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  • New Feminist Approaches to Chaucer Introduction
  • Samantha Katz Seal and Nicole Sidhu

Geoffrey Chaucer, the "Father of English Poetry," has always posed a unique challenge to feminist critique. Constructed as a poetic figure according to his so-called paternity of a long line of literary sons, Chaucer stood for generations as the paterfamilias of the English canon, a bulwark of masculinity fit to fight against the incursions of the female sex. Indeed, as Carolyn Dinshaw reminded the audience at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of her foundational book, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, the very idea of a feminist re-visioning of medieval England's most famous poetic son was profoundly threatening to the medievalist community of 1989.1 While previous scholars had studied Chaucer's female characters, Dinshaw—and the feminist scholars who followed her—demanded something far more radical. They argued that one could not read the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer without a consideration of gender, that Chaucer's treatment of sex and gender was inseparable from his larger literary project. In a sense, these feminists claimed Chaucer for the first time, and refused to cede him back to the male readers who had so long possessed him in exclusivity.

Chaucerian feminism has always been, first and foremost, a communal enterprise, comprised of many different scholars who approach the topic of gender in Chaucer from a variety of different angles. In the early days of Chaucerian feminism, a few well-known monographs were key to [End Page 224] establishing the legitimacy of feminism as an area of study, but as time went on, the power and the vigor of Chaucerian feminism lay increasingly in its spirit of community, of many scholars, housed at many different kinds of institutions, working towards a common goal together.2 A search of the Modern Language Association Bibliography pairing Chaucer with the key words gender and feminist theory from 1980 to 1989 yields ten works by nine different scholars. For the 1990s, the same search reveals fifty-five works by fifty different scholars.3

As the feminist Chaucerian movement has grown, it has diversified in myriad ways, reflecting a similar diversification in medieval feminist studies as a whole: studies of "women in Chaucer" in the 1970s and early 1980s gave way in the 1990s to studies examining the gender politics of medieval romance, obscenity, rape, the fabliau, and even how the process of reading and writing is imagined in Chaucer's oeuvre.4 Elements of Chaucer's biography were reevaluated. While the earliest generation of Chaucerians had ignored the accusation of rape lodged against Chaucer by Cecily Chaumpaigne, and scholars of the mid to late twentieth century had treated this evidence of "infidelity" as a joke, feminist scholars reordered the accepted doctrine of Chaucerian biography by arguing that it was not Chaucer but Cecily with whom the critic should identify.5 During the 1980s and 90s, feminist Chaucerians were bolstered by feminist work elsewhere in medieval studies as well as by the foundation of the Medieval Feminist Newsletter in 1986 and of The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship in 1992.

The new millennium has seen Chaucerian feminism continuing to expand. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scholars emerged who interrogated the historicist focus of earlier feminism and examined Chaucer using psychoanalytic [End Page 225] theory.6 In the mid to later 2000s, Chaucerian feminism became increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing a variety of theoretical approaches to bear on Chaucer's life and writing, including theories relating to performativity, masculinity, queerness, orientalism, ethics, marriage, and sexuality.7 In the current decade of the 2010s, Chaucerian feminists examine Chaucer in light of cultural ethics, evaluate the politics of his texts' obscene misogyny, explore more deeply his engagement with rape, and expand the study of his gender politics to include spheres like marriage, ideals of virtue, class identities, the history of emotion, and definitions of womanhood.8 As the articles in this issue reveal, intersectional feminism is in a nascent stage in Chaucer studies but is of great importance in the current work of Chaucerian feminists as we move to confront Chaucer's role in a racist, as well as sexist, society.

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