Literary Contributions by Women in English Literature

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      Women have contributed to the full range of literary production, from poetry to short stories to novels to journalism to personal-experience essays to scholarly articles, monographs, and books. Although nonfiction dominates much nineteenth-century writing, the best-known and most extensive literary genre has been fiction. Especially among contemporary women writers, Mexican-American women have been actively publishing high-quality fiction that is barely known outside of the mainstream. They write about topics even further removed from the Mystique than their Anglo counterparts.

      Because the widespread education of women was not common until the nineteenth century; the arena of British and American literature was once largely male-dominated: the role of women was most often to inspire rather than to create. Since then, however, the literary contributions of women have become increasingly important. More and more women have become storytellers, poets and prophets, the authors of dreams and ideas—the voices to whom we listen.

      Beginning in the 1820s women were an increasingly strong presence in the American literary world. As the American publishing industry developed, women authors found opportunities to profit from their literary efforts. Job opportunities were limited for women in general, and as the novel became increasingly popular, writing became a way for a few educated middle-class women to earn a living. However, since it was commonly believed that men were the legitimate creators of culture, women writers were self-conscious about the public attention that publishing brought them and by the loss of anonymity that came with success. With the novel only grudgingly accepted by American critics, the success of women novelists illustrated a central conflict in American definitions of literary success: did writing a popular and economically successful novel make one a literary success? When Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about the "damned mob of scribbling women" whose works sold far better than he did, he meant to imply that literary success was not—and should not be— related to economic success.

      Novelists. Catharine Maria Sedgwick was the first American woman to do well financially through novel writing. Sedgwick's novels portrayed strong, domestically inclined heroines with much to teach the supporting characters (as well as the reader). Her first novel, A New England Tale (1822), was the story of an exemplary orphan girl, and Sedgwick's third novel, Hope Leslie (1827), brought her 200 for the first edition of two thousand copies. By 1841 Sedgwick had received over $6,000 from her publisher for her novels. Other popular women novelists included Caroline Howard Gilman, Carolyn Lee Hentz, and E. D. E. N. Southworth. While Sedgwick and Gilman also treated domestic themes and made larger points about religion and the place of women in American society, Hentz's and Southworth's novels tended more strongly towards melodrama and exotic storylines. Hentz, Sou th worth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe would all publish their best-known works in the 1850s.

      Literary Magazines. The growing number of literary magazines brought important publishing opportunities for women writers. Magazines such as Caroline Gilman's Southern Rose and Sarah Josephs Hale's Ladies' Magazine were aimed specifically at women readers and addressed intellectual and literary as well as domestic and household issues. Gilman's magazine (which began in 1832 as The Rose-Bud, a children's magazine) was even more successful overall than her novels, would be. In 1837 Hale's magazine merged with Louis Godey's Lady's Book to become Godey's Lady's Book, the first national magazine for women. Godey's mixed intellectual and moral uplift with fashion and domestic information. Other popular magazines, such as Graham's, Putnam's, and Peterson's, also published large amounts of material by women writers. By the late 1830s successful magazines not only paid authors for their work but also established exclusive publishing relationships with their most popular authors. Robert Bonner's New York Ledger, for example, established a relationship with Fanny Fern that provided well for Fern and for Bonner as well.

      Poets. Like women fiction writers, women poets published their work in magazines and in separate volumes alike. Poets such as Lydia Sigourney, Frances Osgood, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Maria Brooks, and Sarah Helen Whitman earned their popularity through their ability to write emotionally effective poetry. Women poets often fell into the stereotype of the poetess, a female poet whose emotionality bordered on hysteria, which kept readers from taking their work seriously. Yet, as Hale, literary editor and poet, wrote: "The path of poetry, like every other path in life, is to the tread of woman, exceedingly circumscribed. She may not revel in the luxuriance of fancies, images and thoughts, or indulge in the license of choosing themes at will, like the lords of creation. " Later in the nineteenth century, the reclusive Emily Dickinson's poetry did the most to shatter this conventional view of women poets.

      In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter shows how women's literature has evolved, starting from the Victorian period to modern writing. She breaks down the movement into three stages — the Feminine, a period beginning with the use of the male pseudonym in the 1840s until 1880 with George Eliot's death; the Feminist, from 1880 till the winning of the vote in 1920; and the Female, from 1920 till the present day, including a "new stage of self-awareness about 1960. "

      When discussing the characteristics of each of these phases, she looks at how other literary subcultures (such as black, Jewish. . . or even American) to see how they developed. A female solidarity always seemed to exist as a result of "a shared and increasingly secretive and ritualized physical experience.....the entire female sexual life cycle." Female writers always wrote with this commonality and feminine awareness in mind. Therefore, women's writing and women's experiences "implied unities of culture."

