Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Introduction: Recovering from Recovery

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Introduction: Recovering from Recovery

Article excerpt

In 2010, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Women's Caucus celebrates its 35th birthday. For thirty-five years, the ASECS Women's Caucus has promoted the study of women, gender, and sexuality by sponsoring panels, opening discussions, and giving out prizes for excellent work in the area. The annual luncheon at ASECS has been a place to do business, but also to connect, catch up, and meet new people engaged in the overlapping projects of feminist studies, gender studies, and the study of women's contribution to eighteenthcentury life and cultures. To celebrate this anniversary, the current issue of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation is devoted to "The Future of Feminist Theory in Eighteenth-Century Studies," a topic that contributors have taken in a variety of directions. The first part of the issue offers shorter, polemical statements about possible directions for the future. Several of the writers respond specifically to the challenge in this issue's call for papers to consider the possibility that feminist theory has a limited future because so many of the barriers have been broken and so much of the work has been done. Joan DeJean assesses the state of feminist work in French studies; Judith P. Zinsser explores feminist issues particular to biography; Melissa Mowry and Alison Conway in different ways think about where theory and historical research need to go in the future; and Ellen Pollak demonstrates the enduring ties between eighteenthcentury studies and feminist analysis. The second part of this issue points toward possible new directions through scholarly examples. Toni Bowers shows the truly impressive depth of engagement that feminist studies has brought to the novel, and Jennifer Thorn and JoEllen DeLucia explore, through their own practice, emerging interdisciplinary feminist possibilities that reveal the interconnectedness of gender, race, and history.

By way of introduction, I want to consider briefly here the future of women writers in eighteenth-century studies. The inclusion of women writers (or women artists, philosophers, political agents, or historical actors) into eighteenth-century studies was the foundational issue for feminist studies in our field, and the fact that so few of the essays here focus primarily on this topic suggests how far we have come, although, as DeJean points out, this progress has been uneven across the various disciplines represented at ASECS. In the study of British literature and culture, however, women writers have gone from marginal to indispensable: a Norton or a Longman anthology without sufficient entries by women writers at this point would be more puzzling than offensive, as if the publisher had left out the page numbers. Feminist theory has long addressed a wide range of issues, and its early engagement by eighteenth-century scholars reflects this variety. Certainly, some of the earliest forays into feminist thought in eighteenth-century studies included the critique of male-authored texts as well as the effort to recover women. Yet, arguably, it was the search for women writers, in part with the hope that those women would provide counter-representations to dominant narratives, that turned gender studies into a field and made possible the kind of support and solidarity that one finds in the Women's Caucus, in spite of the highly varied interests of its members. The "recovery project" consolidated feminist thought and practice, gave shape to a certain kind of specialization, and established an enduring foundation for future work. Further, of all the achievements of eighteenth-century feminist theory, the recovery project has probably had the most impact on scholarly and critical practice in the mainstream of eighteenth-century literary studies, with influence on and analogies to other forms of recovery in other disciplines in eighteenthcentury studies as a whole.

But while recovery has been, and continues to be, indispensable, it has nevertheless framed women writers in ways that sometimes limit our full understanding of their intellectual, historical, and artistic force. …

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