A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature

By Marina Benjamin | Go to book overview

A Question of Identity

Marina Benjamin

Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could hardly spell, and was the property of her husband.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Some sixty years on, and for all the material changes that have taken place in women's position in society, it is surprisingly easy to sympathize with Virginia Woolf's ultimately futile quest for the essential oil of womanhood, to succumb to the temptation to search for it among dusty books and partial histories and to attempt to extract nuggets of truth about woman from the worlds of literature and psychology. Perhaps after all Woolf was right in thinking that what truth we may glean of woman from her various presences and absences lies somewhere between life and the printed page. Yet it seems to me that the problem is less a matter of where we look and more a matter of how the question is framed. While we might still ask "Who is woman, what is she?"--to paraphrase Shakespeare on the enigmatic Sylvia--we now do so with an awareness that the difficulty of defining what woman is and of thereby characterizing a subjective female identity is a critical problem for contemporary feminism. While the category of woman is central to any feminist discourse, the concept of woman remains notoriously difficult for feminists to formulate precisely, because it is overdetermined by the constructions of patriarchal culture where male power is predicated on defining woman as Other and as Object.

While feminist theorists are eloquent on the difficulties of conceptualizing woman, a rather more evocative approach can be found in the work of American photographer Cindy Sherman, who since the late 1970s has consistently confronted the problem of female identity.

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