A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter. Knopf. 608pp, $30.00.
The title of Elaine Showalter’s book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx refers to a 1917 short story by Susan Glaspell that tells of two women who discover potentially incriminating evidence against another woman whose husband has been found murdered. They waver but eventually refuse to tell their husbands, a sheriff and a county attorney, what they learned. They decide that these male representatives of the law would fail to understand the full story, which involves domestic loneliness and emotional abuse. Acting as the woman’s “jury of her peers,” they keep to themselves evidence that she may have committed murder. Showalter argues that American women writers have also needed a jury of their peers; they have not received the attention they deserve because they have not always had readers and critics who could understand their work. Editors of anthologies and literary histories, until only recently almost exclusively male, have largely excluded them. Their writing has often been ignored, dismissed, or misunderstood because readers have simply not had the tools with which to understand it. Showalter’s book is attempt to correct this problem and to give American women writers their due.
It came as a surprise to me that this is the first literary history of American women writers ever written, and Showalter has produced an admirable first attempt at filling that gap with a book that lucidly guides the reader through 350 years of literary history. Defining women’s writing in terms of its historical context, she writes that “the female tradition in American literature is not the result of biology, anatomy, or psychology. It comes from women’s relation to the literary marketplace, and from literary influence rather than sexual difference.” She succeeds in balancing attention to historical context and biography with a focus on the writing itself, showing how women’s writing emerged from and responded to the particular circumstances of each writer’s life, as well as making an argument about its aesthetic value and contribution to American literary history.
Showalter also has much to say about women’s relationships and their rivalries with each other. She describes how many writers attempted to form a tradition of women’s writing, while some struggled against it. For example, some early 20th-century feminists worked together to redefine literary conventions and to rewrite literary history, but others such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather refused to identify themselves as feminists or as women writers at all, preferring to see themselves simply as writers. The “new women” of the 1890s who fought conventional women’s roles and tried to redefine female sexuality were, as Showalter points out, often at odds with black women writers of the time and unable to take the step from gender equality to racial equality. Feminism in the 1970s became a powerful force, but again there were many women writers who rejected or felt ambivalently about the movement. Showalter is careful to argue that women writers did not form one monolithic group and did not speak with a unified voice. They disagreed about what it meant to be a woman writer and how women should respond to the often difficult circumstances within which they wrote. Showalter argues that women deserve a jury of their peers, but she also recognizes that the question of what it means to be a peer is a complicated one.
One of Showalter’s strengths is her ability to take a long and complicated history and shape it into a coherent narrative. The story she tells takes women through four stages, which she calls “feminine,” “feminist,” “female,” and finally, “free.” Women writers imitate the dominant tradition in the first stage, protest against this tradition in the second, and in the third turn away from the tradition entirely to search inward for their own identity and aesthetic. Finally in the last stage they find the freedom to write about whatever they want, however they want, without any concern for gender. It is only in the last couple decades of the 20th century that women have entered this final stage, not only writing with freedom but also becoming critics and reviewers, serving on prize committees, and playing an important role in publishing decisions.
Showalter showcases another strength with her insistence that those writing literary history need to make judgments about the aesthetic quality of the writing they discuss. She argues against the tendency in contemporary literary scholarship to refuse to make value judgments—especially about marginalized writers—and calls instead for “the vigorous public debate of a critical trial, with witnesses for the prosecution as well as the defense, to ensure that American women writers take their place in our literary heritage.”
Despite this stand, however, it turns out that Showalter generally upholds already established views of the best-known writers: Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe are the stars of the 19th century, while Edith Wharton and Willa Cather are important enough to earn a chapter of their own. In the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O’Connor receive a lot of attention. The book’s contribution is not so much to shake up commonly held ideas about who the best American women writers were; rather, it fills in the picture in with accounts of writers who are less well-known and perhaps less aesthetically successful, but whose contributions are still important to recognize.
In addition to not rocking the boat, Showalter’s critique is tempered by the care with which she notes the ways in which women’s writing has been hampered by social expectations. From the very beginning, American women writers have had to grapple with expectations that their role should be private rather than public and that their writing should be about domestic, “womanly” subjects. This pattern began with the first writer Showalter considers, Anne Bradstreet, who wrote brilliant and beautiful poems about “love, loss, doubt, and faith” but was always careful to describe herself as modest and without ambition, remaining content in her domestic role.
From Bradstreet’s lead, women grappled with this expectation for many decades. They confronted the cultural belief that women were not suited to the literary life and that there was something improper about appearing in print (many, many women struggled to find time to write while also maintaining households and raising families). When women did achieve success with their writing, they often confronted hostility from male writers who felt threatened by the competition: Showalter recounts how in the 1850s more women than men wrote fiction, leading to battles between male and female writers to capture the burgeoning bourgeois audience. Thus the story is as much about the various ways women writers as a whole battled gendered expectations and difficult writing conditions as it is about the achievements of individual writers.
Readers will most likely quibble with some of the opinions Showalter delivers, both those that are explicitly stated and those that are given implicitly through her who she excluded from the book. I have my own list of disagreements—including her decision to feature Annie Proulx so prominently, her dismissal of Gertrude Stein, and her exclusion of writers such as Dawn Powell and Susan Fenimore Cooper (whose book Rural Hours is an important precursor to Walden). I would have liked to see a “Further Reading” section to acknowledge those left out. But these quibbles aside, the book is valuable for the coverage it brings to a lively and powerful tradition that has not gotten the attention it deserves. Although she does not make this point directly, Showalter’s decision to make judgments and acknowledge her personal opinions implies the impossibility of ever writing an “objective” literary history. Any survey, especially one that covers so many years and so many writers, is necessarily biased and incomplete, and it is to Showalter’s credit that she does not pretend otherwise.
Rebecca Hussey is an assistant professor of English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She blogs as “Dorothy W.” at Of Books and Bicycles.
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