Feminist Literary Theory and Women's Literary History: Contradictory Projects?

By McKernan, Susan | Hecate, May 31, 1991 | Go to article overview

Feminist Literary Theory and Women's Literary History: Contradictory Projects?


McKernan, Susan, Hecate


The study of writing by Australian women has become a major activity for Australian literary critics over the past ten years and a great deal has been achieved in the way of finding, reprinting, reading and discussing the work of women writers whose work had been overlooked or forgotten. The Australian women's writing project has gained such momentum that it may be time to ask ourselves about the nature of the feminist goals behind it. In this paper I want to consider some of the issues which feminism raises for literary critics interested in Australian women's writing. In particular, I want to address the inherent contradiction I see between some feminist literary theory and the project of writing women's literary history.

The feminist theory which seems to offer the most far-reaching potential for the analysis of literature is that advanced partly by Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray and partly by Julia Kristeva, and put into practice by many transatlantic critics such as Mary Jacobus, Toril Moi and Catherine Belsey. To summarise for the purposes of this paper, these writers locate feminism as a critique of the liberal humanist thinking which dominates Western European attitudes; reading Lacan, they identify a phallologocentric symbolic order and find feminism in challenges to this order. Cixous' well-known list of dichotomies between the dominant and the suppressed in Western culture - activity/passivity, sun/moon, culture/nature, day/night, father/mother, head/heart, man/woman - may be seen as a starting point for this perspective on feminism, because it identifies feminism with the qualities suppressed in our binary way of thinking (Cixous 1989, 101-116). This theory moves feminism beyond an exclusive concern for injustice to women to an ongoing, ever-shifting critical stance which concerns itself with all aspects of mainstream thinking. When applied to literature, these theories (and I'm conflating and simplifying) offer some inspiring challenges to the feminist writer: they suggest that experimental writing, in particular the attempt to reach towards experiences prior to language and to "write the body," is the most feminist of literary tasks. This pushing at the edges of language, this struggle to capture that which has been denied by the symbolic order, amounts to a political challenge to the systems of representation which force us into particular ways of understanding our world.

The difficulty arises when the Australian literary historian turns to the material at hand - the body of work known as Australian literature, in particular writing by Australian women before 1970. Very little writing by Australian men and women during this period can be called experimental. The history of Australian literature is marked by a resistance to the major experimental practice of the twentieth century - modernism - and by an adherence to fairly conventional forms of realism in the novel and drama, and to tradition in poetry. Furthermore, the resurgence of modernist experiment in the sixties and the enthusiasm for postmodernism in the eighties have been most evident among men writers, several of whom have managed to retain mainstream attitudes in their experimental work. If we seek out Australian women writers publishing before 1970 - perhaps offering a list of novelists including Spence, Cambridge, Praed, Martin, Franklin, Richardson, Prichard, Stead, Barnard Eldershaw, Langley, Dark, Cusack, Tennant, Hewett, Astley - we would find ourselves elucidating a tradition based on the conventions of the nineteenth century realist novel. The few women poets to receive much recognition before 1970 - such as Mary Gilmore, Ada Cambridge, Lesbia Harford and Judith Wright - are remarkably careful to adhere to technical formality. Indeed the clear, rational qualities of their writing may have diminished their status during periods when romantic or lyrical qualities have been prized in poetry. In short, writing by Australian women until the lest twenty years has offered little which conforms to international notions of "écriture féminine.

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