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  • Gyn/ApologySarah Orne Jewett's Spinster Aesthetics
  • Heather Love (bio)

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Frontispiece to Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. by Annie Fields (New York: Houghton Miffin, 1911).

While the pinched life of the Victorian old maid can never return, the old maid herself is a social construction (and frequent scapegoat) we will need for as long as there are families.

—Nina Auerbach

"This book is about the journey of women becoming, that is, radical feminism. The voyage is described and roughly charted here. I say 'roughly' by way of understatement and pun. We do not know exactly what is on the Other Side until we arrive there—and the journey is rough."1 So begins Mary Daly's 1978 Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. In order to strike back at male control of women's bodies, Daly slashes "gynecology" with her labrys, clearing the way for a new world. Daly's intergalactic attack on patriarchy was not merely negative; she also charted a journey to the Other Side. Throughout Gyn/Ecology, Daly stresses that this journey of transformation is uncertain: no one knows what will be there for women who break through; we only know that the journey will be painful and disorienting. With my own more modest slash, I am not conjuring a new world—merely venturing an apology. This genre seems better suited to a moment when "feminism" is hardly ever modified by "radical" and when the Other Side can seem more remote than ever. Given the fact that the last three decades of feminism have resulted in progress but not revolution, it is not clear what "women becoming" might mean in the present. Are we still [End Page 305] up for the journey? Can we handle it, no matter how rough it gets? Is roughness still something we are after?

In order to think through these questions, I consider a figure whose quiet reflections on women's existence and women's possibilities could hardly be more distant from Daly's manifesto: Sarah Orne Jewett. Both Jewett's signature literary mode—the New England sketch—and her biographical persona—the turn-of-the-century genteel New England spinster—evoke a world untouched by the insurgency of 1970s feminism. Still, it was largely by claiming as ancestors unmarried women such as Jewett that radical and lesbian feminists laid the foundations for their revolution. The fact that such links are no longer common sense today might be reason enough to rethink the fortunes of the solitary woman in feminist thought over the past several decades; I also want to suggest that the changing relations between women, lesbians, and family life in the present suggest the timeliness of a return to the figure of the spinster. Jewett's understated reflections on women's intimacies and female solitude—as well as her cultivation of what I call a "spinster aesthetic"—draw our attention to knots, silences, and fractures that indicate the still unfinished business of feminism.

In Gyn/Ecology, Daly sought to recuperate the figure of the "Spinster," who took her place in a pantheon of pathologized female figures including the Hag, the Crone, the Harpy, and the Fury. Daly offered an alternative etymology of the term, attempting to restore the "rich and cosmic" meaning of the verb "to spin." Writing back to the traditional image of a lonely and pathetic old maid ("a prim nervous person of either sex who frets over inconsequential details: fussbudget"), she offers a counter-image of the spinster as powerful, dangerous, and self-sufficient. She writes: "A woman whose occupation is to spin participates in the whirling movement of creation. She who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self, by choice, neither in relation to children nor to men, who is Self-identified, is a Spinster, a whirling dervish, spinning in a new time/space."2 Daly was not alone in her attempt to recuperate the figure of the spinster. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a general effort among feminists—radical, lesbian, and otherwise—to reclaim the degraded figure of the celibate or solitary woman and to revalue relations among women.3 [End Page...


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pp. 305-334
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