In the last thirty years we have seen a real emergence, divergence and development of feminist writing. Like any writing we care to label or group together there are elements that are worthy of further academic enquiry. In this essay I will be examining what constitutes the politics aspects of modern women’s writing – in other words what is political about women’s writing? Women’s choice, equality and expression have been repressed through various positions of power and distribution of ideas, which have been dominated by men.
Cultural institutions such as capitalism, the church and government laid down rules and barriers for women, which they have had to battle against. One of the benefits coming out of this ongoing battle for feminists was the expression of ideas through writing. Through ongoing repression (at any, or all levels) winning any rights for women has been political process – formulation and expression of ideas, debating demonstrating, raising public awareness etc. Women have had to an up hill battle to have their writing published due to publishing houses reluctance to take a commercial risk on a new style(s) of writing.
Publishers have also had to consider the divergence between academic and literary writing and the fact that “Jill average” on the street may be more interested in popular fiction than groundbreaking women’s writing. According to Toril Moi, “ ‘Feminist criticism’, … is a specific kind of political discourse: a critical and theoretical practise committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism, not simply a concern for gender in literature…” (Moi, 1989, p117) and goes on to state, “As a political discourse feminist criticism takes its raison d’etre from outside of criticism itself.
It is a truism, but it still needs to be said that not all books written by women on women writers exemplify anti-patriarchal commitment. ” (Ibid, p120). As Moi goes on to point out, a good deal of women’s writing does not fit into this definition. The often-cited Mills & Boon is the opposite of what feminist women’s writing seeks to address the reader with. Male dominance and females swooning, Mills & Boon offers escapist reading if nothing else. But Mills & Boon books remain political in itself, as it still presents a challenge to feminists in their agenda of eliminating patriarchal dominance within society.
Although the American-centric feminist theories call for equal access to society, French feminist philosophy believes that language itself is the area of study most worthy of feminine inquiry. It is the very divisiveness of women’s writing – Anglo, French, Radical, Lesbian, Black etc that in itself women’s writing at least at a academic level will seem to remain political. People are also often at odds with a feminist theorum of equality and togetherness yet also an exclusiveness that (like any academic discipline) seems to shun men and women alike.
Tom Absher argues in his book ‘Men and the Goddess’, “To begin to undo the assumptions of patriarchy, men must avail themselves of feminist thought to understand patriarchy’s destructive history and its destructive effects in the present. ” (Absher, 1990, p xiii) and that patriarchy is, “…a literal subjugation and oppression of women and a figurative but real subjugation and disparagement of the feminine in men. ” (Ibid). Cultural studies has though extended itself towards pulp fiction, soapies
Elaine Showalter concept of gynocritics “woman as writer – with woman as the producer of textual meanings, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature of women. ”, highlights the process of reshaping literature – although for equality it sounds rather ‘mono’. There are two keys aspects to understand where women’s writing has come from; the first is that conquerors have always written history not the vanquished, and the second is that power cannot exist without politics or bias.
It is has only been recently that men have ceased to dominated all aspects of society and in doing so controlled means of production (such as publishing houses) and institutions (such as universities) which has allowed women’s writing to begin to flourish. Realising that our cultural identity is a social construction elements, women’s writing has understood that the actual theories or narratives that they are producing will impact on how both men and women think about how society operates. So access to the circulation of ideas, particularly new ideas has been as remains critical advancing equality between the sexes.
Women writers came from an entrenched position, mostly shunned from the literary world and also the subject of male writing that give a one dimensional effect, “… women writers work within a literary tradition which has tended to depict women as passive objects rather than as the active creators or subjects of their own stories”. (67-68 Bonner et al). Miles Franklin used the pre-ordained passive role for women in her novella ‘My Brilliant Career’ (in which the publishers removed the ironic question mark from the title) and how she felt that any women wanting for a career would be exactly that – wanting!
At this time women didn’t have the vote and rarely owned property or had access to study or careers. Franklin’s challenge of men’s dominance and the vacuum for career minded women would have been controversial if not political in its time. In more recent times Oxford scholar and author Jeanette Winterson’s stated goal was to challenge the existing social and political mores and values by writing both the book and the screenplay ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’, I know that Oranges challenges the virtue of the home, the power of the Church and the supposed normality of heterosexuality. I was always clear that it would do.
I would rather not have embarked on the project than see it toned down in any way. That all this should be the case and that it should still have been so overwhelmingly well received cheers me up. (Winterson, 1990,p xvii,) This type of approach in women’s writing is summarised by Anne Cranny-Francis, “feminist writers must engage with, and contradict, traditional narrative patterning in order to construct texts capable of articulating their marginalized, oppositional positioning. ” (Cranny-Francis, p15, 1990), women’s writing then has prescribed ways of engaging the reader and in doing so does in a political way.
So does this type of summary regarding feminist writing dictate or reflect the type of writing that some women writers are producing? I believe in the case of Winterson, the answer would be yes, in reading the narrative of ‘Oranges’ and by the author’s own admittance she engages and contradicts traditional narrative by constructing a story about other than heterosexual love and values. Conversely I do not believe author Sally Morgan took this approach to her producing “My Place”. Morgan has an Aboriginal heritage, and is a woman of which she could be regarded as belonging to a marginalised group.
Morgan achieved an uplifting story which questions society through “My Place” and did so speaking about her family’s experiences, which were contrary to (particularly the current Prime Minister) how Australia remembers. Morgan has satisfied Cranny-Francis’s theorem but did so on her on terms and not necessarily from reading feminist literary theory. But as Moi points out “…feminists can in a sense afford to be tolerantly puristic in their choice of literary methods and theories, precisely because any approach that can be successfully appropriated to their political end must be welcome. (Moi, 1989, p118) which offers up a binary way to view all texts, including feminist writing. Virginia Woolfe perhaps summed up women’s writing best in her novel ‘A Room of One’s Own’, “if one is a woman, one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of counciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes on the contrary outside of it, alien and critical.