Australian Feminist Literary History: Around 1981

Article excerpt

Around 1981 is the name of Jane Gallop's "institutional history" of academic feminist literary theory in the United States.(1) In this article I want to raise some questions about the difference it has made to be doing feminist literary studies in Australia, in a different institutional setting and in a cultural climate that changed significantly "around 1988." Since there has not been much reflection on this subject to date, my preliminary moves in that direction are offered not so much in Gallop's spirit of demystification - she deals with an already-available standard story in U.S. feminist anthologies and in studies like Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics (1985) and Janet Todd's Feminist Literary History (1988) - but to sketch a story which may then be open for debate.

As for my procedure: there are too few Australian anthologies of feminist criticism for me to follow Gallop's "symptomatic reading" method, so instead I have assembled a patchwork of articles, conference papers and journals as well as books, and have sorted them into both a chronology and a series of themes. I offer this sketch in something like the mode that Gallop has developed for tracing her own "progress as a subject writing that history" - in her case, as a "psychoanalytic, |French' feminist" who moved into teaching feminist literary studies (1-2); in my own case, a feminist literary critic who moved out of English Studies into an interdisciplinary women's studies appointment, and whose scholarly work mostly belongs in the realm of cultural history.

Around 1981, Jane Gallop argues, feminist literary studies were being institutionalised in the United States academy-that is, accepted as a legitimate part of literary studies. However, she points out, feminist debate did not address this issue until the late 80s. At that time, as illustrated in two key anthologies (Writing and Sexual Difference(2) and The New Feminist Criticism(3)), it was centrally concerned not with institutionalisation but with the usefulness or danger of "French feminism," that is, psychoanalytic, deconstructive theory (3). So it is within the context of institutionalisation that she traces the course of the debate about what came to be known as "French Feminism," as well as "the argument about whether feminist criticism should be defined as the study of women writers" (6). She argues that these two debates were resolved in tandem, in the sense that "both contributed enormously to the acceptance of feminist criticism by the literary academy:

The first [the study of women writers] helped define feminist criticism as a subfield, thus giving it a place within the literary academy without necessarily calling the whole into question . . . . The second [|French feminism'] rode in on the coattails of the quick rise of deconstruction in American English Studies ... [A]s separate and distinct strategies for feminist inclusion, they worked, if unwittingly, together. By the mid-eighties work on women writers based in poststructuralist theory is very widespread and constitutes the centre of academic feminist criticism. (6)

Feminist literary criticism in Australia has a somewhat different trajectory. This kind of institutionalisation does exist to some extent, but not consistently, and the reasons for it vary. Among the departments that are actively dealing with what's often called "the crisis in English studies" are those which have a strong presence of feminist scholars (this may number only one or two, of course!); and this is no accident - my impression is that, like the development of modernist art in Australia in the 1930s, the development of literary poststructuralism here owes much to feminist critics. On the other hand those English departments which have tended to resist "theory" often have a strong commitment to Australian literature, whose (predominantly female) postgraduates sometimes find their way, via an interest in women writers, into some form of feminist criticism(4) - I'll say more about this phenomenon later on. …