The Breakthrough: Feminism and Literary Criticism

By Walzer, Judith B. | Dissent, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Breakthrough: Feminism and Literary Criticism


Walzer, Judith B., Dissent


HOW DO WE know when something starts or when a new phenomenon becomes a major trend? We don't have a "big bang" theory for the "second wave" of the women's movement. The common wisdom has been that it began when women who were active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s took a good, long look at their radical male comrades and began to question their own subservience. "We do everything they do," they thought, "organizing, writing leaflets, marching, demonstrating-and then they think we should do the laundry? What's that about?" They wondered why they weren't running the show. But the roots of the movement go back even earlier. Again, popular opinion tells us that there was a buildup for some time, at least since the time of the second World War, when women had to pitch in and were needed for essential work in the "outside" world.

In much the same way, we assume that the burgeoning interest in women's literature did not burst forth from the "second wave" in its early days. This interest, too, must have been forming slowly. It took time for the ideas of the new movement to stimulate new attitudes and for these in turn to create powerful connections to intellectual life and academic fields. Yet even without the stimulus of a popular movement, scholars and critics must have been thinking about women and literature and puzzling over the odd ways in which women writers were categorized, shunted off the main line, ignoring that among them were some of the most important writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the 1970s a number of books were written to reappraise women authors and the literature they produced. For the most part these books focused on nineteenth-century Britain (to a lesser extent on the United States and France) and they clearly "started something." The work of women writers was taken far more seriously in this criticism than it had been before. Its sources and content were examined with the assumption that they had both literary and cultural value. After these critical works it was no longer possible to claim that women's literary work was tangential to the "tradition" or marginal or derivative. At the same time, and even more important, it became impossible to maintain that you did not have to pay attention to the gender of an author to understand her work, that you could pretend that she had not had characteristic experiences as a writer and as a woman. It became harder and harder to sustain habitually dismissive and narrow responses. In effect, these critical works created a new field. The field asserted itself on the literary scene, and after that, work in this area grew so rapidly and with such vitality and scope that it seems unfair to focus on only a few books written at the start of this period.

But four books seized my attention-then and now-and seem of major importance. They were published from 1975 to 1979: Patricia Spacks's The Female Imagination (1975), Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1976) Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Each of them respected the works and lives of women writers without question, describing the ways in which their circumstances affected their creativity and analyzing what they had accomplished. With differing definitions of their subject and different perspectives, they shared a conviction that much of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century-British, American, and French-could not be fully grasped without a consideration of the position of women and women writers in society, their views of the world, and their literary preferences and practices. Literary study had been missing a good deal of fundamental significance. There was more here than most of us-the common reader and the scholarwere seeing and acknowledging. Not only would this new perspective add to and deepen our views of these writers, but it might substantially change our understanding of the periods in which they wrote and of the structure of literature in general. …

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