Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century

Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century

Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century

Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century


Is feminism dead, as has been claimed by notable members of the media and the academy? Has feminist knowledge, with its proliferation of methodologies and fields, been purchased at the price of power? Are the conflicts among feminists evidence of self-destructive infighting or do they herald the emergence of innovative modes of inquiry? Given a feminism now ensconced within higher education as specialized or fractious scholarship, Susan Gubar's Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century demonstrates that an invigorated concentration on activism and artistry can accentuate not the clinical or disparaging meaning of "critical" but its sense of compelling urgency and irreverent vitality.

As a pioneer of feminist studies -- and the object of some of the more rancorous criticism lodged against early feminist scholars -- Gubar stands in a unique position to comment on current dilemmas. Moving beyond defensiveness produced by generational rivalry, the impasse propagated by smug deployments of identity politics, and the obscurity of poststructuralist theory, she claims that the very controversies that undermine feminism's unity also prove its resilience.

Gubar begins by considering the volatile impact of gender on recent redefinitions of race, sexuality, religion, and class proposed by four important groups in contemporary feminism: African-American performance and visual artists, lesbian creative writers, Jewish-American women, and newly institutionalized female academics. She then addresses major divisions -- including the rifts between various area studies and women's studies, as well as strains between generations -- that both threaten and invigorate feminist inquiry. Gubar's forays into art and activism, politics, and the profession provide a sometimes distressing, sometimes comical, sometimes optimistic view of feminism emerging from a time of contention into a lively period of pluralized perspectives and disciplines.


The last two years of the twentieth century were troubled by journalistic intimations of feminism's mortality and immorality. “IS FEMINISM DEAD?” queried Time Magazine's June 29, 1998, cover on which four severed heads—a grim Susan B. Anthony, an ageing Betty Friedan, a jaunty Gloria Steinem, and a perplexed Ally McBeal—floated eerily in a lineup against the dark background. That this lineage presented the first three women in documentary black-and-white while the TV character Ally McBeal emerged in sitcom living color illustrates Gina Bellafante's point in the accompanying article that “much of feminism has devolved into the silly” (58). Although female workers still earn less than their male counterparts, although the glass ceiling remains impenetrable, although the problems of inadequate day care, domestic violence, and increases in the incidence of anorexia have not been solved, “frazzled, self-absorbed girls” dominate a movement “divorced from matters of public purpose” and therefore moribund (58, 60).

Whereas Time castigated a feminism commodified through self-indulgent, self-promoting icons and pundits in popular culture, Lingua Franca brought these same charges against the most visible spokesperson for feminism within the academy, the then president of the Modern Language Association. Its September cover, asking “WHO's AFRAID of Elaine . . .

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