images of women
And so, on to images of women! This is a branch of feminist criticism. It all started with a collection of essays called “Images of Women in Fiction: A Feminist Perspective”, edited by Susan Koppelman Cornillon.
In her introduction to the book explaining the need for such a book, Cornillon says “… books that would study literature as being writings about people. … These essays lead us into fiction and them back out again into reality, into ourselves and our own lives. This book will be a useful tool for raising consciousness…”
Feminist literary studies link literature to life, particularly to the lived experience of the reader. These women introduced a feminist contention that no criticism is “value-free”. All we speak, is from a specific position shaped by cultural, social, political and personal factors. It is authoritarian and manipulative to present this limited perspective as “universal”. That remains one of the fundamental assumptions of any feminist critic to date.
Toril Moi goes on to deal with women’s writing and writing about women in depth. In the late 1970s, there were 3 major studies on women writers, which are seen as part of a specifically female literary tradition or “sub-culture”.
The studies are:
- Ellen Moers – “Literary Women” (1976)
- Elaine Showalter – “A Literature of Their Own” (1977)
- Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar – “The Madwoman in the Attic” (1979).
These 3 works represented the coming of age of Anglo American feminist criticism. Moi says of them “For these critics, it is in other words society, not biology, that shapes women’s different literary perception of the world”.
Of the three, I think (I cannot recall with certainty) it was Showalter’s work that was especially significant to feminist literary criticism. She explains women’s literature’s stages as:
“First there is a prolonged phase of irritation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalisation of its standards of art and its views on social roles. Second, there is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity. An appropriate terminology for women writers is to call these stages, “Feminine”, “Feminist”, and “Female”
The Feminine period was when male pseudonyms were used – from the 1840s, until George Eliot died in 1880. The Feminist period is from 1880 to 1920, and from thereon, the Female period started. In the 1960s there was a new dimension to women’s literature as it became more significant to the women’s movement. This period continues now.
In “The Madwoman in the Attic”, Gilbert and Gubar spoke of the sudden spate of literature wherein there was a woman who was mad. They declare “To be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead.” (hear hear!). To be able to express themselves and voice their thoughts honestly, the authors had to create a “mad” woman since society wouldn’t countenance such thoughts being those of perfectly sane, intelligent women.
The “mad double” is a common factor in all the 19th century novels studied in this work. The madwoman, like Bertha Mason (Jane Eyre by Bronte) is“Usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her anxiety and rage. Indeed, much of the poetry and the fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be”.
Mary Jacobus criticised Gilbert and Gubar saying that their recognition of only anger as a positive signal of feminist consciousness was also reductionist.