The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 453-460
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A Response to Mary Poovey's "Recovering Ellen Pickering"
Mary Poovey's work has moved steadily away from its early 1980s starting point in the study of women writers. Her first book, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, placed her among the most intelligent and influential of the scholars who pioneered feminist literary criticism in the late 1970s and early 1980s by writing on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British women novelists, a group that also included Patricia Meyer Spacks, Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. But the jacket of her most recent book, A History of the Modern Fact, acknowledges only her recent historical studies, Uneven Developments and Making a Social Body, as if readers were being asked to forget The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. 1 Indeed, the first chapter of A History of the Modern Fact explains its author's choice no longer to attend to women writers or even to the "ideological work of gender" (the subtitle of Uneven Developments). Although she still wishes to be identified as a feminist critic, Poovey is concerned now to explore what she sees as larger issues of which gendered meanings make up only a phase. For her, the "production of knowledge" is the fundamental object of study, and "before it will be possible to position accounts of the gendering of knowledge (for example) in relation to the kind of epistemological developments that enabled white men to divide up and discipline knowledge, we need more work on those epistemological developments themselves" (A History of the Modern Fact, 24), work of the kind she does in the book she is introducing.
While other feminist critics might argue that gender should be integrated into any historical analysis from the start--that the production of knowledge, for example, cannot be properly understood without examination of the social and economic relations of men and women in the times and places where knowledge was being produced and without attention to the ways in which gendered meanings operate in representations of knowledge--Poovey is emphatic about renouncing her own previous work that focused primarily on women and gender. Because she now tries to study works in their original contexts and because she believes that "not until a feminist critique [End Page 453] had been popularized (or vilified) in the work of Mary Wollstonecraft does it make sense to think of sexism," she characterizes feminist literary criticism as a foolhardy critical program of "'unmasking' the benighted past" (21) and adds, "I include much of my own previous writing in the paradigm of denunciation that I now want to leave behind" (23). Many who began their careers as feminist literary critics have turned to other topics, but few have so deliberately renounced their work on women and gender. What, then, can the organizers of the 1999 British Women Writers Association conference have been thinking when they invited Poovey to serve as their keynote speaker?
In the years since the publication of The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, there has been much worthwhile debate about the use of such analytical categories as "women" and "women writers." Many have come to feel that, although "women" remains a useful category of analysis when used to denote a historically specific and highly variable category, it is important to guard against its being misconstrued as an essence or as a transhistorical reality, whether because "woman" is a category produced by oppression and thus a category we should neither celebrate nor perpetuate, or because its use naturalizes what are really class- and race-bound traits (as when white, middle-class attributes are mistaken for the essence of femininity). Nonetheless, with regard to times and places where "women" retains its historical validity, "women writers" is still a growth industry both for literary historical research (e.g., the proliferation of studies of women writers of the romantic era) and for anthology production. 2 Should scholars in these industries lose sight of the historical contingency of "women...