Rethinking the Seventies: Women Writers and Violence
Showalter, Elaine, The Antioch Review
"A lot of women get killed," he says. "Yes, I know, they look for it." --Muriel Spark, The Driver's Seat "Fighting back. On a multiplicity of levels, that is the activity we must engage in together if we--women--are to redress the imbalance and rid ourselves and men of the ideology of rape." --Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will "Being violent is what triggers many rapes. The girl I raped began screaming at me. Now she's dead." --William Mosbach, convicted rapist and murderer "Inhibition of sexual pleasure in women is often associated with two complementary themes. The first is a fear of loss of control over the insides of one's body.... The second theme is an anxious and obsessive concern with men as cruel intruders and rapists." --Robert May, Sex and Fantasy (1980) "According to police reports, 4,814 women were murdered in the United States in 1979, an increase of 10% over the previous year. Rapes had gone up by an even higher 13 percentage points, totalling 75,989 reported cases in 1979. --Congressional Record , 8 December 1980
When I wrote about women writers for the Antioch Review in 1972, we seemed to be at the beginning of an exciting new phase, "a female Renaissance, a new Golden Age, an era of eros and anger." Women writers seemed at last to be able to express anger and passion, to confront their own raging emotions instead of burying them or sublimating them into madness. They were ready to risk the abuse of male critics by dealing honestly with the full range of female experience. Reclaiming their own experience, women writers were also reasserting control over it. Moreover, in the liberating aftermath of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and with the support of a young women's movement, women writers were insisting on their access to a complete--if "unladylike"--language of the body. The Angel in the House, that phantom of feminine perfection who haunted Virginia Woolf and her literary descendents, who stood at the shoulder of women writers and urged them to be sympathetic, tender, and pure, seemed to have perished at last: "No more arts and wiles, no more fun and games. Today women writers are involved in a fierce encounter with the physical and sexual and social facts of their lives, and given women's experience the encounter is bound to be bloody."
The encounter has been bloodier than I expected. In retrospect, the seventies seem to have been a feminist Camelot, the one brief shining moment when it seemed as if women had real choices; in the name of autonomy and control we were taking back our bodies, taking back the night. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote in the Antioch Review (Spring 1980), "Women appeared to have a great deal to gain, to have someplace to go. The illusion of possibility runs through this literature like a silver thread." But if, in 1981, the Angel in the House is dead, she has been replaced by another spectre who is more difficult to kill, for he is the killer, the Ripper, Mr. Goodbar, the Midnight Rambler himself. Control, autonomy, possibility are mocked by the avenger's fist, or phallus, or knife. Whereas the woman's novel of the 1950s and 1960s too often ended in the heroine's madness or suicide, it now ends in her rape, assault, or murder. Today's heroines fear dying, not flying.
These violent plots obviously reflect both the social reality of rape and women's intense concern with rape as a sexual problem in American culture. Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) was a pivotal book of the decade, one that made a strong case for the politicization of rape as a feminist issue; and Brownmiller described a violence against women that was confirmed by each day's newspaper, each night's TV news. If women's lives have expanded during the 1970s, we have also become more imprisoned and paralyzed by the fear of male violence. …