Scholarship and Feminism: Conflict, Compromise, Creativity, 1974

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hm saws SCHOLAQSYIP ASH Ffiklflfih: CGEFLICTL CCLPi0iI§E, CHEATIVITY Workshop Topic: Feminist Literary Criticism in the University I want to begin by defining my position on the subject of these

afternoon workshops: scholarship and feminism, conf1ict,_compromise, creativity. Hie title itself presupposes x V an antithesis between scholar- ship and feminism. when they are combined, either these two elements suggest a stalemate (the idea of conflict), or one of the elements, namely feminism, is seen as negatively detracting from scholarship (the idea of compromise). or adding to it positively (the idea of creativity). Scholarship appears in this paradigm as the ultimate frame of reference. This should come as no surprise; we have all been trained in male-dominated universities to become malaacademic paragons —- scholars. It is hard, however, to think of other -isms which would present the same kind of apparent antithesis. Scholarship and marxism, for example, is a perfectly acceptable notion; no thought of conflict or compromise enters into that formulation. I don't think that the acceptability of the phrase "scholarship and_mauxism" can simply be explained away by the argument that marxist scholarship has been legitimized through time. Rather, what i think underlies the antithesis scholarship/feminism is

the antithesis.male/female. The assumption seems to be —- and it may be ours

as much as that of the male academic worlds in which we function -- that


a feminist brings to scholarship temininc traits -~ a lack of logic, lack of rigor, lack of thoroughness, lack of precision; at best, that her work is

vague and emotional. Of course, we could dismiss the stgandards underlying this characterization of the female mind as nothing more than male. The problem is, however, that we have been trained to emulate and to aspire to those standards of excellence and that we have, to a very large degree, internalized them. I

believe, therefore, that feminists must regard logic, rigor, thoroughness,

precision and the like as human rather than male standards. And I believeitnk

it is essential for us to apply these standards to our scholarship. In my view,

‘there will be no conflict and no compromise if our scholarship does not

involve a conflict of methodology and a compromise nith our own standards

of excellence. ibreover, if feminist scholarship is to reach an audience

wider than other feminists,and I believe that it must, if we are to make an impact on the academic world and the intellectual life of this country,

then I think we must combat the cliches of the feminine mind hi our methodology. We must claim as ours the standards of rigor to which only males thought

they had access. It is in this perspective alone that I can see feminist schblarship as being truly and significantly creative. For feminist literary

criticism can add a new and meaningful dimension to the human insight of literature

and thus to the human reality it depicts.


As I have read feminist journals, I have sometimes been very troubled by my contradictory reactions. I find myself sympathizing emotionally and Aidentifying with the interpretations and findings of a given article. But I know intellectually that these have been arrived at through a methodology which strikes me occasionally as regressive, sometimes insufficient and sometimes even distortional of the text. It appears::;r to me that that feminist critic may be operating ed? of a perfectly justifiable sense of rage. I even think,


ifll tate a historic perspective, that this is still an initial phase of the movement, that it is good to "let it all hang out," and_that I should simply suspend my critical judgment. I realize that we are all groping around, that we have no model to follow and that nndels are eventually bound to emerge. And yet, I also believe the time has come to be critical, particularly because solid critical work is beginning to appear, i.e. Ellen Moers articles on the gothic novel in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick's I . Literature ~

S9dUCti°n and V9tTaVa1=V0m9n in to mention but two. And the danger of not being critical is the perpetuation of this schizophrenic reaction I described to the point where it seems necessary. The schizophrenia, the dichotomy, in my view,

constitutes a drain on the feminist's energies, feeds a trap which we have

built for ourselves. We must, I think, forge a type of feminist criticism of

which we can be proud and which will create, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf,


" a room of our own" 5- a tradition with which future generations of female scholars can identify and upon which they-will improve. If I may extend this metaphore, I believe that this“roonfshould be neither the attic nor the basement nor a back room in which we hide and converse in secret with our sisters, but a living room which is located in the mainstream of critical thought.

