of related ideologies, especially Marxist aesthetics and structuralism, altering their vocabularies and methods to include the variable of gender. I believe, however, that this thrifty feminine making-do is ultimately unsatisfactory. Feminist criticism cannot go around forever in men’s ill-fitting hand-me-downs, the Annie Hall of English studies; but must, as John Stuart Mill wrote about women’s literature in 1869, “emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses” [25] - as, I think, gynocritics is beginning to do. This is not to deny the necessity of using the terminology and techniques of our profession. But when we consider the historical conditions in which critical ideologies are produced, we see why feminist adaptations seem to have reached an impasse.


Both Marxism and structuralism see themselves as privileged critical discourse, and preempt the claim to superior places in the hierarchy of critical approaches. A key word in each system is “science”; both claim to be sciences of literature, and repudiate the personal, fallible, interpretative reading. Marxist aesthetics offers a “science of the text,” in which the author becomes not the creator but the producer of a text whose components are historically and economically determined. Structuralism presents linguistically based models of textual permutations and combinations, offering a “science of literary meaning,” a grammar of genre. The assimilation of these positivist and evangelical literary criticisms by Anglo-American scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s is not, I would argue, a spontaneous or accidental cultural phenomenon. In the Cold War atmosphere of the late 1950s, when European structuralism began

to develop, the morale of the Anglo-American male academic humanist was at its nadir. This was the era of Sputnik, of scientific competition with the Soviet Union, of government money flowing to the laboratories and research centers. Northrop Frye has written about the plight of the male intellectual confronting


the dismal sexist symbology surrounding the humanities which he meets everywhere, even in the university itself, from freshman’ classes to the president’ s office. This symbology, or whatever one should call it, says that the sciences, especially the physical sciences, are rugged, aggressive, out in the world doing things, and so symbolically male, whereas the literatures are narcissistic, intuitive, fanciful, staying at home and making the home more beautiful but riot doing anything serious and are therefore symbolically female.[26]


Frye’s own Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957, presented the first Postulates of a systematic critical theory, and the “possibility of literary study’s attaining the progressive, cumulative qualities of science.” [27]


The new sciences of the text based on linguistics, computers, genetic structuralism, deconstructionism, neoformalism and deformalism, affective stylistics, and psychoaesthetics, have offered literary critics the opportunity to demonstrate that the work they do is as manly and aggressive as nuclear physics - not intuitive, expressive, and feminine, but strenuous, rigorous, impersonal, and virile. In a shrinking job market, these new levels of professionalization also function as discriminators between the marketable and the marginal lecturer. Literary science, in its manic generation of difficult terminology, its establishment of seminars and institutes of postgraduate study, creates an elite corps of specialists who spend more and more time mastering the theory, less and less time reading the books. We are moving towards a two-tiered system of “higher” and “lower” criticism, the higher concerned with the “scientific” problems of form and structure, the “lower” concerned with the “humanistic” problems of content and interpretation. And these levels, it seems to me, are now taking on subtle gender identities and assuming a sexual polarity - hermeneutics and hismeneutics. Ironically, the existence of a new criticism practiced by women has made it even more possible for structuralism and Marxism to strive, Henchard-like, for systems of formal obligation and determination. Feminists writing in these modes, such as Hélène Cixous and the women contributors to Diacritics, risk being allotted the symbolic ghettos of the special issue or the back of the book for their essays.


It is not only because the exchange between feminism, Marxism, and structuralism has hitherto been so one-sided, however, that I think attempts

at syntheses have so far been unsuccessful. While scientific criticism struggles to purge itself of the subjective, feminist criticism is willing to assert (in the title of a recent anthology) The Authority of Experience. [28] [nota 28] The experience of women can easily disappear, become mute, invalid, and invisible, lost in the diagrams of the structuralist or the class conflict of the Marxists. Experience is not emotion; we must protest now as in the nineteenth century against the equation of the feminine with the irrational. But we must also recognize that the questions we most need to ask go beyond those that science can answer. We must seek the repressed messages of women in history, in anthropology, in psychology, and in ourselves, before we can locate the feminine not-said, in the manner of Pierre Macherey, by probing the fissures of the female text.


