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  • Rosario Castellanos Pushes the Boundaries in Sobre cultura femenina
  • Margo Echenberg

Rosario Castellanos’s book-length essay, Sobre cultura femenina, stands more as a necessary referent to the early intellectual endeavors of Mexico’s most championed contemporary feminist than as the object of much critical attention. This is the case, despite the fact that what was originally her master’s thesis in philosophy was published in 1950 in América, Revista Antológica—the same year that she defended it at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras (FFyL) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)—, again in 1992 in Debate feminista and, finally, in 2005 as part of the Fondo de Cultura Económica’s Letras mexicanas’ collection (Fernández de Alba 84). The dearth of close scrutiny of the essay is likely due to the initial, adverse critical reception upon its (re)discovery. Virtually unknown until it surfaced during the events commemorating the tenth anniversary of Castellanos’s death in 1984, Sobre cultura femenina was dismissed by critics in Mexico precisely at a moment in time in which feminist criticism in and about the region was gaining momentum.1

Two works published in the United States in the late 1980s brought well-deserved attention to Castellanos in the early days of feminist literary criticism. They are devoted to Spanish American writers, but neither Maureen Ahern’s influential anthology, A Rosario Castellanos Reader, nor Jean Franco’s ground-breaking Plotting Women, devotes significant attention to Sobre cultura femenina. Criticism of the same period in Mexico produced seminal works such as Aralia López González’s La espiral parece un círculo: narrativa de Rosario Castellanos and Fabienne Bradu’s Señas particulares that engage predominately with Castellanos’s [End Page 3] fiction. Joanna O’Connell’s illuminating chapter, “Castellanos as Resisting Reader: Sobre cultura femenina,” redresses the oversight in 1995. Gabriela Cano’s introduction to the 2005 edition of Sobre cultura femenina also offers important extra-literary insights. Castellanos’s non-fiction has received more attention since the publication of Andrea Reyes’s formidable compilation, Mujer de palabras: artículos rescatados de Rosario Castellanos.2

The prevailing literal interpretation of the essay is that it offers an essentialized reading of woman’s transcendence by means of motherhood (as opposed to culture, the path followed by men) and thus stands in clear opposition to the entrenched idea of Castellanos as the woman writer who would go on to divulge and dispel the myths surrounding Mexican women and their status as subjugated others.3 This reading of Sobre cultura femenina coexists with another that posits the essay as ironic; proponents include Castellanos’s friend, Dolores Castro, as well as critics such as Andrea Reyes (Recuerdo 164–65) and Laura Guerrero Guadarrama. A third position, closer to my own and upheld by Emily Hind and Joanna O’Connell, observes how Castellanos teeters between deference to rational male authorities and intuitive ironical questioning in Sobre cultura femenina.

Whether encamped within the confines of one reading or another, critics generally agree that Sobre cultura femenina is a youthful first attempt at writing, an idea upheld by Castellanos’s own admission in the 1970s that “Sobre cultura femenina es un libro viejo que ya no me atrevería a sostener” (Poniatowska n.p.). Key to this “before and after” line of thinking is the importance attributed to Castellanos’s recanting of her position after having discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s existential feminism several years after working on her thesis.4 Instead of framing this divide in terms of rupture, it seems to me more productive to attempt to reconcile earlier positions with later ones or to trace the how and why that explain the changes. For example, as I suggest later on, a background in phenomenology as an undergraduate may have paved the way for Castellanos’s more existential conclusions regarding Mexican women’s identity in her later writing. Even Rosario’s contradictory relationship with what she understands as the “oxymoron[ic] ‘woman intellectual’” (Hind 60) and her teetering between masculine rational language and ironic distancing can (and should) be studied as continuities in her understanding of the woman-culture...


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