Notes on Feminist Literary Criticism in the University Workshop, 1974

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) rom§Werkshop 10 : Feminist Literary Criticism in the University (Stantonlfiillérfltu



Tdr§‘§ue Sachs for Feminist Studig§_





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,A_ $%§d.Thei§Bi1ewing reflarks were presehted ab a preface to our workshop ’


_‘ ., V fi. . ; d ‘they were designed to.provide a point of departure,


a springboahd:L


for discussion.


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-?§art II. As the workshop ended, and on the moment, we were unable to


3_fien%u1ate succinctly what one particigant (Madelyn Gutwirth) called the!s “wide and ifipassiofied discourse." In retrospect, however, certain . §.;tV ';;:pbe1tions did become clear, and I have tried to reconstruct them heme.

. This is hot a stenographic transcrfiption; rather. a translation in my dwn terms of the issues as I perceive them



;x,(The above comment will follow Domna's paper and precede Nancy Miller's.)



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For the participants in our workshop, the conflict implicit in the A) juxtaposition fieminismluniversity presented itself more as a source of creativity than compromise, a challenge to be met head on. The real and only question became not whether it could be done, but Qgg. And more to the point, what did we all mean by feminist literary~criticism?‘

The workshop process was a collective attempt at providing a definition.

-—Since literary criticism is a battleground in itself, with every positionlf

’generating a polar opposite-«art/science, theory/practice, text/context--,..

I am proceeding from the deliberately open~ended premise that we are

talking about the analysis of texts, and that each of those terms is

isusceptible to the particular investment of the practitioner.

-—Since the parameters of the feminist movement are no less embattled, the

most cautious position will again be an avoidance of definition, except for

.the obvious identification of the root (woman) and the suffix ~ist, indicating

the practice in/of a particular iield of knowledge, and the advocacy of a particular theory. In this way, the.adjective "feminist" simply designates

subject matter, and an ideological interpretation of that subject matter.“

In combination, that adds up to a very modest proposal: feminist M literary criticism isvthe practice of textual analysis by a scholar (potentially of either sex) committed to the examination, reevaluation, and revalorization of what is related to women in literature. Unfortunately, nothing in that

. . . . . . 1 definition precludes a classic (sexist) approach. After all, one could


conceivably study women writers, images of women, the female poetic, and

be a rampant chauvinist (again of either sex) : one has only to look at the 4 _ y

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a heritage of literary history. Vi,»



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Feminist criticism, then, must involve another element, and one hsfffyg

5;. that is generally assigned a negative value in scholarship : bias. This l lbiTl


means the peculiar vision acguired (for if one is born female, one is not 7*’

V born feminist) by a new perspective--an optic which recognizes the

"neutrality" of male discourse as subjectivity, and subéfitutes an-Other subjectivity, an ideology of differencc(s). (Ideally, this bias would acknowledge its focus, and therefore reflect a dialectical model : ‘ subjectiyity-objectivity.)

By a re-vision of what is female in literature, we will have

_ proceeded to step one: seeing what is and has always been there. The

advantage of exploring this untapped mine--to use a metaphor dear to male pornographers--and asserting one's own subjectivity, means not only I

making a contribution to scholarship (that well-worn motivation), but

‘personal and ultimately ggllggtigg self~confidence. As Elizabeth Hardwick»;f

has said: “The proper study of mankind may be man, but the subject for women:

9 .


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is other wcmen...It is a subject upon which one can speak with something like authority. I am, I say to myself, a woman after all." 2 The sense of assurance she describes derives from attacking material upon which we are, by accident of birth, potentially "natural" authorities. (The world can be our oyster too.) I i

That feeling of authority amounts to an emotional and intellectualh’ conviction which is crucial if we are to go beyond stage one, solipsism, to activism. By activism I mean an intellectual advocacy that can not

only challenge and decenter male-bound scholarship, but erect an independent

infrastructure. The passage from stage one to stage two is the critical

one in any movement, for it involves the transition from theory to pr%gti§§§ , , . n can can '-

' 2

and the interpenetration of the two: practice must also inform theory. T‘ i


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Necessarily, this transition will take many forms: for some

:it will involve the discovery and publication of new literary source ls“;ififi


material--literary archaeology; for others, an interdisciplinary \


approach that would bring the tools of history, -sociology, anthropology,}ffi pi i ‘” -Flu and psycholanalysis to literary analysis-~with the result, perhaps, of the M

X 9 creation of a discipline called Feminist Studies (like America; or Orientals V Studies) of which literature would then be only a part;‘ for those l

comitted to the concept or the text as inviolable domain, it will mean,

1‘ hat the very least, equal rights (and time)rfor a feminist e in , a E thematic reversal of the Eternal Feminine--a kind of Qgghlg vision. Clearly, feminist criticism assumes a widening of areas of , ;;; 'tinvestigation, and a redefinition of context to include concerns rarely .5th} . taken into account in official literary criticism. For example,.the extra—textua1 (cultural) meanings assigned to masculine and feminine 3‘, as they affect the definition of character, verisimilitude, and style in the novelu-those polarized données that control the value system of fix

'our fiction and our lives. Perhaps,most impitant, however, is the new h,,;.<

-‘.9.’ 9

emphasis on the reaction of the reader as woman, rather than as a supposedly

I androgynous intellect, and the validation of the personal dynamic in the


’practice of literary analysis. The hope is that feminist critics will , speak in their own voices (which is not-to say_in "feminine" sentences)

_-~and_be heard.

4_ '~

That tentative note corresponds less to a lack of conviction, than-

to a lack of history. How does one predict the future on a past that dates.

” "l say, to the publication of Sexual Politgggl I am not suggesting that

- 1, , t :§J§.. feminist scholars have not been, and are not currently writing and pgh?ieh$Hg., o . .. ‘ ; «3t.d’7ffl,


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Printed history, however, suffers from a time-lag, aggravated now by thefik

financial crisis in the publishing world. The signs of the future (and"

this is an inprcssion that grew out of the workshop) are to be found in

7 ,, :..§*=_.sf ' the classroom. The creation of Women's Studies concentrations/majors/

departwents,.pensenally.designed courses liberated from the canon of

. ... V. -...s..

tradition/are providiqg_inmediate implementation of feminist approaches

within the university. No single methodology has emerged; rather, a


proliferation of options.

Problems remain, however. As one participant (Elizabeth StarEevié() aptly put it, we are “searching for the new while still using the tools of the old."


Claude Lévi-Strauss's term bricolave has been used to describe the

The old, of course, can still serve. .._..._—_._...._..—3._

activity of the literary critic: a bricoleur putters around, doing what

he can with whatever tools are at his disposal. Since only divine

creation occurs Q; nihilo, and the writer's text is always the recreation

of a pre-existent text, we must begin by using the tools fie have to

build a meta-text of our own.


1.This was the missing element in the E3 definition cited by Denna Startun


above; without a counter-bias, feminist critics are no‘ more than literary

detectives, unearthing clues to textual/sexual discrimination.

2.From her essay, "On Reading the Writings of Women," Colymbia Foggy‘, I

Fall 1959, cited in the N.Y. Times Book Review , May 5, l9?#, p.4.

3. I would like to thank the following feminists and scholars who shared their impressions with us, in person and in writing, and who

gave me a text to build from: Silvana Buccianti, Marie Collins, Helene HedyA~

 Ehrlich, Jane Grace, Madelyn Gutwirth, Ellen Silber, Bonnie Scott,

it Ann Snitow, Elizabeth Stareevic, Gloria Waldman, Joan Wiemer.