The Magazine

Ladies Please

All women writers are equal in the eyes of academic enthusiasts.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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True, until the early modern period, most writers were men, and histories of literature have been heavily weighted toward male writers. To late 20th-century American feminists, beneficiaries of historically unprecedented material prosperity and equality, it was obvious that men had been keeping all the goods to themselves, including the canon. To remedy the omission of women from the history of literature, feminists produced anthologies of female writers, which had the effect of separating women from the literary tradition altogether, from the transmission of literature as something specifically literary.

Thus, in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by two feminist workhorses, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert, we find that Fanny Burney, an English novelist, precedes Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet, while Sojourner Truth follows Mary Shelley. Though they share practically identical life dates, aside from being female, they have nothing in common literarily. In other words, there is no obvious "tradition" of literature written by women, in the sense of representing the transmission of literary values.

Instead, the ascendance of women as writers, beginning in the 19th century, coincided with the growth of publishing, and women, with important exceptions, have written for popular tastes, without much regard for the canon, for high literary values, or for posterity.

Elaine Showalter gets this, so she redefines tradition. In her view, "the female tradition in American literature is not the result of biology, anatomy, or psychology. It comes from women's relation to the literary marketplace."

Thus, A Jury of Her Peers is a history "of women who wrote for publication," and their writings, whether they were imitations of an English product (Jane Eyre) or of Little Women, are as ephemeral as it took the reading public to tire of them. (Not even Louisa May Alcott could replicate her success, though she wrote another dozen novels.) As with works written by many men, these products kept bread on the table for the women and often for their families. With the passage of time their oeuvres (and some were considerable in size) passed into oblivion as quickly as have the bestsellers of 25 years ago. As a feminist, Showalter naturally thinks this is unfair.

If anything, the evidence she assembles indicates that America is a great commercial nation that quickly makes room for new female talent, though it might not be for the ages. Grace Metalious has a place in this history, as does Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819-1899), "the most prolific and popular of the Southern novelists of the 1850s." Showalter's true subject, however, is the progress of feminist self-awareness, and her favored subjects concern women who have broken taboos against "sexual double standards."

To read Showalter's account is to discover that articulate American women have been complaining for a very long time, whether it be Fanny Fern (pen name of Sarah Payson Willis Parton 1811-1872), "a subversive journalist and novelist, who had no patience with organized religion, middle-class piety, or romantic ideas of marriage"; or Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), whose "images of the empty room and the ancient loom .  .  . suggest her sense of frustration and limitation within the sterile confines of traditional women's poetry." I was particularly taken with the moral of Helen Hunt Jackson's story, "The Prince's Little Sweetheart" (1885): "Girls may be seduced by fairy tales and promises of luxury and adoration; but in the end, marriage is about killing spiders every day of your life." To give so much importance to the disordered life is not a literary valuation, but an extension of Romantic biography.

It strikes me that what Showalter portrays as the progress of self-awareness owes much to the growth of the American economy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, which increasingly changed the nature of domestic life, especially for educated women, alienating them from traditional expectations. Without being Frankfurt School about it, one could write a history of the way that the American ethos of liberty and individual rights is constantly renewed for succeeding generations by commerce, including publishing and the media generally, which feed on dissatisfaction with limitations of race, gender, and class. Like many people who have it too good, feminists are ungrateful for this benefit of capitalism.