A return to standpoint feminism, or thinking through a new method for feminist medieval literary studies…

emelye garden


As I said somewhere at the end of the summer, I’m currently on sabbatical (and then I have a reduced teaching load for the next year), so I’ve been reading and writing toward my new book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature. In developing my arguments, I’ve also published a couple of articles in Exemplaria(https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10412573.2019.1581565) and The Chaucer Review(https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5325/chaucerrev.54.3.0352.pdf?seq=1). There, and in my recent reading, I’ve been exploring and thinking about an older school of feminist theory and its potential for medieval literary studies. This strain of feminism is not the only sort I’m pursuing (other key insights derive from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorizations of intersectionality and their development, Saba Mahmood’s reconsideration of piety and politics, and María Puig de la Bellacasa’s rethinking of care within a posthumanist ecological milieu—perhaps I’ll write more on these different frameworks in future posts). But I want to take a brief moment here to acknowledge this type of feminism and articulate my own interests in using it to analyze literary works that in themselves are definitely not feminist.

As its name indicates, this kind of feminism is rather basic: it is concerned with the standpoint from which inquiry begins. In general, it derives from the social sciences and hard sciences. Its first full expression can probably be marked as Dorothy E. Smith’s essay, “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology” (1972). There Smith argues “the subjects of sociological sentences (if they have a subject) are male” (27), and makes the simple yet radical claim, “Women’s direct experience places her a step back where we can recognize the uneasiness that comes in sociology from its claim to be about the world we live in and its failure to account for or even describe its actual features as we find them in living them” (32). Other early articulations by Nancy C.M. Hartsock (1983) and Alison M. Jagger (1983) develop standpoint theory’s political and philosophical importance.[1] For me, at least, these preliminary arguments are exciting for their ability to show women’s alienation from key forms of cultural communication, and the potential to revise those areas of social understanding by thinking harder about the difference that women’s standpoint might make. These arguments also hit at one of my deepest-held intellectual affections: as Frederic Jameson explains, in an essay that works to uncover the Marxist foundations of standpoint feminism, “The presupposition is that, owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or better still, that makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups” (144).[2] Yet as other theorists including Patricia Hill Collins, Donna Haraway, bell hooks, and Sandra Harding make clear, standpoint feminism is not just another way of doing Marxist theory, and you can’t just substitute women for the industrial working class—or, rather, if you do, you spin Marxism into feminism, and not the reverse. For over two decades, theorists including Kathi Weeks, Chela Sandoval, and Uma Naryan debated how best, in the words of fellow standpoint theorist Kristen Intemann, “to challenge systems of oppression and improve the conditions and life prospects of marginalized groups” (279).[3]

To be sure, though, the theorist most responsible for developing and sustaining standpoint feminism is Sandra Harding. In her groundbreaking Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (2008), she offers a definition that captures what all the fuss is about: “First and most obviously, these feminist accounts center women as agents, as subjects, of science and of history. They are interested in what the sciences do and could look like if one starts off thinking about them from women’s lives” (122). As she argues, a revised standing point can be transformative for knowledge making: “It possesses this organic character in the sense that when marginalized groups step on the stage of history, one of the things they tend to say is that ‘things look different if one starts off thinking about them from our lives’” (115). Perhaps it is just easier for me to see in the field of science studies that is the focus of Harding’s work, but she is the first theorist to really get me thinking about how the standpoint of science, objectivity, and rationality—because each is socially inflected—is masculinist in its structure and working. Now, I had of course heard lots about “the patriarchy,” but I had not thought much about how hallowed canons of knowledge are produced from an implicit standpoint—that of men. If we hide that standpoint, or fail to acknowledge it, it does not mean it does not exist, as Harding argues. For this reason, Harding claims, “projects to change gender relations must focus on changing men too, not just changing women” (111). And because genders are historically contingent because they are socially constructed, social structures have to be overhauled to change these naturalized, hierarchized relations between men and women.[4] Harding presents her argument in light of intersectional and postcolonial feminisms, and as a consequence, she does not argue for unity among women, or for conformity across women’s lives. Rather, in a practice that requires constant reassessment, she asks us to think through the difference it might make to start from the standpoint of women’s lives in all their particularity and variation.

