On Those Famous Feminists and Their Words, and Their Anger

Part of my personal pleasure in reading the most recent contribution to feminist literary studies by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar was being in the company of writers whose collaboration and commitment to women’s writing has accompanied me—quite literally—through the four decades of my education and career in Gender Studies and Literature. Effortlessly readable, their Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination (W. W. Norton, $27.95) tells a strong chronological story of second-wave American feminism, rich with biographi- cal details, reminders of historic successes and setbacks, controversies, love and loss.

Revisiting a past critical to my own feminist identity formations, I felt a wist- ful delight, as if I had returned to boxes of beloved old photos—and discovered that a pair of smart women had gone through this hurly burly of memories and strate- gically organized that past into a set of albums with chapter titles, annotating with background notes and context for what lay beyond the frame of the random snapshots from my reading and lived history. Gilbert and Gubar’s narrative voice, recognizably that of the groundbreaking Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (which appeared in 1979, my first year as a graduate student in Victorian Studies), offers the peculiar comfort of having aged with comrades in arms.

In a chapter called “Bonded and Bruised Sisters,” populated with Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen, and others, Gilbert and Gubar contrast the “utopian ideal of sisterhood” with details of “misunderstanding, infighting, and trashing” as these leaders tried to build coalitions between “straight and gay, radical and liberal, white and Black, native- born and foreign-born women,” alliances undermined by Phyllis Schlafly and the frustrations that came from the stalling of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Unapologetically self-referential, Gil- bert and Gubar characterize the origins of Madwoman as emerging in this same period with the stirrings of Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Their own work, like Chi- cago’s, was part a celebratory “constellation of women writers who had never been assembled before” and, like Kingston’s, “a space of mourning” for “painful circumstances of their lives.”

Conceived around the Women’s March of 2017, Still Mad advances the thesis that American feminist writers since the 1950s are “still mad,” and especially “maddened,” “confused,” and “rebellious” after the 2016 election—we know why. The 1950s are characterized as a time of “stirrings,” and the section titles associate the 1960s with “eruptions,” the 1970s with “awakenings,” the 1980s and 1990s with “identity poli- tics,”—through the “recessions and revivals” of the twenty-first century.

Gilbert and Gubar are explicit about Jewish cultural contexts. For example, Betty Friedan, her writing “infused with anger,” is “a left-wing, Jewish labor jour- nalist and mother of three … researching the quotidian lives of American women, including not just supposedly happy housewives but many who felt themselves to be captives of suburbia….”

In the 1970s Madwoman participated in an outpouring of feminist literary criti- cal and theoretical writing by (to name a few) Elaine Showalter, Nina Auerbach, and Alicia Ostriker, that classified women’s literary traditions, created literary women’s family trees, and exposed the rage in women’s re-articulations of fai- rytales in which the doubles of princesses and governesses, whether Snow White or Jane Eyre, were frustrated monsters prepared to murder and burn down patriarchal structures. The heroine discovers the wicked stepmother or mad- woman—surprise!—when she looks in the mirror. Our heads spun. When Gilbert and Gubar tell us today that we are “still mad,” we sigh, but we are not surprised.

Madwoman was followed by the three volumes of No Man’s Land, monumen- tal analyses of twentieth-century women writers fighting the war between the sexes. Their edited volume, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, has been indispensable to Women’s Studies. Still Mad is a different kind of sequel to Madwoman. Alluding to Elizabeth Warren’s famous persistence, here Gilbert and Gubar identify feminisms from the 1950s onward as strategies for perseverance born from the struggles among the real-life heroines they describe.

Adrienne Rich’s development as a writer and feminist is one through line of this book. Rich is discussed as one of three angry women (with Sylvia Plath and Nina Simone) of the Sixties, and they later chart Rich’s personal, poetical, and political “metamorphoses.” Finally, Rich’s Judaism is given pride of place, located between analyses of Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Mestiza Consciousness” and the “inter- sectionality of Toni Morrison.” Rich’s famously important self-understanding as being “split at the root” and her poem “Sources” are described as an “implicit dialogue between the two men whose warring influences shaped her spirit: her austere deistic father and her Eastern European Jewish husband.”

Lilith readers from my generation will recognize that Lilith itself was born from the same impulse that gave us some of the feminist publications honored in this book, and that Jewish feminist organiza- tions—such as Ma’yan, Kolot, and The Jewish Women’s Archive—are children of the same early Nineties Zeitgeist con- jured so well by Gilbert and Gubar. I appreciate that the pantheon that features Plath, Susan Sontag, Morrison, and Margaret Atwood embraces Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, and Shulamith Firestone, whose contributions are recognized in their Jewish distinctiveness.

Gilbert and Gubar’s choice of touchpoints is necessarily idiosyncratic, given the sweep of the story they tell, and I suspect each reader with an investment in this history will quarrel with some choices. I personally struggle with the optimism of their version of “from generation to generation” implicit in giving Amanda Gorman the last words of their epilogue: “We will not be turned around/ or interrupted by intimidation,” a rallying cry that they assert was taught to her by “the women of the feminist movement.” I feel madder and more demoralized than that but nevertheless grateful for such splendid company on this road.

LORI HOPE LEFKOWITZ is a Professor of English, and Director of the Humani- ties Center and Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University, where she holds the Ruderman Chair in Jewish Studies. Her books include In Scripture: The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities.