Sunday, Jan 08, 2006
Victims no more
C Vimala Rao discusses the women's literary movement, which she says led to a metamorphosis in present day society.
Recently the President of Harvard University brought down a hornet's nest in a public speech when he said that women have a genetic inability to excel in mathematical and scientific subjects.
Such abrasive comments in universities everywhere have come into the open as more and more women have entered the academic world. Women in the departments of art and literary studies have also not escaped from being targeted about their academic competence. In the sixties and seventies - teachers, students as well as minorities empowered by the upsurging women's movement had raised their voices against the male bias that was obvious even in the literary canon as established in English departments. They struggled to break the forced acceptance of the writing and interpretation of texts from a limited vision rooted in a patriarchal order.
Their literary rebellion aimed at decentralising and introducing into the system the female voice/word/vision. I remember how during the seventies, in the English department of the University of Wisconsin, the women professors who were shortchanged in obtaining tenured faculty positions because of "lack of publications", fought to have their published novels, short stories, poetry and plays accepted as publications. In the end the administration conceded that if they had been published by well-established presses they would count as publications.
It was around this time also that the department of Creative Writing came to be established in many universities and some academic conferences even allotted a session for presentation and discussion of the writing done in these departments.
Especially in literature departments where mostly women predominate as teachers as well as students - literary standards, values, and the very concept of the literary canon have been challenged. So much so that the need to revise and rewrite literary history and criticism have become necessary. The emergence of post-structuralist theories of gender, psycho analysis, and linguistics have also come to the aid of women academics.
Feminist literary critics have had to adopt two prominent strategies in order to build up their critical voice. The first priority is to re-read, re-interpret and revise the perspectives of the male writers who have predominantly written about women, their lives, and the issues concerning them; and the second is to unearth and reread the women writers who have been mostly marginalised, ignored, neglected, and silenced.
In this regard the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Wordsworth, the writings of W B Yeats and T S Eliot have been subjected to sharp re-interpretation by writers like Toni Morison, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Lyndall Gordon, and others.
For instance, both Yeats and Eliot in their poetry had mocked the contemporary women's literary movement and the liberated woman, who, obviously were a threat to male power. In Yeats's poems like "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth...", "The Bronze Head," etc, and in Eliot's poems like "Aunt Helen," and "Hysteria," the poets had presented satirical portraits of the women who had been at the forefront of the women's suffragette movement and the battle for Ireland's liberation.
As regards their second strategy of resurrecting and rediscovering the neglected women writers, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert in their two seminal works titled - No man's Land: the Place of Women writers in the Twentieth Century, and The Mad Woman in the Attic, have analysed and interpreted novels like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, etc, from a feminist critical point of view. They have also edited the Norton Anthology of Women's Writing which is a comprehensive work containing the writings of women from early times to the present in a broadly representative selection. By such efforts they have attempted to regain a literary tradition and history for women's writing.
Thus by providing gender-based analyses of the male and female writers the feminist writers have critiqued the male bias and established a female aesthetic for women's writing which was hitherto classified as being "different." They have done their critical thinking by drawing upon their own psychological insights, the advanced theories now available in the fields of anthropology, sociology, etc, and discoveries in the linguistic principles that determine the usage of languages.
Thus Gubar and Gilbert have provided, for instance, not only analyses of literary texta but have also thrown light on the historical and cultural position of women in the contexts of the texts. Incidentally, critical works like Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, Gordon's Life of Eliot are written in an exemplary personal vein combining liveliness with intellectual sophistication.
The theoretical base of feminist literary criticism, which a critic like Elaine Showalter has called as "gynocriticism," tentatively depends on two claims - one, that women's writing is anchored in an anthropo logically women-centred subculture which is part of the cultural context of the time in which the work is written, and the other, the advantage feminist literary criticism has in incorporating insights drawn from discoveries in several branches of knowledge.
There is no justification for ghettoizing women's writing just because it is dependent on an anthropological necessity, according to feminist critics. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own had pointed out that somewhere at the beginning of the nineteenth century "the middle-class women had started to write" What some critics have called as the "domestic novel" began around that time. At the same time the effort to argue for a new trend in literary criticism had been made.
Thus feminist literary critics at present have demanded re-thinking on the problems of form, genre, textual canon, linguistic usages, and literary and critical values and judgements. The women's movement has metamorphosed present-day society and it now necessitates readjustments on the part of not only women but also men.