All of use here probably have our own definition of feminist literary

criticism and I hope that this af§ernoon we can exchange and sharpen our views

.on that definition. iy own coincides at least in part with the definition

formulated by the editors of Female Studies VI (l972):"Feministic criticism,

‘then, is concerned to examine the representation of women in literature, the

mo*tYes and behaviors assigned to them, their function in the plot, the images

and symbols associated with them, and the descriptive and judgmental biases

of the narrgive point of view." This critical approach can yield enormous insights into male literature. But feminist criticism should also deal in the same

critical way with the vast tradition of female literature which is slowly

being discovered. There is a tendency within us, I think, to be critical of

male literature and uncritical of female works; to chastize the former and

celebrate the latter. But it is only by being critical, I feel, that we can see the way women have looked at themselves in the past and that we can exorcise

those assumptions we wish to reject. And it is furthermore only by being

-5- critical that we can make female writers conscious of the strengths and

weaknesses of their literary tradition. Through this critical perspective we

lcan also integrate the female literary tradition into the humanist tradition.

There is much talk today in critical circles about the definition of a uniquely female sensibilitygxasxauuaasnxtaxthaxsakaxxuzxkhsxfixmxku phrase, or cadence as opposed to the male. by own view is that such questions are meaning- less until women have a real chance to share fully in the educational, artistic, political)and moral exueriences of our society. For it is these experiences which determine the vision of the self and the world, and thus the literary text.

These, then, are a few thoughts on the areas of research for feminist criticism. There are, of course, many more which I hope we can explore in the next two hours. I feel, however, that as a general principle we should guard against intellectual sloppiness and lack of discipline in the name of feminist

fervor. Simone de Beauvoir warned against this in 1949 when she wrote of the

artist female xxitaxx at the end of the Second Sex:

The very circumstances that turn woman to creative work are also obstacles she will very often be incapable of surmounting. When she decides to paint or write merely to fill her empty days, painting and essays will be treated as fancywork; she will devote no more time or care to them, and they will have about the same value. ... Even if she begins fairly early, she seldom envisages art as serious work; accustomed to idleness, having never felt

in her rode of life the austere necessity of diSCi)1lnQ, she will not be capable ofsustained and persistent ctfort, she will never succeed in gaining a solid technique. She is repelled by the thankless, solitary gropings of work that never sees the light of day, that must be destroyed

and done over a hundred times; and as from infancy she has been taught trickery Qwhcn learning to please, she hopes to "get by" t roughu the use 0 3 fa“ 5tT0ta80mS- raric Bashkirtsev admits precisely that: "Yes, I never

take the trouble to paint. I watched myself today, I gheat? woman is ready enoughb to plar at working, but she does not work; believing in the magic virtues of passivity, she confuses incantations and acts, symbolic gestures and effective bohavior.... Seated at her desk, turning over vague stories in her mind, woman enjoys the easy pretense that she is a writer; but she must come to the actual putting of black marks on white paper, she must give then a meaning in the eyes of others. Then the cheating is exposed. In order to please, it is enoughfi to create mirages; but a work of art is not a mirage, it is a solid object; in order to fashion it, on must know mone's business (II, 663~64).

Simone de Beauvoir goes on to advoaate that women writers, and I think it

can and should be applied to feminist critics, must have a goal over and beyond self expldgiation, or what she calls lucidity. I agree with her that self knowledge and the resolution of the dilemnas we face as women will come to us throught

our work. Our work will reveal to us our potential, and our potency, and thus

our identity. Only by forgetting the self in the larger task of the work,

Beauvoir concludes, will women eventually be able to question the human condition, which has been nothing more than the male condition. Only through our hard, disciplined and rigorous work will we force into the consciousness of the other

the recognition that it is also ggg human condition which we are ex§Eential1y

committed to change.

Domna C. Stanton