ENGL 810: PAB #3: Shira Wolosky: “Modest Muses: Feminist Literary Criticism”

Wolosky, Shira. “Modest Muses: Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry. New York; Taylor & Francis; Routledge, 2013, pp 1-22. Adobe Digital Editions. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.

feminism.jpg - Harriet Staff (Feminism Poetry Foundation)

from “A Must-Read Post for Women Poets—And Everyone Else” – Harriet Staff (The Poetry Foundation)

Shira Wolosky begins by enumerating the questions that are asked by feminist criticism: “what place have women had in what has been a resolutely male tradition of literature? How have women been represented, and how does this affect their own self-representation? And so forth (1). After some further remarks about feminist critical theory she asks, “What identifies gender in literary texts?” (1). She offers a number of possible answers including “[c]ertain genres” and “feminized uses of male images and feminized readings and transformations of the male literary past, which regender male forms into feminine ones” (2) and points out the reasons women’s poetry is not in the canon.

Feminist criticism is a movement with primary goals of discovering and adding or returning women’s literature and poetry to the canon, or at least, to the public’s attention and analyzing canonized works through a feminist lens (1). Wolosky points out that early women writers had no publication written by women to model their writing after (2). She actually begins by discussing Harold Bloom and his Freudian approach to male poets as seducers of the Muse for inspiration, pointing also to Freud’s Oedipus postulations in her evaluation of women writers and questioning the relationship a woman writer might have with the Muse (3-7).

Wolosky compares women to men, suggesting that women are “submissive not assertive, passive not active, circumscribed not daring” and characterizes women like the women in fairtales “without self-confidence and authority” (6). However, the women in fairy tales I have read often have agency or are rescued or protected by their own wiles or by other women, so this comparison doesn’t ring true unless Disney is the frame of reference.

Wolosky’s approach is to examine Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Marianne Moore, and Gwendolyn Brooks in terms of “modesty,” but she inadvertently sets up a conflict on the origins of this “modesty.” She asserts that “modesty has been mentioned in literary analysis almost entirely as a repressive force denying to women freedom and self-determination” (9), but two pages later she excuses the fact that men aren’t ascribed “modesty” “reflects gender roles,” and she explains that women and men have “divergent values characteristic in women’s and men’s cultures” (11) without suggesting that this particular society is a patriarchal construct. She later mentions the religious affiliations of the poets, but even religion is a construct of the patriarchy.

Granted, by Moore and Brooks, modesty is likely to be a choice. Outside of modesty’s restrictions, Wolosky explains that it had a liberating quality to these women writers as well (9), and she gives examples of this modesty for each of the writers. But her description of Dickinson is problematic. Her assertion for Dickinson’s modesty, based on the evidence she provides, is weak. Dickinson was a known recluse, but reclusiveness does not necessarily mean modesty. Wolosky remarks on Dickinson’s “abject letters addressed to a ‘Master’” (13), who I can only assume is Thomas Higginson, and Dickinson’s approach to him could be taken as “modesty” as required or as “modesty” as a novice. Dickinson’s modesty about her poems could just as easily be the trepidation of any new poet, keeping in mind in any case, this would be within the construct of patriarchal society. Furthermore, Dickinson wrote strong poems without modesty including “Wild Nights.” Wolosky might be able to make a case for Dickinson’s modesty, but she simply doesn’t provide enough evidence to make her case. As far as outlining the questions feminism asks, Wolosky does represent the types of questions feminist criticism asks.

Harriet Staff. feminism.jpg. “A Must-Read Post for Women Poets—And Everyone Else.” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/08/a-must-read-post-for-women-poets-and-everyone-else/. 15 Aug. 2012. Accessed 29 Sept. 2016.

ENGL 810: PAB #2: Christa Knellwolf: “The History of Feminist Criticism”

Christa Knellwolf King

Christa Knellwolf King

Knellwolf, Christa. “The History of Feminist Criticism.” Twentieth-Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives edited by Christa Knellwolf and Christopher Norris. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 9. Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 193-205. Cambridge Histories Online.

Knellwolf’s article is a good starting place to get an overall sense of the history of feminism and an early idea about feminist theory, and since my background has been creative writing, which incorporates creative writing theory, it’s a good place for me to begin.

Knellwolf’s history begins at the origin of the word feminism in the 1890s, and she characterizes it as “a significant historical moment when there was an urgent need to name the activities of the women’s movement” and makes clear at the outset there exists an “insidious power of literature to propagate views about women’s inferiority” (193). From there, she provides an historical account of the progression of feminism including first and second wave feminism, feminist theory, women’s writing, and feminist literary theory. Knellwolf discusses some of the major figures leading up to feminism and many of the major feminist figures such as Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedman, Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. Much of the article is focused on the feminists’ efforts to gain equality and concerns about misogyny and the patriarchal structure of society which is so entrenched that “women’s inferiority is ingrained at the very structural levels of syntax and grammar” (201).

While Knellwolf covers the rise French feminism and points out “they alienated women who felt that this position, the French feminist embrace of the language of irrationality and the concept of difference, was a stab in the back to the longstanding struggle to have women’s rationality recognised” (200), she minimizes some of the historical struggle within and opposition to feminism, particularly those struggles toward the end of second wave feminism, like the rise of men’s rights groups and anti-feminist efforts of Phyllis Schlafly, that produced the kind of feminism we see today which is more inclusive of men, and she doesn’t quite bring us to the present 2007 moment. And notably absent is male reaction, including their reaction to changes in the literary canon, to this seemingly seismic shift in women’s demands for equality and freedom. She does point out that Audre Lorde, concerned that the focus of feminist effort was on white women, “wrote an open letter to Mary Daly, criticising her for patronising black women and reducing them to the role of powerless victims” (202), and she does mention “the attempt by mainstream feminists to ignore lesbians” (203). However, in the instances where she indicates strife within feminism the struggle is minimized. Based on the nature of Cambridge histories, this is unsurprising; however, at the conclusion of her history, she suddenly and awkwardly becomes a champion of feminism and includes a plea:

“While feminism needs to pay attention to the diversity between women world-wide, it also needs to respond to a situation in which fundamentalist governments, for instance, seek to remove women from education or to restrict them to jobs of low esteem. An immediate engagement with such issue may create a solidarity which enables women to speak out against oppression” (205).

That aside, Knellwood convers a lot of ground in such a short article, and she covers some of her topics in more depth, like Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, French feminism, and gender identification, among others.

Modern Feminism: A Women's Rights Timeline of Events from flickr

Modern Feminism: A Women’s Rights Timeline of Events

Cavallaro, Dani. French Feminist Theory. London; New York: Continuum, 2003. WordPress. https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/french-feminist-theory-dani-cavallaro.pdf. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Christa Knellwolf King.” LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/christa-knellwolf-king-972a19122. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Modern Feminism: A Women’s Rights Timeline of Events” flickr. http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3226/2999672841_c96548854b_o.jpg. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Phyllis Schlafly (1924-).” National Women’s History Museumhttps://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/phyllis-schlafly. Accessed Sept. 2016.