Thus the current theoretical impasse in feminist criticism, I believe, is more than a problem of finding “exacting definitions and a suitable terminology,” or “theorizing in the midst of a struggle.” It comes from our own divided consciousness, the split in each of us. We are both the daughters of the male tradition, of our teachers, our professors, our dissertation advisers, and our publishers-a tradition which asks us to be rational, marginal, and grateful; and sisters in a new women’s movement which engenders another kind of awareness and commitment, which demands that we renounce the pseudo-success of token womanhood and the ironic masks of academic debate. How much easier, how less lonely it is, not to awaken-to continue to be critics and teachers of male literature, anthropologists of male culture, and psychologists of male literary response, claiming all the while to be universal. Yet we cannot will ourselves to go back to sleep. As women scholars in the 1970s we have been given a great opportunity, a great intellectual challenge. The anatomy, the rhetoric, the poetics, the history, await our writing.


I am sure that this divided consciousness is sometimes experienced by men, but I think it unlikely that many male academics would have had the division in themselves as succinctly and publicly labeled as they were for me in 1976 when my official title at the University of Delaware was Visiting Minority Professor. I ‘am deeply aware of the struggle in myself between the professor, who wants to study major works by major writers and to mediate impersonally between these works and the readings of other professors, and the minority, the woman who wants connections between my life and my work and who is committed to a revolution of consciousness that would make my concerns those of the majority. There have been times when the Minority wishes to betray the Professor by isolating herself in a female ghetto; or when the Professor wishes to betray the Minority by denying the troubling voice of difference and dissent. What I hope is that neither will betray the other, because neither can exist by itself. The task of feminist critics is to find a new language, a new way of reading that can integrate our intelligence and our

experience, our reason and our suffering, our skepticism and our vision. This enterprise should not be confined to women. I invite Criticus, Poeticus, and Plutarchus to share it with us. One thing is certain: feminist criticism is not visiting. It is here to stay, and we must make it a permanent home.




I wish to thank Nina Auerbach, Kate Ellis, Mary Jacobus, Wendy Martin, Adrienne Rich, Helen Taylor, Martha Vicinus, Margaret Walters, and Ruth Yeazell for sharing with me their ideas on feminist criticism.


[1] Leon Edel, “The Poetics of Biography,” in Contemporary Approaches to English Studies, ed. Hilda Schiff (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977), p. 38. The other contributors to the symposium are George Steiner, Raymond Williams, Christopher Butler, Jonathan Culler, and Terry Eagleton.

[2] Robert Partlow, Introduction to Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 5 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), pp. xiv-xv. Nina Auerbach’s essay is called “Dickens and Dombey: A Daughter After All.”

[3] Robert Boyers, “A Case Against Feminist Criticism,” Partisan Review 44 (Winter 1977): 602, 610.

[4] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 62.

[5] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), pp. 12-13.

[6] Geoffrey H. Hartman, The Fate of Reading (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 3.

[7] Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Catharine R. Stimpson, “Theories of Feminist Criticism,” in Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory, ed. Josephine Donovan (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), pp. 64, 68, 72.

[8] Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), p. 84. For a more detailed discussion of this problem, see my essay “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge,” in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Hardy, ed. Dale Kramer (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979), pp. 99-115.

[9] Elizabeth Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York: Random House, 1974).

[10] Shirley Ardener, ed., Perceiving Women (New York: Halsted Press, 1975).

[11] Michelle Z. Rosaldo, “Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), p. 39.

[12] Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (Fall 1975): 1-30; Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977); Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

[13] Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” Collected Essays, vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967), p. 141.

[14] Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley, eds., Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973), p. 115.

[15] Florence Nightingale, “Cassandra,” in The Cause: A History of the Women ‘s Movement in Great Britain, ed. Ray Strachey (1928; reprint ed., Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969), p. 398.

[16] Rebecca West, “And They All Lived Unhappily Ever After,” Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 1974, p. 779.

[17] Annette Kolodny, “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’” Critical Inquiry 2 (Fall 1975): 84. For an illuminating discussion of The Driver’s Seat see Auerbach, Communities of Women, p. 181.

[18] Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 20.

[19] The term “matrophobia” was coined by Lynn Sukenick; see Rich, Of Woman Born, pp. 235 ff.

[20] Quoted in Ann Douglas Wood, “The ‘Scribbling Women’ and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote,” American Quarterly 23 (Spring 1971): 3-24.

[21] Elizabeth Robins, Woman’s Secret, WSPU pamphlet in the collection of the Museum of London, p. 6. Jane Marcus is preparing a full-length study of Elizabeth Robins.

[22] Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977).

[23] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-made World: or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911; reprint ed., New York: Johnson Reprints, 1971), pp. 101-2.

[24] Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” Collected Essays, vol. 2, p. 106.

[25] John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (London, 1969), p. 133.

[26] Northrop Frye, “Expanding Eyes,” Critical Inquiry 2 (1975): 201-2.

[27] Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 118.

[28] Lee R. Edwards and Arlyn Diamond, eds., The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).