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?


Sex and Gender in Monsiuer Venus

I have a few questions about the presentation of gender and sex in Monsiuer Venus. Mostly, I’m going to try to work out whether the distinction between sex and gender is as great as it appears.

Monsiuer Venus creates a distinction between sex and gender, challenging the idea of biological determinism in gender. While Raoule is biologically female she perpetuates a masculine gender identity. Similarly, Jacques develops a more feminine identity as his relationship with Raoule develops. However, Rachilde suggests multiple times that Raoule’s male gender presentation is incomplete because Raoule lacks a penis. For instance, Rachilde says, “And yet, Jacques signed, you will always be lacking one thing!” (103) – referring to Raoule’s lack of a penis. It is iterated over and over that, “Roule, you just aren’t a man” You just can’t be a man!” (183). So, although there seems to be a distinction between biological sex and gender, Raoule cannot be a “complete” or “real” man. This seems to suggest a more determinist view of sex and gender.

I mentioned, in passing, that Jacques acquires a more feminine identity as his relationship with Raoule develops. Though he has a sort of androgynous look that Raoule describes at the beginning of the novel, he does not seem to have the same feminine gender presentation that he later has. It feels like Raoule, throughout the course of the work, is able to make Jacques more feminine. This makes me wonder if, to Rachilde, gender is something that is inherent in an individual, or if it is something that can be artificially constructed. She seems to be suggesting throughout this novel, that gender is something that can be constructed and is not necessarily determined one way or the other.

Although Rachilde’s characters defy gender norms, their gender identities perpetuate more traditional understandings of gender. For instance, Rachilde writes, “A strange life began for Raoule de Venerande, starting with the fatal moment when Jacques Silvert gave up his power as a man in love and become her thing, a sort of lifeless object who let himself be loved, because his own love was powerless. For Jacques loved Raoule with a real woman’s heart. He loved her out of gratitude, out of submission, out of a latent desire for unknown pleasures…” (92-93). Here, Rachilde associates ‘power’ with a masculine identity and ‘powerlessness’ with a feminine identity. This suggests that the power relationship between two individuals in a relationship is dependent on their gender – where the masculine individual has power over the feminine individual. Thus, even if Rachilde is distinguishing between sex and gender, she still allows for gendered terms to have certain traditionally societally accepted definitions of power in relationships.

Thus, while I initially thought that Rachilde was making a case against biological determinism, it seems as though her challenges to the determinist view of sex and gender do not run as deep as they at first seem. But I’m still left perplexed as to what, precisely, Rachile’s conception of gender is.

Cultural Considerations on Sexism in Knowledge Production

Alice Walker’s commentary on how limited black women are and were in the production of knowledge (in literary/artistic works) mirrors a lot of what we’ve seen in Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” They both discuss how important it is for one to have moments free from interruption in order to have the freedom to produce creative works. Walker tells the story of her mother who worked every day from before sunrise until after sunset to take care of her family. She says that he mother never had a spare moment to “…unravel her own private thoughts…” (238). This is similar to Woolf’s suggestion that one needs a room of their own and 500 pounds to have the freedom to create. However, what I find interesting, is how Walker finds that although the creative outlets of black women are not necessarily traditional, they do exist in other forms. Walker describes the care and creative spirit that went into her mother’s garden. People in the town and surrounding counties knew about it and even strangers adored it. Though her creative outlet was not literary or a work of art in the traditional sense (painting, drawing, etc…), her mother still allowed her muted creative spirit to thrive through her garden. So, maybe it isn’t necessary to have a room of one’s own to express one’s creative spirit, but it is necessary to have such freedom to create works in the more traditional literary and artistic sense.

Moreover, from Alice Walker, we gain an important cultural perspective that was lacking in Woolf. Woolf does not take issue with cultural or class-based differences that may also contribute to the limitations in knowledge production that many people face. This may be because Woolf’s goal was to focus on and make an argument for women and not to have this muddled by arguments for class and race in knowledge production. However, we do not gain this perspective until Walker elaborates on the extended difficulties of black women. I think that it is really important  to take culture and class into account when considering sexism in knowledge production. I feel like Woolf’s analysis was a bit two dimensional in that she really only focused on one part of the human experience that has limited knowledge production (being a woman) and not focusing on other aspects of those women’s lives that may have also contributed to their lack of knowledge production.

In the end, I wonder what is a greater contributor to limitations in knowledge production: sex, class, race, a combination of these, or something else? And, in the face of hardships in knowledge production, are we ever satisfied with alternative outlets of creative expression (like Walker’s mother’s garden), or are we always longing for a greater level of expression?

