Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 2, Issue 2
spring 2012
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, Linda Hase
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

WGSS and Literature at Yale – A Personal View

by Margaret Homans


From the day I started teaching at Yale, I have been committed to the idea that literature – as part of the broader field of cultural representations – is central to the study of gender and sexuality in society. Much if not all of what people think of as "life" or "experience," including what we experience as impulses of the body, is mediated through language or other forms of representation. When rape became defined as a war crime, it was not just a new name for an experience endured for millennia: it was a change in reality. The study of literature provides a special kind of access to language's often invisible yet hugely powerful form of mediation by making it available for critical analysis. Reading carefully provides valuable practice in seeing, interpreting, and critiquing the myriad discourses that make up our subjectivities and the cultural messages that, without our necessarily knowing it, shape our life choices.

As a Yale undergraduate in the early 1970s, I can recall standing in the middle of the New Haven Women's Center, where I volunteered at the pre-Roe v. Wade Women's Abortion Referral Service, and suddenly realizing that there were certain narratives I could no longer read with pleasure: fairy tales, for example, in which the prince rescues the princess, and works of fiction (most novels I cared for) that take that plot as their premise. Feminist literary critic Judith Fetterley wrote The Resisting Reader in 1978 to analyze the misogynist cultural work of canonical works of American literature, stories that teach the reader that men are active and women passive objects. In some cases, she wrote, the only choice is to close the book, to resist becoming more deeply complicit in literature's project to naturalize what Gayle Rubin named "the sex/gender system."

Yet feminist literary criticism, as it was being invented in the 1970s, was committed to doing more than close the books. It strove to make visible the ways in which women were constrained as characters and excluded as authors. The classic English heroine-centered novel ends in marriage or death, so that Mary Wollstonecraft for instance can't imagine any ending, much less a happy ending, for a heroine who has sex outside of marriage. In my four years as a Yale English major, Emily Dickinson was possibly the only woman writer I encountered in class. Feminist criticism also explored how women authors had "stolen the language" (in Alicia Ostriker's phrase) and claimed as their own "the voice of the shuttle" (in Patricia Klindienst's rereading of the story of Procne and Philomela) in order to tell their own divergent, often revolutionary stories.

Feminist literary criticism's field of inquiry keeps expanding intersectionally: stories about hierarchy, imbricated with those about gender, have been so naturalized that it still takes effort to see them for what they are. How can the study of literature make visible hierarchies of race, sexuality, class, religion; geopolitical hierarchies of nation and region?

Literature is a technology that can lead us as readers to mistake the constructed for the natural, and so to restrict the lives we can imagine living. But it can also invent new realities. In some of my courses, we read fairy tales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White) together with feminist revisions by twentieth-century writers such as Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and Olga Broumas. What set of norms does the continued cultural life of these oft-retold stories help to construct as natural? (No fewer than three film versions of Snow White – in which the central characters are measured by their conformity to raced and gendered standards of appearance - are due out from Hollywood this spring.) How can these norms – of gender, sexuality, class, and race - be questioned and unlearned? What new space is opened up when Broumas, imagining Cinderella's married life with the prince, writes of her grief at being "Apart from my sisters, estranged / from my mother . . . a woman alone / in a house of men," not overjoyed at having been singled out by the prince but, instead, impelled to demand: "Give / me my ashes. A cold stove, a cinder-block pillow, wet / canvas shoes in my sisters', my sisters' hut" (from Beginning with O, 1977)?

The feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler reports that when she first read Broumas's lesbian love poetry as a young adult, she felt her experiences and desires named and validated for the first time. Broumas's words helped her to become who she was. If lesbian existence no longer (in this time and place) needs naming, indeed may have become – in the framework of queer theory - an invidiously ossified identity category, what new forms of life need a new poetry to hail them into being? For their power to inspire, I continue to teach classic writers in the feminist canon who believed in literature's capacity to bring about change: Virginia Woolf, who celebrated "the poets" for having kept alive (through the twentieth century's wars, through the rise of fascism) "the dream of peace, the dream of freedom;" Adrienne Rich with her "dream of a common language;" Monique Wittig, who wrote, "There was a time when you were not a slave . . . Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent;" and Audre Lorde, who wrote that "poetry is not a luxury . . . poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought."

As a graduate student, I wrote a dissertation, which became my first book, on three women writers who dismantled the central trope of Romantic poetry – the glamorous figure of the poet, always male, who says "I" – in order to clear a space in which to speak in their own poetic voices. Studying narrative can help to expose the contingency of accepted norms; works of imagination, one hopes, will one day invent new paradigms to support all women and men in a livable life.

Find us on