“Rereading Women,” a collection of essays by renowned literary critic and feminist author Sandra Gilbert, serves as not only a critique, or rereading, of classic works by well-known women authors, but also Gilbert’s own journey to becoming a feminist scholar. Gilbert refers constantly to her literary mothers and grandmothers, frequently citing the likes of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Adrienne Rich. These are no doubt some of the greatest authors in human history, but one can’t help but notice that the women in Gilbert’s sphere of influence are more often privileged, white and well-educated. Her collection (and message) would benefit from the inclusion of a wider variety of writers, a common criticism of second-wave feminists like Gilbert.
Because the essays span several decades of her work, the book lacks cohesive structure from beginning to end, but certain chapters stand out. “Reflections on a (Feminist) Discourse of Discourse, Or, Look, Ma, I’m Talking!”, an exploration of theoretical language surrounding feminism, is a linguistic introspection as important today as it was when she wrote it, over a decade ago. The casual reader may be turned off by the academic Gilbert, who asks, “Is there any way in which we can reject or revise the language of high theory without being anti-intellectual?” Many feminists have forged new methods of communicating their thoughts while shaking off oppressive patriarchal precursors—the 1979 classic feminist book, “Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her,” by Susan Griffin springs to mind, as well as Joanna Russ’ immensely readable “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” (1983), just to name a couple. It’s vaguely amusing that in an essay addressing the accessibility of feminist discourse to the common (wo)man, Gilbert can’t avoid using phrases like “parler femme” and “écriture féminine,” not exactly the langue maternelle de tout le monde.
The first essay, “Becoming a Feminist Together—and Apart: Notes on Collaboration and Identity” recounts Gilbert’s own journey to feminism. Although she somewhat defensively recounts that along the path she continued to shave her legs and wear lipstick (so what if she hadn’t?), her self-evolution as an academic woman in the early seventies is an interesting tale. This essay also recaps her collaboration and fruitful partnering with her writing associate, Susan Gubar (together they wrote 1979’s “The Madwoman in the Attic”). Anyone lucky enough to have a collaborative sister, no matter what the craft, will undoubtedly be touched by what she has to say, and those without might be inspired to search for such a partner. W.H. Auden wrote, “What people don’t realize is that in collaboration, if it works, you form a single writer who is different from either writer alone.” She supposes that, in that relationship, “that third self […] who sometimes inspires and sometimes criticizes our individual writings: a collaborator who has become, now and then, a muse for each of us, the one who reminds us how we two became a feminist together.” What she describes not only describes the relationship of artists and craftspeople working together, but neatly describes the sort of relationship that can be shared by author and reader. (Kelly Roark)
“Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions”
By Sandra Gilbert
W. W. Norton & Company, 380 pages, $29.95