      Showalter finds in each subculture, and thus in women's literature, first a long period of imitation of the dominant structures of tradition and an "internalization of its standards of art an its views on social roles.'' This Feminine phase includes women writers such as the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, and the later generation of Charlotte Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant, and Elizabeth Lynn Linton. These women attempted to integrate themselves into a public sphere, a male tradition, and many of them felt a conflict of "obedience and resistance" which appears in many of their novels. Oddly enough, during the Victorian period, women flooded the novel market and comprised a healthy segment of the reading public — still, women writers were left "metaphorically paralyzed." The language with which they could fully express their experience as women and their sufferings as they still identified themselves within the confines of Victorian bourgeois propriety.

      In the second stage, the minority — or rather, the subordinate — lashes out against the traditional standards and values, demanding their rights and sovereignty be recognized. In this Feminist phase, women's literature had varying angles of attack. Some women wrote social commentaries, translating their own sufferings to those of the poor, the laboring class, slaves, and prostitutes, thereby venting their sense of injustice in an acceptable manner. They expanded their sphere of influence by making inroads into social work. In a completely different direction, the 1870s sensation novels of Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, and Florence Marryat, "explored genuinely radical female protest against marriage and women's economic oppression, although still in the framework of feminine conventions that demanded the erring heroine's destruction." Their golden-haired doll-like paradigms of womanhood mock contemporary expectations of Angels in the House by turning out to be mad bigamists and would-be murderesses.

      Militant suffragists also wrote prolifically during this protest phase of literature. Women such as Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Mona Caird, Elizabeth Robins, and Olive Schreiner made "fiction the vehicle for a dramatization of wronged womanhood. . . demanding changes in the social and political systems that would grant women male privileges and require chastity and fidelity from men." On the whole, Showalter finds these women's writings not examples of fine literature. Their projects concerned themselves more with a message than the creation of art, though their rejection of male-imposed definitions and self-imposed oppression opened the doors for the exploration of female identity, feminist theory; and the female aesthetic.

      It is very difficult to generalize about the position of women during the Medieval period due partially to the contradictory theories expounded in the literature and occasionally portrayed in the art. The Church, and the aristocracy, the two main forces in this time period, simultaneously exalted and condemned the woman, and women found themselves oscillating between a pit and a pedestal The Church elevated Mary the mother of God, to a position of sharing with the masculine trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. One result was the emergence of the Virgin cult; however, at the same time, women were seen by the church as an evil temptresses and as the incarnation of the Devil, for it was Eve who beguiled e dam.

      In the lay world, the cult of the Lady emerged, parallel to the development of chivalry among the aristocracy. The virtues of the Lady were extolled by the troubadours, who emphasized beauty and gentleness. This idealization and glorification actually was a detriment to women, as it was a superficial reverence and accentuated their inequality. Furthermore, the real world of feudalism demonstrated their subjection, as a woman spent all her life under the guardianship of a male, that is her father, her husband or her lord, and this woman was a complete slave to a system of militarism and land The medieval ambivalence of, on the one hand glorification, and on the other debasement and subjection, did not continue into the Renaissance, and indeed, into the sixteenth century.

      The third period, then, is characterized by a self-discovery and some freedom "from some of the dependency of opposition" as a means for self-definition. Some writers end up turning inward during the subsequent search for identity. In the early half of Female phase of writing, it "carried. . . the double legacy of feminine self-hatred and feminist withdrawal... turning more and more towards a separatist literature of inner space." Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf worked towards a female aesthetic, elevating sexuality to a world-polarizing determination. Moreover, the female experience and its creative processes held mystic implications — both transcendental and self-destructive vulnerability. These women "applied the cultural analysis of the feminists before them to wards, sentences, and structures of language in the novel."

      However, Showalter criticizes their works for their androgenetic natures. For all its concern with sexual connotations and sexuality, the writing avoids actual contact with the body, disengaging from people into "a room of one's own."

      This changed when the female novel entered a new stage in the 1960s. With twentieth-century Freudian and Marxist analysis and two centuries of female tradition, writers such as Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, A. S. Byatt, and Beryl Bainbridge access women's experiences. Using previously taboo language and situations, "anger and sexuality are accepted. . . as sources of female creative power. "Showalter's analysis shows how the progress of women's writing reached this phase and expresses all the conflicts and struggles still influencing the current of women's literature.

      More consistently than in literary and linguistic studies in OE, historians have addressed issues raised by contemporary feminism, which pose fundamental challenges to traditional historiography. Analyzing the status of women and women's relationship to men, feminist historians reassess historical periods to point out the consistency with which eras of supposed progressive change are precisely those that mark a relative loss of status for women.

