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  • Medieval Feminism in Middle English Studies:A Retrospective
  • Elizabeth Robertson (bio)

The New Chaucer Society presented a panel at their international meeting this last July on gender and historicism. As an audience participant, I was struck by the fact that despite the twenty-year flourishing existence of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, with one exception, neither it nor the word "feminism" were mentioned by the panel or in the discussion that followed. Furthermore, a number of panelists expressed their discomfort with identifying themselves with women's studies despite their personal dedication to feminism, a discomfort I, despite my own commitment to feminist historicist study, to some extent share. While dismayed by the potential of the so-called postfeminist age to eclipse the study of women altogether, I, at the same time, do not wish to rehash arguments and positions that feminists have painfully and productively deconstructed through feminist theory's various phases. Feminist medievalists working in medieval English studies have reached an impasse that I hope we can overcome: how can we bring feminist questions into the center of critical inquiry without seeming to be harping on old news?

My Experience with Feminism

My own feminism, like that of many of my generation, was born of the sixties. I began to be actively concerned about injustice and the condition of the other as a high school student, as a Head Start teacher, and as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society actively working in support of the United Farm Workers Grape-pickers Union. I entered Barnard College in 1969 and became the communications liaison for the student strike against the bombing of Cambodia. In those early years, I assumed that the radical concerns of the antiwar movement of the seventies would include a concern for the oppression of women and was surprised to find, along with many other budding feminists, that it did not. I mention this history in part because young scholars today approach the study of women from different points of view, but usually not from the perspective of their experience with political activism. What I have learned in the years I have been involved in feminist and other radical political enterprises is that however socially responsible developing phases of critical inquiry may be, [End Page 67] the question of women's subordination is often pushed to the margins.

In the meantime, I was pursuing a B.A. in biology at Barnard College and, although I left my scientific interests behind, my inclination for the study of unknown subjects using positivist tools (whether paleographical, linguistic, or historical) colored my experience of the field of medieval English literary criticism and my encounters with feminism. By the time I entered Columbia Graduate School in 1974, my commitments to politics and feminism were put aside for the challenges of "mastering" old languages and paleography. Although feminists such as Kate Millett (who finished the work that would become Sexual Politics as a dissertation at Columbia shortly after I entered Barnard), and although my own teachers and advisors, Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, were supportive of female graduate students, Columbia was not an institution that encouraged feminism as an academic pursuit, nor was it interested in the pressures women experienced in the academy.

Distressed not at the lack of interest in women in Columbia graduate school, but rather at the poverty of offerings in my field of interest, Anglo-Saxon, I left to pursue a second B.A. in Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Celtic at Cambridge University. I chafed there under the twin discomfort of being both an American and a woman, both attributes deemed inadequate for the proper appreciation of philology, paleography, and history. In the field of Anglo-Saxon studies in those days, literary criticism, let alone theory and feminism, was viewed with suspicion. How can you criticize a text when you do not know the accuracy of the text, went the argument. Nonetheless, during my final exams (exams are taken only once at Cambridge after three years of study), the last exam, traditionally a single question, surprisingly asked us to write about women in medieval literature. In 1978, gender had finally arrived in the most conservative...