Tension between female creativity and femininity

Gubar and Gilbert , in their work, “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” describe a tension between the ability of women to create art and what has been considered the social norm of femininity. They describe the eternal woman’s ill-fated past as one of both mental and physical sickness caused by the patriarchal socialization of women. They describe nineteenth century femininity as socially conditioned female illness, “…nineteenth-century culture seems to have actually admonished women to be ill. In other words the ‘female diseases’ from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the goals of such training” (54). Given that the state of women was expected to be ill or frail (or alternatively ‘monsterous), it’s a wonder as how women could be expected to do much of anything – let alone participate in creative endeavors. They quote Sexton in saying that female art, “Has a ‘hidden’ but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” (56). This passage reminded me of A Room of One’s Own where Judith Shakespeare, if she existed, would have been considered mad and driven to literal madness, while her male counterpart would be, and was, considered a genius.

They also describe a phenomenon of interirorization of women that marks the struggle for women writers in artistic self-definition. Women writers are confined to be thought of in terms of their male counter parts. Gubar and Gilbert generally describe the writer’s burden as one in which, “…writers assimilate and then consciously or unconsciously affirm or deny the achievements of their predecessors, [which] is, of course, a central fact of literary history…” (46). Thus, there is an anxiety of authorship which is caused by the inability of one to escape the work of their predecessors.  Specifically for female writers, the authors describe this burden as producing an ultimatum, “Thus, as Virginia Woolf observed, the women writer seemed locked into a disconcerting double blind: she had to choose between admitting she was ‘only a woman’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man'” (64). Not only must women face a near debilitating anxiety of authorship, but they must also face the challenges of writing as a women (ie qualifying one’s writing according to the norms of the patriarchal socialization of women).

Can we really say that the challenges faced by Victorian women and of women today are much different? Many social pressures remain the same as well as the still unchanged fact that women do not have as great a history in art as men. How much can we really say has changed in the ability of women to produce knowledge?


7 thoughts on “Tension between female creativity and femininity

  1. Your question reminds me of a New York Times article I read recently, in which the writer writes something like (I’m paraphrasing because I couldn’t find it again): “Any smart, strong, powerful woman will, at some point in her life, find herself defending her ideas to a room of men.” So I do think that the challenges facing women are not much different; we must posit ourselves in terms of our predecessors, meaning we still have to choose between being qualified as women or being ‘as good as men’. This might be something to consider in writing the final paper- what strategies exist for women to participate in cultural transmission? Or, to rephrase, how can these challenges evolve, if we’re seeing so many similarities between the Victorian era and 2013?

  2. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic here, but denying the vast changes that have occurred between the Victorian era and the present day seems impossible. Women are now much more able to provide for themselves–we can have our room of our own and 500 pounds. Women also have a much more equal access to education. And there is a growing dedication to revealing women’s roles in the arts. You’re right–there are still issues we face, and we shouldn’t stop working on that, but we have come very far and that’s something should be acknowledged.

  3. Schoclateparty,

    I’m not trying to deny the changes that have occurred. Obviously there are many differences in the rights of women and the access that women have to opportunity. The problem that I’m interested in is that, though we have now have these rights and access, it still feels like women are limited, insofar as they have to defend their ability to be as good as their male counterparts or be ‘writing as a woman.’ Women still seem creatively limited in the same ways that they were in the Victorian era despite changes to political and economic opportunity.

  4. Women have definitely come far, but I say that based off of a gut feeling – like “Of course we’ve improved since then! We had to have!”

    But after reading Gilbert & Gubar, and I’m not really sure what sort of steps have been taken since the 19th century to improve the standings of women authors today. A lot of the improvements have come about because of other social and political occurrences, that may have improved awareness on the inequality of women’s social standings. Suffrage, for example, might have brought to light just one instance of inequality.

    But I am unsure how much of the improvements can be attributed directly to women’s literature and the work that writers themselves have done to improve their cause.

    • I agree. I think that a distinction can be made in terms of tangible and intangible advances. Tangibly, we of course have progressed (education access, voting rights, property rights, etc) but I think that the intangible forces that affect women are far less advanced and by nature of intangibility, far harder to put a finger on. Can a modern woman get an impressive job with great power and great salary, yes. Will she still be objectified by her coworkers, even if it is never expressed, very likely.

      • I actually read an interesting article about a guy who had an impressive resume but wasn’t getting called back for jobs anywhere, even ones he was overqualified for. Then he realized his name could also be a girl’s name, so he clarified his sex somewhere in his resume, and he started getting called back for interviews almost instantly afterwards.

        I think there are prejudices that have been internalized in both men and women. I’m sure , like in the example I gave, there were women who reviewed his resume but subconsciously didn’t take him as seriously because they thought he was a girl. I don’t think people realize how strong these intangible forces, as you say, are in our contemporary culture

    • I mean, part of the difficulty is that we don’t know what exactly to point to as a problem. We talked about that with the canon and institutional power, but I think here too it applies. This feeling of “otherness”, what in this case is the experience of being alienated because of gender presentation, seems to be caused by an institutional lack. G&G look at several symptoms, but I don’t know if they give us too many answers. At least, I’m not sure if I buy into the power of subverting male forms of production as a lasting and meaningful way of reclaiming female-ness…

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