Rereading Women: A Noted Critic Looks Back
Maura Kelly interviews Sandra M. Gilbert about constraint, decorum, freedom, madness, and the popularity of Jane Austen
When Sandra Gilbert was an undergraduate at Cornell, The Second Sex had recently been released in English—and reading it, she found herself having “to come to terms with gender dynamics that were going to shape my future in ways I’d never before imagined.” Born in 1936, Gilbert’s progressive parents (her father did the family’s cooking) encouraged her to become whatever she wanted: a psychoanalyst, a lawyer, or a professor. Never, she writes in her new book Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, did they hint that she would face obstacles to professional success. Yet as she fought to establish her place as a poet and critic, the people she encountered did more than hint. “I went to a shrink who told me that I wouldn’t really want to write poetry once I became a proper wife and mother,” Gilbert writes. “My poetry writing was probably a bad consequence, he said, of my father’s cooking.” But she forged ahead, eventually earning a PhD in English literature from Columbia University. Undaunted by department heads who would make comments about how they were looking only for male lecturers or, conversely, how they liked “mommies” because they worked harder for less money, she went on to become a force in women’s literature. Now a professor of English at the University of California–Davis, Gilbert has written seven collections of poetry, a memoir, and a number of critical works. With fellow academic Susan Gubar, she edited feminist collections, including No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the 20th Century; Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets; and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. She is also a proud mother of three and grandmother of four.
Q: Did you see the recent research by VIDA/Women in the Literary Arts, indicating that only about 25% of contributors to major literary publications (including The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books) are women?
A: I have been aware of this for quite some time and, frankly I am horrified by the situation. I look every week at The New York Review of Books, for example, and am befuddled. How can it be that after all these years of the "women's movement," nothing really has changed? I would have to argue that this shows how serious the dilemmas are for women, even today!
Q. Has our literature changed? For instance, you write about the themes of enclosure and liberation at the heart of much important writing by nineteenth- and twentieth-century women: "The story told is invariably a story of being trapped, by society or by the self as an agent of society, and then somehow escaping or trying to escape." Do you think today's serious young female writers are still grappling with those themes?
A: My sense is that what today's young female writers are doing is so varied that I am unwilling to generalize. But until quite recently, such magnificent writers as Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison continued to work with the themes and motifs Susan Gubar and I long ago discerned: constraint vs. freedom, decorum vs. madness—in other words, the psychological consequences of the exploitation or oppression of women.
Of course, women haven't abandoned these themes. But I find, too, in the writings of my favorite artists, a new celebration of the powers of the female body, of the joys of motherhood and of woman's sensuality. I don't think any of us explore these matters with a conscious political intent. I think we are simply driven to write about what we think about!
Q. You write about Sylvia Plath, who was in many ways the modern woman: Trying to be a good wife to a powerful husband, to be a literary success in her own right, to make enough money, to take care of her children. She struggled to do it all. Her resentment of motherhood and wifehood is a preoccupation in the autobiographical The Bell Jar—though, as you note, she was a very loving mother. Do you think young women writers still feel resentment about becoming mothers, simply because there’s so much to do and so little life in which to do it?
A. I actually believe lots of young women (writers and non-writers) are obsessing about motherhood in ways that surprise me. For my generation—quite a while ago—"motherhood" wasn't a subject of study; we just had to become mothers and many (though not all) of us loved doing that. I was so happy to have children, but at the same time no one really "taught" me what to do. No one even "taught" me—as my daughters were taught—how to breast-feed, how to get the baby to "latch," and so on. So I feel rather jealous of my children and their good fortune in being "taught" about maternity!
Q. You discuss identity in your book, asserting that male writers long considered themselves representative of humanity, whereas female writers had to figure out who they were speaking for even as they tried to figure out who they were. You also talk about your own youthful ambition to become a professor though you'd never had a female professor yourself. What literary identities have emerged as tropes for women in the past fifty years or so?
A. I think many women writers have established specific female identities, although at the same time many would deny that they/we write "as women." They'd say, as I think I myself would (in my poet self) that we write as people, although it is undeniable that our writing is inflected (but not perhaps consciously) by our gender/sex.
Q. How have all the changes of the last fifty years made life easier for women writers to establish themselves?
A: The changes of the last fifty years have made it easier for women to go to school and learn to be writers. But I'm not sure that anything has made it easier for any of us as women to establish ourselves.
Q. You note that George Eliot complained about novels produced by women who fancied themselves equipped to address important moral questions. She wrote, "Apparently, their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this: Take a woman's head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard [...] serve up hot in feeble English." This sounds like quite a bit of the writing produced for women today. Why do you think this kind of thing continues to find an audience?
A: I have always been depressed by Eliot's (actually quite amusing) essay about "silly novels by lady novelists," because even though it's funny, it also incorporates quite a lot of self-loathing. She herself was a philosophical thinker of the sort she so viciously and sardonically attacked!
Q. What do you make of the enormous contemporary popularity of Jane Austen?
I am happy to say that she's popular because she's great—but also, perhaps less happily, she's popular because she gives readers what they (or we) are culturally programmed to want: happy endings, adorable heroines, charming heroes, terrific plots!
Q: What do you think of all the conservative women politicians who have emerged in recent years? Is your reaction to them, "Power to them; feminism was all about having the choice to be whatever kind of woman you wanted to be," or is it not quite as chipper?
A: As feminists we've always argued that women could be just as wicked as men; now I can see that we were right!
Watch slideshow: Sandra Gilbert picks five underrated women writers
Berkeley resident Sandra M. Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry, including Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, Belongings, and a new volume forthcoming in 2011, Aftermath. Among her prose books are the memoir Wrongful Death, the cultural study Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, an essay collection, On Burning Ground, and, just published, Rereading Women. She is currently at work on a project examining “The Culinary Imagination.” With Susan Gubar, Gilbert has coauthored or coedited The Madwoman in the Attic, No Man’s Land, and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
Maura Kelly is writing a book about what literature can teach you about dating, mating and relating. Much Ado About Loving will be published by Free Press in early 2012. Her personal essays have appeared in three literary anthologies, as well as in publications like The New York Times, The New York Observer, Salon, Glamour and The Daily Beast. She writes a daily blog for Marie Claire and lives with her bicycle in New York City.