Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review

By Williams, Lisa | Transformations, September 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review


Williams, Lisa, Transformations


Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review

In this groundbreaking and stunning intertextual study, Tuzyline Jita Allan brings together the discourses of feminism and womanism in order to analyze texts by African, African-American; and British female writers. In chapters on Virginia Woolf, Margaret Drabble, Alice Walker, and Buchi Emecheta, Allan highlights the differences that separate these writers as she simultaneously uncovers the common concerns that bind these women together. This type of reading shows that when difference is not ignored but acknowledged, it then becomes possible to create dialogue and unity among diverse groups of people. I want to stress that Allan's book is not only for literary and feminist scholars and students. It is vital reading for anyone interested in creating an inclusive curriculum that addresses the complex issues that are faced by women throughout the world.

Tuzyline Jita Allan begins her study by concisely tracing the history of the feminist movement, which began in the 1970's and grew out of the Civil Rights movement. The prevailing feminist discourse at that time emphasized the universal experience of all women. As Allan argues, "Educated middle-class white women devised theories about middleclass white women and gave them a universal stamp, thereby erasing or invalidating the experiences of the majority of women, who were excluded from one or both of these categories" (2). Moreover, many critical appraisals of Anglo-American writers simply left black female writers out of their studies. At the same time, black female writers were also undervalued by the dominant black male literary establishment.

Into this contentious arena, Alice Walker introduced her womanist ethos celebrating the audacious and courageous actions of the black feminist or feminist of color. While the womanist loves and appreciates women's culture, she is, in Walker's words, "committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female" (6). Womanism specifically critiques the way Anglo-American feminists have privileged gender over race and class concerns.

By reading Virginia Woolf and Margaret Drabble through a womanist lens, it becomes possible to uncover the ambivalence and nuances of ambiguity and paradox that define their work. Allan shows how in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, considered by many critics to be the foremother of feminist criticism, vacillated "between disapproval of and support for, the ruling class" (26). The losses Woolf endured -- the early deaths of her mother, half-sister, brother and father -- along with the sexual abuse she suffered from her half-brothers and her exclusion from formal education led her to empathize with the outsiders of society. On the other hand, Woolf was constrained by the very upper-class British culture she sought to criticize.

In Mrs. Dalloway, the novel Woolf wrote to expose the hypocrisy of the social system, Allan contends that Woolf launches a scathing attack on British patriarchy and imperialism. This takes place, for instance, through her shell-shocked character, Septimus Warren Smith, a young man who returns home from World War I completely shattered. At the same time, within this vehemently anti-war novel, Woolf represents India as the symbol of backwardness and failure. In addition, the death of the working-class Septimus at the end of the novel and the triumph of Clarissa, the upperclass hostess, is equally problematic. As Allan argues, "The condemnation of England's patriarchal imperialism in Mrs. Dalloway, however, is made to compete with a negative view of non-Western cultures on the one hand and a sense of English cultural superiority on the other" (26). By focusing on Woolf's ambivalence, Allan allows for a more honest investigation into the contradictions inherent in western feminism. It also becomes easier for the reader to understand the very social and political factors that lead to the construction of the middle and upper-middle class white woman. …

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