      The body of critical work on women in literature raises two issues: one is the extent to which feminist theory (or any theory) is employed at all in recent criticism, and the second, and possibly more pressing issue, is the extent to which the theoretical or ideological underpinnings of any critical approach have been consciously acknowledged by critics or readers.

      Such an acknowledgment identifies the power of the critic and reader to construct gender and reveals the ways in which these constructions are not ahistorical but culturally relative. Bearing in mind that feminist criticism has the primary task of recognizing, analyzing and deconstructing often subtle varieties of anti-feminist criticism, both issues are briefly examined, but the focus is on the second.

      The controlling premises of binarism motivate or provide an unacknowledged rationale for many of these critical arguments, elevating on occasion the most glib sexual stereotyping to critical and cultural principles.

      Renoir's premise surfaces in Anne Klinck's examination of the development of female poetic characterization. Klinck agrees that the female character may well be confined, literally; conventionally; and emotionally, but hypothesizes that such captivity adds a psychological dimension, which the poet, in turn, might artistically exploit. Elaine Tuttle Hansen also finds some virtue in what is never questioned as necessity, envisioning female suffering as a moral, though totally ineffective directive which highlights the ''irrepressible evils in man and his society.

      Though Klinck and Hansen are attempting to revalue or reconsider women's roles and their representation, the basic conceptual assumption of woman as weak/passive/victim is construed, and only to be understood, in terms of its binary, oppositional relationship to man as violent/active/strong. There is no room for "other" possibilities, or alternative constructions of female (or male) identity.

      Another side of this binary coin is apparent in assessments of those preternaturally strong and saintly Christian women of the DE period, whose martyrdom and suffering critics have transformed into triumphant, aggressive vindication. The catch, of course, is that they may be not-weak as long as they are not-women.

      They might be empowered to overcome the limitations of both their sex and their unaided mortality; but the cost is identity, sexual and spiritual. Jane Chance details the ways in which female sanctity and Christian approbation are so thoroughly dependent on ideals of chastity. The escape from passivity is predicated upon denial and obliteration of the feminine body, a point Chance makes abundantly clear. Less clear in Chance's study, but clearly implied, is that the overall critical view of Christian women as vindicated aggressive, or triumphant overlooks the patristic invention of their necessary subjugation, glosses over their complicity in their own disappearance as women.

      Much of what is not feminist about recent criticism on/of women in the literature is not, or not only; that it is not consciously employing this or that variety of feminist critical theory; but that it does not more consciously acknowledge the masculinity (call them binary, traditional, patriarchal, patristic) premises upon which it operates, and that the potential for feminist hypotheses is closed down by the need for "clarity;" definition, and a concept of structure that relies on the principle of opposition. In this regard, Pat Belanoffs study of the female poetic image offers a different point of departure-one based on an acknowledgment of ambiguity. She sees inconsistencies and complexities of poetic representation as a reflective function of cultural phenomena, a result of the ambiguity and problematic status of the Anglo-Saxon woman in a society undergoing untheorized as yet.

      Writers actively interested in women tend to overlook this confusion in linguistic theory of biological sex, grammatical gender, and social gender. Analysis of the social roles of women and men needs to be more sensitive to the nature of linguistic evidence and the value of grammatical gender for assessing terms for kinship, sex, or class (Stanley and McGowan). Vic Strife's survey of OE semantic field studies demonstrates just how far existing research depends on thematic and literary analyses rather than on sociolinguistic and cultural issues. Fell's valuable analysis of "friwif locbore" reminds us, too, that post-Conquest attitudes to women can determine the meaning of OE phrases. In her 1984 study Fell is also sensibly cautious in evaluating the claims of semantic analyses and pronoun use, but her claims for linguistic equality in the use of Mann are open to debate.

      The social use of language in OE texts is beginning to be examined (Lees), but the question of female literacy and language use in English or Latin still awaits detailed investigation. Barrie Ruth Straus' speech act analysis of The Wife's Lament is an important account of the speaker's powerful language, but it is hard to see what is distinctively female about her language. Belanoff claims that one characteristic of poetic image of the Germanic woman is that she is a powerful speaker. But the power attaches to the speech, not the speaker, and Belanoff does discuss its sources and nature. Both articles appear to be implicitly based on a distinction between female and male language but neither present cases that distinctively gender language use (and it is still debatable whether such cases could be made). A more productive avenue is suggested by Elizabeth Robertson whose work on the early Middle English Ancrene Wisse clearly demonstrates how medieval theories of women and sexuality have influenced the choice of language used by the male author.

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