- Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years
Recently the Women’s Studies Department at Princeton took on a new name and a new identity. It is now the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Apparently the University decided that the study of women is now passé. Certain battles have been fought and won. We have moved on. Undergraduates no longer need to know about Susan B. Anthony or Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich or Betty Friedan. I wonder if, since the 2010 election, anyone at Princeton is considering the declared victory of women a bit premature. As I write this, the unemployment rate is at 9% and we are at war in several Middle Eastern countries, but the new Republican Congress still finds time to attack Planned Parenthood, abortion rights, and rape victims. We’ve come a long way, baby, when Scott Walker and his party have managed to blame the global financial crisis on teachers’ unions.
So it is time to reconsider that canonical feminist text, The Madwoman in the Attic. Annette R. Federico has edited the collection of essays Gilbert & Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years. What strikes me immediately about the thirteen essays in the collection is that five of them engage with Gayatri Spivak’s 1985 essay, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Written six years after the publication of Madwoman, Spivak’s slender article has arguably had more influence than the massive tome she was attacking for ignoring how Bertha Mason is “produced by the axiomatic of imperialism” (129). Each of the essays that mentions it feels the need to genuflect before Spivak’s piece. Only one, by Danielle Russell, mentions Erin O’Connor’s response to Spivak, “Preface for a Post-Postcolonial Criticism.” To my mind O’Connor’s essay should have been the last nail in the coffin of Spivak’s egregious essay. O’Connor made clear that the essay neither argued nor proved its point but simply declared it. How gorgeously ironic, O’Connor notes, that, attacking Gilbert and Gubar for propping up imperialism, Spivak rules. Russell discusses Susan Meyer’s analysis of race in Jane Eyre but buries in a footnote Meyer’s particularly damning assessment of Spivak: “Susan Meyer objects to Spivak’s references to Bertha as both a white woman and a native: ‘Bertha is either native or not to suit Spivak’s critiques. Thus it is by sleight of hand that Spivak shows feminism to be inevitably complicitous with imperialism’” (147). Yet it has been inevitably complicitous with imperialism in the last twenty-five years of feminist criticism. It would have been lovely to read at least one essay in this collection that dismisses Spivak’s essay as easily as Spivak dismissed Gilbert and Gubar’s beautifully written, rigorously researched, lovingly argued masterpiece. Russell comes the closest. Noting that Madwoman has been accused of “essentialism, racism, heterosexism, phallologocentricism,” Russell reminds us that Madwoman “first appeared in a world that was just beginning to negotiate, in a sustained way, the meaning of ‘sexual politics’ and systemic patriarchal oppression….Subtlety and refinement are luxuries that can only follow the breaking [End Page 114] of new ground and the formulation of new theoretical approaches” (128). Russell’s essay does a great job of reminding us that considerations of race should not cancel out discussions of gender: “Systems of oppression are not mutually exclusive” (131).
Fortunately, other chapters remind us of just how much Madwoman changed the literary critical landscape for the better. As a Victorianist, I have grown accustomed to the easy rejection of Gilbert and Gubar. It was fascinating for me to discover that their work has had possibly more influence in Milton studies. By the mid-‘90s Jodi Mikalachki was able to assert that “since the early 1980s women’s issues and women themselves have come to dominate Milton criticism” (70). Carol Blessing argues that Mikalachki overstates her case, but it...