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jrizzo's picture

My ideas about feminism have been hugely transformed since I entered this course. What I perceived as a fairly black and white, manageable sort of civil rights issue has exploded into something more complicated than I could have imagined. Apparently, feminism cannot be stripped down to the question, “Should women be entitled to the same rights as men?” To be perfectly honest, I was drawn to the course because Virginia Woolf was mentioned in the course description. I love Virginia Woolf, I love literature, and I want to have as many tools for engaging with literature as possible at my disposal. I imagined that it might be useful for me to add critical feminist theory to my toolbox.

I had a wonderful English teacher in high school, a staunch second wave feminist. We used to discuss curriculum all the time, and she would tell me about the evils of “the cannon.” I always accepted what she had to say about the importance of diversifying, but it always bothered me that this seemed to require a certain sacrifice of quality art. In an American Literature course she would toss out Death of a Salesman in favor of an obscure book of Native American short stories, or Richard Wright’s Native Son, texts I felt simply could not compare to the masterpieces of the dead white men who had taught me to read, taught me what was “good.” My teacher’s insistence on equal representation seemed like a nice idea to me, fair, politically correct, noble perhaps, but I never fully understood what good it did, this explosion of the cannon. I believed that it was important to give the diverse members of the class equal opportunity to identify with different presences in literature, to see themselves, but I was perfectly happy learning about women as Hemingway and Fitzgerald presented them to me. Part of the reason I didn’t “get it” was that I could not engage with authors who were not white men in a satisfying way, at least those who were doing something other than mimicking the traditional style. It was never explained to me that I couldn’t hope to get anywhere reading and judging a Native American story by the standards I would apply to Faulkner.

I finally got it when I read Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” this semester. Up until that point, I would never have admitted to feeling alienated, made to hate myself. I would never have claimed that the patriarchy had “confiscated” my body from me. I could not have vocalized these things, because I was never in touch with such feelings. Cixous did two things for me. By guiding me through the reading of her own strikingly unusual text, she opened a door into her process, making her writing accessible to me in a way that it had never been with the Native American stories I took on cold. In doing so, she made me understand that diversification had to involve more than switching around some titles on a list of required reading. It meant becoming a much more active reader, not relying on the old rules to tell me what a text might be trying to do. Cixous also made me realize just how useless the political element of feminism is, if not preceded by a radical adjustment of the way women see themselves and perceive themselves in the world. The political as I once thought of it seems empty to me now. Adding more female writers to the curriculum cannot mean anything if their inclusion is not accompanied by a disclaimer which tells us it is acceptable for these women to write in different ways, for us to read them in different ways. If women still have so much of “the dark continent” left to explore, how can they know what to demand in the political sphere? When they know themselves, they might indeed come to the conclusion that they wish to forsake it all in favor of Virginia Woolf’s outsider’s society, or a far more radical vision of the world as shaped by women.

For my semester project, I want to focus exclusively on the ways in which women image themselves, define themselves, find their identities. This must be the first step, and I think it is both a prerequisite for, and in itself a far greater goal than political work. I feel I will be able to be able to accomplish this project by reading a mixture of philosophy and literature where self-perception is at the forefront. Whether or not we include it as a reading in the second half of our semester, I would like to begin by reading the full text of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I am interested both in de Beauvoir’s exploration of woman’s perception of herself as “other,” and the thinking that by many accounts prompted the second wave of feminism. De Beauvoir work forced women to consider their unique place in the culture, the myriad identities now available to her, and the importance of her own choice in deciding this identity.

I am fascinated by the points in history, or in personal reflection, when woman collectively or individually comes to the realization that she has options. De Beauvoir’s philosophical revelation is an event that has occurred more literally for many women and been well chronicled in literature, and I would like to look at that that point of crisis when the terrifying opportunity becomes clear. Some very rich and interesting reflection occurs at these moments in life and literature, and I believe that scrutiny of such moments may yield important insight into perhaps the most pressing question I have; why might women choose their own oppression? If I were to pursue this question, I might want to look at Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Lillian Helman’s The Little Foxes, the pain that comes when women become disillusioned with the goal of being a perfect wife and mother. This experience seems to me to bear a striking resemblance to the recognition of one’s “bad faith” as Jean-Paul Sartre described it, and I feel that staging a conversation between such texts and existentialist philosophy could be very fruitful.

De Beauvoir also examines a number of authors in The Second Sex in order to expose the myths of woman created by classic literature. I would be interested in looking at these critiques and possibly using them as models for study of the portrayal of women in more contemporary literature. Just because many women may be more reflective about their options today than they were when de Beauvoir was writing does not mean that they are necessarily less misguided by false myths. The plays of Wendy Wasserstein provide the best contemporary example I know of women attempting to find a true identity amidst the cultural noise that can obscure her place in a society.

Eventually, I would like to specify and answer the questions of how women see themselves, with what tools do they learn about themselves, what causes a woman to turn inward towards self-discovery and what causes her to turn away. As best I can, I would like to begin my exploration of “the dark continent” and learn why it is that I might not want to, and should not have to accept the identity that Ernest Hemingway tells me is mine.


Mary Clurman '63's picture


We all have to wonder why women have accepted subjection, and, if it wasn't already obvious, the reason stood out in Kindred: physical threat makes people accommodate, accepting disenfranchisement of all sorts. Men are stronger than women, and way back when, that was surely the reason. Why this fear has perpetuated itself is another question, but, like mother like daughter, we learn generationally, with a few new insights built atop the old -- it takes awhile, it takes the right circumstances. And now technology, in our generations, increasingly reduces or eliminates the need for physicality, at once stripping all thought of bodily inspiration (toward "masculine" thinking) and depriving men of their God-given "right" to -- and gift of -- "superiority." We all have the ability to think. No wonder masculine academia is contentious and writes polemically -- logic is the last safe haven!

Anne Dalke's picture

exploring "the dark continent"


I find myself quite intrigued by the narrative you use here, to preface your proposal to spend the rest of the semester studying de Beauvoir: that is, your own resistance to revising the canon, and your eventual understanding that it needed involves not just adding-on, but reading and writing differently. This will be of great use to us, later this week, when we discuss the uses and misuses of canons...thanks for the hands up!

Now, to your proposal. The Second Sex is huge, and complex, and archetypally interdisciplinary. It has been immensely influential, but is not now in the center of current work in gender studies. I think you'll have your hands full 'mistressing' that text alone, teasing out its claims and considering their strengths and their weaknesses, what questions it addresses productively and what further questions it raises, what aspects of 'the human situation' in general and 'the woman situation' in particular it fails to take on. (I don't think, in other words, that you need to look @ Plath, or Lessing, or Albee, or Hellman or Wasserstein, or Beauvoir will be plenty!)

Our conversation in class last Thursday laid out some of this territory for you: on the one hand, I think we saw de Beauvoir's (and Delphy's) answer to your question of "why women might choose their own oppression": because of bad faith, and false consciousness...and a fear of taking on the largeness and unendingness of the task of being responsible for our own self-making. Far easier to be cared for, under others' terms.

On the other hand, Flora explained the very astute contemporary feminist critique of de Beauvoir's work as being entirely "mental," entirely absent in its attentiveness to the physically located and active body. What of the work of immanence, the work of culture-maintaining, the work of being attentive and present where we are? Does de Beauvoirian feminism throw all that out? The "dark continent" of sensual, tactile, repetitive, addictive BEING?