Literature by women was being written in Britain as far back as the Middle Ages. Most of this literature was in the form of diaries, autobiographies, letters, protests, stories, and poems. When women wrote, they touched upon experiences rarely touched upon by men, and they spoke in different ways about these experiences. They wrote about childbirth, about housework, about relationships with men, about friendships with other women. They wrote about themselves as girls and as mature women, as wives, mothers, widows, lovers, workers, thinkers, and rebels. They also wrote about themselves as writers and about the discrimination against them and the pain and courage with which they faced it.
However, most women writing before 1800 did not see their writing as an aspect of their female experience or an expression of it. Writing was not an acceptable profession for women. There were women who were interested in women’s writings, and women writers often knew and praised each other’s works. But all these women were dependent upon men because it was men who were the critics, the publishers, the professors, and the sources of financial support. It was men who had the power to praise women’s works, to bring them to public attention, or to ridicule them, to doom them, too often, to obscurity.
From about 1750 English women began to make inroads into the literary marketplace, but writing did not become a recognizable profession for women until the 1840’s.
In 1869, John Stuart Mill argued that women would have a hard struggle to overcome the influence of the male literary tradition. “If women’s literature is destined to have a different collective character from that of men, much longer time is necessary than has yet elapsed before it can emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses.”
In the light of much recent research it would seem that women have in fact been able to define and to develop a literary tradition, not only on the basis of traditional forms and themes, but also on the basis of what gave shape to their lives.
In her critical work,
A Literature of Their Own
, from which most of this lecture material has been drawn, Elaine Showalter contends that the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society. The development of the “female literary tradition” is similar to the development of any literary subculture. And, like all literary subcultures there are three major phases: 1) imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles; 2) protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values; 3) self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity. Showalter’s terminology for these phases in the female literary subculture is: 1) Feminine phase—the period from the appearance of the male pseudonym in the 1840’s to the death of George Eliot in 1880; 2) Feminist phase—1880 to 1920, or the winning of the vote; 3) Female phase—1920 to the present, but entering a new stage of self-awareness about 1960.
Nancy Cott, an historian, discusses the female subculture in the introduction to her work,
Root of Bitterness
. She points out that “we can view women’s group consciousness as a subculture uniquely divided against itself by ties to the dominant culture. While the ties to the dominant culture are the informing and restricting ones, they provoke within the subculture certain strengths as well as weaknesses, enduring values as well as accommodations.”
The proper role for middle-class women in the Victorian period—1837-1901—in both England and America, was that of the “Perfect Lady.” She was to be contentedly submissive to men but strong in inner purity—”An Angel in the House.” It was proper for women to serve outside the home as nurses, social reformers, governesses, as long as these roles were extensions of the feminine role as teacher, helper, and mother of mankind. For women in England, the female subculture was first defined by a shared and increasingly secretive and ritualized physical experience. Puberty, menstruation, sexual initiation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause—the entire female sexual life cycle constituted a habit of living that had to be concealed.* The female experience could not be openly discussed or acknowledged, but women writers were culturally united by their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. From the beginning, women novelists’ awareness of each other and of their female audience showed a kind of covert solidarity that sometimes amounted to a genteel conspiracy. Few English women writers openly advocated the use of fiction as revenge against a patriarchal society, but many confessed to sentiments of “maternal feeling, sisterly affection, esprit de corps” for their readers. The clergyman’s daughter, going to buy her three-decker novel by another clergyman’s daughter, participated in a cultural exchange that had a special personal significance.
The role of professional writer was an uneasy one for women writing in the early nineteenth century. These women novelists exploited a stereotype of helpless femininity to win chivalrous protection from male reviewers and to minimize their unwomanly self-assertion. Many novels which appeared around 1840 were published anonymously or with male pseudonyms. The use of the male pseudonym is a strong marker of an historical shift, for it is a sign that women understood the necessity of role-playing if they desired to participate in the mainstream of literary culture. These women saw the will to write as a vocation in direct conflict with their status as women. Victorian women thus found themselves in a double bind. They felt humiliated by the condescension of male critics and spoke intensely of their desire to avoid special treatment and to achieve genuine excellence, but they were deeply anxious about the possibility of appearing unwomanly. Rather than confronting the values of their society, these women novelists were competing for its rewards. For women, as for other subcultures, literature became a symbol of achievement.
In the face of this dilemma, women novelists developed several strategies. Among their personal reactions was a persistent self-deprecation of themselves as women. The novelists tried to atone for their willfulness in choosing to write by working in the home, by preaching submission and self-sacrifice, and by denouncing female self-assertiveness. Victorian women were not accustomed to choosing a vocation; womanhood was a vocation in itself. For women, work meant laboring for others. Work, as a kind of self-development, conflicted with the subordination and repression inherent in the feminine ideal defined by a patriarchal society. The self-centeredness implicit in the act of writing made a writing career an especially threatening one. It required an engagement with feeling and a cultivation of the ego rather than its negation. Many women writers found it necessary to justify their work by recourse to some external stimulus or ideology. In their novels, the heroine’s aspirations for a full, independent life are undermined, punished, or replaced by marriage. (
Jane Eyre: The Awakening
The training that Victorian girls received to repress, conceal, and to censor themselves was deeply inhibiting, especially for those who wanted to write. The verbal range permitted to English gentlewomen amounted almost to a special language. The verbal inhibitions that were part of the upbringing of a lady were reinforced by the critics’ vigilance. “Coarseness” was the term Victorian readers used to rebuke unconventional language in women’s literature. It could refer to the “damns” in
Eyre or more generally to the moral tone of a work. Reduced to a pastoral flatness, deprived of a language in which to describe their bodies, denied the expression of pain as well as the expression of pleasure, women writers seemed unable to depict passion.