Strong Female Characters

I remarked on this speech by Joss Whedon in class the other day when we discussed Woolf. I thought of this speech in terms of the historical deprivation of knowledge production by women and the  misogyny perpetuated in the works of male authors (just to be clear, I’m not claiming that all male writers are misogynistic, rather I’m just presenting a trend in the history of writing). Joss remarks upon how unremarkable it ought to be that he writes strong female characters. He believes that when people see his strong female characters as remarkable that this is a reflection of a broken and unbalanced culture of gender inequality. Below is a link to the short speech:

Sen and Sanger Debate on Family Planning

Reading Amartya Sen with Margret Sanger’s “Case for Birth Control” in mind, we can observe an interesting debate on the values of family planning.

Sanger argues for family planning in place of the risky alternative to curtailing families, such as abortion. She gives a list of nine reasons why people should not have children if they are being thoughtful at all. I find some of the things on this list to be rather arbitrary (like the specific ages that men and women should be before reproducing); however, most of the items on this list are just looking out for the health and well-being of both the mother and her offspring via family planning, which is extremely valuable. The problem that I have with this list comes from number seven, “Children should not be born to parents whose economic circumstances do not guarantee enough to provide the children with the necessities of life” (p132). Although poorer parents may not be able to provide their children with the best material things, that this does not necessarily suggest that these individuals are less qualified to be parents than a wealthy individual. As for the material, there are (in the US at least – forgive me, I’m not informed about policies in other countries when it comes to welfare) government programs that are in place to protect children from homelessness and hunger. While I agree with Sanger, insofar as we should not rely on these programs for rearing children, until we can solve the poverty problem in the US, these programs are the best solution to both protect children and protect women’s reproductive freedoms.

Sen, on the other hand, argues against family planning as the primary approach to accomplishing lower fertility rates among the impoverished. Sen advocates instead for the prioritization of economic and social development as primary ways to reduce the fertility rate. I really appreciate Sen’s approach to population problems through a broader lens than most individuals in looking at all, instead of just some, of the indicators attributing to high fertility.

Sen finds that development is the best way to decrease fertility rates (through a “collaborative approach” in which governments work with citizens to create social conditions – like increases in female education –  that lower the fertility rate) , and thus does not want resources taken away from social, economic, and healthcare developments to simply make family planning services more widely available. Sen claims that, “The appeal of such slogans as ‘family planning first’ rests partly on misconceptions about what is needed to reduce fertility rates, but also on mistaken beliefs about the excessive costs of social development…” (p194). Therefore, Sen does not want resources to be distributed away from what will ultimately help the well-being of the nation and aid in stabilization in the long run with methods of family planning which will only help in the short term.

Thinking of Sanger with Sen in mind, one of Sanger’s greatest faults is that she dissociates this problem of poor individuals having larger families than wealthy individuals from economic and other social woes in the nation. Children being born into impoverished families is symptomatic of the greater poverty problem in the US. In order to really fight this problem, we need to look into fixing its primary cause of poverty. Instead of distributing resources to family planning, we might want to instead distribute more resources into education (including sexual health and education), and economic programs to support those in impoverished situations.

I suppose my question after all of this is: what is the appropriate balance between distributing resources to family planning versus to economic and social development? In other words, I realize that family planning has its value, but how much should spend on it rather than on other developments?

Butler and Identity

Hey all, I’m Chloe, a third year Political Science major. I found Butler’s work to be particularly difficult to tackle. She develops a very intricate system of viewing gender and sex and identity that I will attempt to tease out a bit.

Butler views the categories that we impose on gender and sexual identity as problematic. She challenges the idea that we are every able to actually define one’s sexuality, positing that the more one discloses using these normative terms that they are not actually achieving transparency or disclosure, but are rather using terms that hide much more than they claim reveal. Thus, these categories do not cover the particularities of the human experience.

Instead, Butler claims that identity is created through the repetition of one’s self and thus, the self creates the effect which it wishes to express (p24). Hence gender identity is not as concrete as one might believe, but rather a result of a set of personal particular experiences that are forced to be expressed a certain way as a result of hegemonic heterosexual norms. People may not have an inner sex that fits into the binary created by these norms. Butler discusses performativity in gender identity that is a result of this repetition and place under heterosexual norms – consolidating and affirming of who you are to yourself and others. Again, we see that these categories of identification cannot possibly express one’s particular identity as they claim to do.

However, Butler does acknowledge, at length, that she recognizes that these categories of identification are necessary in order to allow political minorities to gain traction – without identifying as a group, there would be no way to advance the minority political agenda. Thus, while Butler views these categories as problematic, she recognizes their necessity.

So what I’m left wondering is, what would replace gender identity in Butler’s world? Could we live without the categories of gender identification that we use today?