Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Guest Post by Anna: A Feminist Literary Canon, Part Three: 1900-1950

Adeline Virginia Woolf (1882 –1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist  literary figures of the twentieth century. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925): Orlando: A Biography (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One's Own.  (1929).  
Mrs. Dalloway concerns Clarissa Dalloway, a woman in post-WW1 England, in a single day in her life. Clarissa at first appears to be a typical housewife, though she finds ways to express herself in the parties she throws, and of course her thoughts find expression in the novel itself, challenging the idea that women do not think much on matters other than stereotypical ones. The novel also brings up homosexuality in the fact that Clarissa recalls being very attracted to her old friend Sally Seton, but “had not the option” to be with her; Virginia Woolf herself had several same-sex relationships, though she was married. The novel eventually reveals that Sally Seton is now married and has become a typical housewife, far from the independent figure she once was.  
Orlando: A Biography concerns an immortal man who magically changes sex. Despite the restrictions on women at the time (which the book acknowledges) the character Orlando concludes, “Praise God I’m a woman!” 
 A Room of One's Own is a nonfiction essay arguing for both literal and figurative space for women writers. It most famously declares that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” noting that few women in the past did, so their failure to produce great literature should not be considered a failure of genius. It also discusses the low opinion in which women’s intellect and writing was often held, and their lack of access to education; Woolf herself was not sent to college, though her brothers were.

Mrs. Dalloway can be read in English here.
Orlando: A Biography can be read in English here.

A Room of One's Own can be read in English here.

Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, often shortened to Simone de Beauvoir (1908 –1986), was a French existentialist philosopher, public intellectual, political activist, feminist theorist and social theorist.  

She is now best known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins, and for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. 

Beauvoir researched and wrote the book in about 14 months. It denounces Christianity as oppressive of women, and it is worth noting that the Vatican placed it on its List of Prohibited Books.In the first volume, in addition to denouncing Christianity, she rejects Freud – then very much in vogue – details the history of women’s oppression and accomplishments, and details myths against women (such as "It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women." This particular myth appeared in no less than the British Medical Journal, as late as 1878.) 

In the second volume Beauvoir discusses the then-contemporary oppression of women, for example in confining her to marriage and motherhood. She concludes by wishing for a time in which “women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable "service"; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood [other than homemaker] for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would be taken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them.”

The Second Sex helped to inspire subsequent feminist arguments against psychoanalysis, including those of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. However, it should be noted that the 1953 English translation of The Second Sex, often reissued, was greatly flawed and omitted a great deal of the text. A more accurate and unabridged translation into English, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, was at last published in 2009 and is widely available.
For earlier posts in this series:  Part I is here, Part II here.