- Feminist Collaboration in an Era of Academic Instability
Published in 1912, Miriam Michelson’s fantasy novella The Superwoman takes place on a remote island ruled by Amazonian women. Seen through the eyes of male protagonist Hugh Ellinwood Welburn, an accidental interloper, Michelson’s matriarchal society is “topsy-turvy.”1 Not only are men’s and women’s gender roles reversed, but the island women also practice polyandry; they judiciously choose male mates and then discard them once they have served their primary reproductive purpose (in this case, to provide the women with daughters). A trailblazing vision of a feminist utopia, The Superwoman predates, and likely inspired, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which was first serialized in 1915 in The Forerunner, Gilman’s self-published magazine. Recovered in the 1970s as the first “self-consciously feminist” utopian novel of the twentieth century, Herland has become a classic of American women’s writing.2 It has been published in multiple editions, including a reissue in 2015 to mark its centenary. The Superwoman, in contrast, languishes in obscurity. It can only be read in the pages of The Smart Set, the popular magazine in which it initially appeared. Its author similarly remains unknown to most scholars of American literature despite her fame as a pioneering female journalist and bestselling novelist at the turn of the twentieth century. The case of Michelson’s The Superwoman demonstrates that the project of feminist recovery is far from over, and that periodicals remain a rich archive for reclaiming lost works by American women writers.
The recovery of feminist writings like The Superwoman and women authors like Michelson continues to be vitally important to the study of American literature, filling gaps in literary history and making the canon more inclusive. As we have discussed elsewhere, Michelson’s work enriches American literary scholarship not only because she is a lost feminist voice, but also because she was an early Jewish American writer whose newspaper and magazine writings capture the ethnic diversity of the Progressive Era West.3 Thanks to digitization, the periodical archives, too, have become increasingly accessible; scholars are now able to search many periodicals from their computers, with and without library subscriptions.4
Yet at the same time that the American canon has expanded to include marginalized voices and technological developments have broadened access to archives, the structure of academic labor has become less democratic. Universities’ increasing reliance on contract labor has been well documented; so, too, have the [End Page 16] negative effects on students and adjunct workers, many of whom live below the poverty line despite teaching at multiple institutions and holding additional jobs. The shift to contract labor also has had adverse effects on scholarship, especially in the humanities, where resources are directed toward a small group of tenured elite. Non-tenure-track academics, in contrast, receive little to no funding for research, and the teaching and administrative demands placed on them rarely allow time or space to pursue scholarship. These structural inequalities pose a particular threat to the future of periodical studies that focus on feminist recovery, because the adjunctification of higher education disproportionately affects women (and women, of course, are more likely to undertake feminist research).5 Our own experiences as non-tenure-track scholars have shaped our approach to recovering women writers through the periodical archive.6 By describing our collective search for Michelson, we suggest that the recovery of marginal and obscure writers takes on new urgency when the scholars themselves are marginalized within the profession.
Our shared experience of academic instability led us to undertake collaborative work on Michelson. Despite the challenges we faced owing to the insecurity of our positions, we remained invested in the projects of feminist and ethnic recovery. Lori came across Michelson’s writing, including The Superwoman, while conducting research on forgotten, San Francisco–based Jewish women whose work provides alternatives to the ghetto fiction that dominates turn-of-the-twentieth-century Jewish American literary history. Given that English departments have been notoriously inhospitable to research on Jewish American literature, it is unlikely that Lori would have pursued this research angle if she were in...