The results of a restrictive education and intensive conditioning were taken as innate evidence of natural preference. When G. H. Lewes complained in 1852 that the literature of women was “too much a literature of imitation” and demanded that women should express “what they have really known, felt and suffered,” he was asking for something that Victorian society had made impossible. Feminine novelists had been deprived of the language and the consciousness for such an enterprise. Their deprivation extended beyond Victoria’s reign and into the twentieth century. But the repression in which the feminine novel was situated also forced women to find innovative and covert ways to dramatize the inner life, and led to a fiction that was intense, compact, symbolic, and profound. There is Charlotte Bronte’s extraordinary subversion of the Gothic in
, in which the mad wife locked in the attic symbolizes the passionate and sexual side of Jane’s personality, an alter ego that her upbringing, her religion, and her society have commanded her to incarcerate. There is the crippled artist heroine in
, by Dinah Craik, whose deformity represents her very womanhood. There are the murderous little wives of Mary Braddon’s sensation novels, golden-haired killers whose actions are a sardonic commentary on the real feelings of the “Angel in the House.”
Many of the fantasies of feminine novels are related to money, mobility, and power. Although feminine novelists punished assertive heroines, they dealt with personal ambition by projecting the ideology of success onto male characters, whose initiative, thrift, industry, and perseverance came straight from the woman author’s experience.
Protest fiction represented another projection of female experience onto another group. It translated the felt pain and oppression of women into the championship of mill workers, child laborers, prostitutes, and slaves. From Jane Austen to George Eliot, the woman’s novel had moved in the direction of an all-inclusive female realism, a broad, socially informed exploration of the daily lives and values of women within the family and the community. With the death of George Eliot and the appearance of a new generation of writers, the woman’s novel moved into a Feminist phase, a confrontation with male society which had elevated Victorian sexual stereotypes into a cult. The feminist writers were not important artists. Yet in their insistence on exploring and defining womanhood, in their rejection of self-sacrifice, and even in their outspoken hostility to men, the feminist writers represented an important stage, a declaration of independence, in the female tradition. They did produce some interesting and original works, and they introduced new subjects for later novelists.
The literature of the last generation of Victorian women writers, born between 1880 and 1900, moved beyond feminism to a Female phase of courageous self-exploration. This literature sought refuge from the harsh realities and vicious practices of the male world. Its favorite symbol, the enclosed and secret room, had been a potent image in women’s novels since
, but by the end of the century it came to be identified with the womb and with female conflict.
The fiction of Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf created a female aesthetic which transformed the feminine code of self-sacrifice into annihilation of the narrative self. Like D. H. Lawrence, these women novelists tended to see the world as mystically and almost totally polarized by sex. Paradoxically, the more female this literature became in the formal and theoretical sense, the farther it moved from exploring the physical experience of women. Sexuality hovers on the fringes of the women’s novels of this period, disguised, veiled, or denied. Androgyny, the sexual ethic of Bloomsbury and an important concept of the period, provided an escape from the confrontation with the body. Erotically charged and filled with sexual symbolism, their novels are oddly sexless.
Virginia Woolf defined women’s literature of this period: “It is courageous; it is sincere, it keeps closely to what women feel. It is not bitter. It does not insist upon its femininity. But at the same time, a woman’s book is not written as a man would write it.”
After the death of Virginia Woolf in 1941, the English woman’s novel seemed adrift. In the 1960’s the female novel entered a new and dynamic phase, which has been strongly influenced by the energy of the international women’s movement. Contemporary women writers are concerned with the conflicts between art and love, between self-fulfillment and duty. They have insisted upon the right to use vocabularies previously reserved for male writers and to describe formerly taboo areas of female experience. For the first time anger and sexuality are accepted not only as attributes of realistic characters but also as sources of female creative power. Contemporary women writers are aware of their place in a political system and their connections with other women. Like Virginia Woolf and the novelists of the female aesthetic, women novelists today, especially Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, see themselves as trying to unify the fragments of female experience through artistic vision, and they are concerned with the definition of autonomy for the woman writer.
Perhaps Virginia Woolf says best what it meant and still means to be a woman writer: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”
This lecture will be distributed to the 10th graders and will be supplemented by a brief history of American women to provide a further historical context. The history will focus on three general areas: legal status of American women, women and work, and higher education. It will briefly explore the colonial and pre-Civil War woman, but will concentrate on the post-Civil War period through the present. It will emphasize the liberating effects of industrialization, unionization, mandatory education, and war itself, on women’s status in the United States.
The third strategy is taken from
Consciousness Raising Guidelines
, published by the Women’s Action Alliance. It assumes that men and women are subjected to sex-role and personality stereotyping and that the effects deny genuine personal freedom. It should be pointed out that one of the results of this process has been that women have been considered unfit for positions of power in society.
Students will be placed in groups and asked to write down two lists of words that immediately come to their minds when they hear the words “masculine” and “feminine.” They will examine the lists to see how society has conditioned people to see women and men. Group members will consider such questions as: Which list has the qualities of people you want as friends? Would a person in power or seeking it, such as apolitical candidate or the president of a corporation, wish to be characterized by the words of the feminine list? Would you be influenced to vote for a person so characterized? When and how did you become aware that certain actions or character traits were “masculine” or “feminine”? Which traits on the “masculine” list do you like or have or want in yourself? Which traits on the “feminine” list? How do you feel about women who are described as “masculine”? How does society feel about such women? How do society’s views affect the women in developing the traits she likes from the masculine list? What does the masculine man get from society and the feminine woman? How does society regard and “reward” the masculine man and the feminine woman? What is the total effect of the social pressure of the stereotypes on women?