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Gender and Literature as Topics of Study: Necessary Theory and Philosophy

This lecture, if you can call it that, sets up the main approach to or mission of the class: to look at how women have been portrayed in literature throughout the ages (why they have been portrayed the way they have and what men and women have learned from those portrayals) and to see if there are any differences between how men and women write.  


Christine de Pisan's Christine Writing 
at her Lectern
, 1404-05

Since you've already read the first chapter of The Madwoman in the Attic, you should know that as far as most people in western civilization have been concerned, women could not, were not, and are not suited to working in the professions at all, even as writers.  Likewise, of course, women have not often been educated equally to men throughout most of western history, and they have been absent from most artistic and scientific professions during that time.  Beginning with the Enlightenment and then especially during the 1960s and 1970s, that has begun to change.

In literary study of the 1960s and 1970s, men and women attempted to find any missing great women writers, a pursuit that began the re-examination of many primary historical sources within many professions.  Not surprisingly, few women came to light.  Many, apparently, might have been discouraged from the profession, as Charlotte Brontë was, or perhaps they and/or others didn't value their work enough to publish or even save it, or perhaps they didn't have the time, practice, or inclination to work writing into what might already have been extremely full schedules.  One point that sociologists often make is that just because a person is not getting paid does not mean that the person is not working, and historically, women have always been very hard workers engaged in the unpaid labor of running a household and raising the children, as well as many other tasks which have helped their families and husbands prosper. 

Several things became apparent to literary scholars involved in this recouping effort:

1) The first women initially successful in writing were European women who took either masculine or androgynous pseudonyms: Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant (George Sand),  Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), and Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell).  Many of these women were well-educated and privileged but did not belong to the most elevated of social statuses within their societies. 

2) There traditional portrayals of women by both men and women in literature (again, in western civilization's canon) tended to be shallow, in the sense that women were treated very stereotypically either as a passive angel or an aggressive monster. This was surprising to male and female scholars, as they had hypothesized that women writers would treat their female characters differently, more fully, than male writers. 

3) A systematic study of female writers would need to be done, one that studied not just their works but their lives, themselves, to see why and how these 'false' presentations of women were being made by women.  Elaine Showalter, now professor emeritus of Princeton University,  proposed a two-pronged approach: that the images of women in all texts be studied as part of a gendered literary/sociological criticism and that how and what women themselves wrote be further studied to seek any differences between men and women and to answer some of the questions literary scholars and sociologists, alike, had about these issues.  Showalter called this second part 'gynocriticism,' a practice that began to lead gendered literary study through the 1990s, even spiraling off a theory called écriture féminine, the idea that women use language (and so speak and write) differently than men. 

As far as the study of women's writings, Gilbert and Gubar did find some similarities, almost an embedded code within women's writing.  In The Madwoman in the Attic, they study several nineteenth-century female writers and find that, compared to male writers of the period, they use many more images of or plotlines concerning starvation or anorexia, capture or enclosure, and madness or hysteria; they conclude that the patriarchal society of the Victorians was so intensely regulated by social codes that women, even women of education and privilege, were repressed and oppressed beyond their intellects' ability to cope; indeed, Gilbert and Gubar hypothesize that the images of these' victims' in women's writing were a coping mechanism, enabling them to survive in that rigid society.  As they mention, this was something that women writers following the Victorians began to understand, as Virginia Woolf mentions that in order to be a great or successful writer, women would have to 'kill the monster,' the monster that was the narrowness of the stereotypes defining them and the rigid social structure that chained them in their homes, preventing them from contributing their voices to the larger public world.

Through the remainder of the course it is your mission, then, to determine if any men or women have been successful in killing these monsters--and whether you think they should be killed--and to determine your own opinion as to whether the sex and gender differences between men and women make it possible for women to write as well as men, the traditionally acknowledged superiors in the endeavor.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 21 April 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.