Given that Harding’s aim is to formulate a different way to do science, you might rightly wonder what her argument has to offer a medievalist working on mostly male writers who represent women’s lives in poetic narratives. This is especially true since many other standpoint feminists work in the social sciences, and most if not all refer to women’s lives. By that, I mean women’s actual lives. Not the lives that some late 14thc. male poet invented for his own creative purposes (ahem, looking at you, father Chaucer, with your tidy release from raptus). But after reading Harding’s (and others’—including Haraway and Lorraine Daston) analyses of the standpoint that much science assumes, I am convinced that reorienting our assumptions about feminist literary inquiry can change how we think about many of these texts. This is because, as Judith M. Bennett has so cogently and persuasively demonstrated, a historicist focus on gender is insufficient for working on texts produced by male-dominated cultures (and I will definitely need to write more—a post I’m sure—on why gender is not enough and why Bennett is so right on this point for medieval literary studies).[5] Unless we acknowledge the masculinist social structure in which these works were produced, we will simply reinforce the hierarchies of gender that they assume.

We need a new standpoint, or so I’m contending. What happens, I began to ask in a series of papers, talks, and articles, if we start with women, and if we stay with women, in the texts we study? To begin my project, I began with super-hard cases: Piers Plowman and The Knight’s Tale. These are not feminist texts by almost any account. They are not concerned with women, and the women they feature are clearly literary creations designed to further each poem’s particular purpose.[6] Perfect, I thought. But why? Because what you see when you focus on women characters is that different issues emerge as important for literary analysis. Working on Emily (or Hippolyta) from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale demonstrates how little say women have over war, because, domesticated as she is for a heroic romance, Emily affirms how little say women are allowed over war. And, as a number of earlier feminist arguments have pointed out, this is patently ridiculous: Amazons are treated as if they have no investment in men’s martial contests beyond being prizes for the male victors. As Theseus’s encounter with the Theban widows should demonstrate right off the bat, women are directly involved in the world-destroying violence that men’s martial contests produce. And as Hippolyta’s and Emily’s captive status should illustrate throughout the poem, women’s entailment in this world-destroying violence extends well after the immediate conflict concludes.

What I saw, and what I’ve argued, is that a new set of values emerges from focusing on representations of women, even those representations by men seeking to consolidate and/or gratify masculine power. Rather than focusing on power, and women’s exclusion, as generations of feminists have done, my project explores the vulnerability that emerges when we begin with and stick with women’s lives as they are rendered by literary narratives.[7] As such, my project does not treat vulnerability as something to be overcome (there is no triumphant subversion or deflationary containment here), nor does it track all the ways that vulnerability is pressed upon women by men (I super don’t care about men—authors included). Instead, I treat vulnerability as productive, and I seek to find out what happens if we treat vulnerability not as a denial or lack of power, but as a constitutive, shaping force in its own right. Now of course, canny readers will notice that my emphasis on vulnerability is a debt to the work of Judith Butler, Athena Athanasiou, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. That’s right, and depending on how blogging goes, perhaps I’ll expand upon this debt.

Today, though, I want to stick with standpoint theory, because my interest in what it can do for feminist medieval literary studies extends an argument I made in my recent book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare(https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/16018.html—email me for a flyer with a 20% discount). There I argued that poets from the late fourteenth through the early seventeenth century invented new forms of ethical action for their women characters: taking advantage of the powers, or vertues, that material bodies could exert during this period, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare feature women whose endurance precipitates ethical transformation. Frequently such world-remaking arises from women’s suffering, but, and unlike earlier studies that focus on women’s dispossession or violation, I maintain that women’s material virtues, or the powers that arise from their precarious embodiment, create new forms of ethical life. So, in this book I focus on how women’s vulnerability might precipitate ethical reform in ways that our active/passive binaries of moral thought do not frequently accommodate. But there I also try my hardest to focus on the ethical difference that women characters make in these contexts—so even there I am practicing a kind of standpoint theory, even though not as forthrightly as I hope to do in my developing project. Writing my recent book is what led me to think about how standpoint theory might change how we do medieval literary feminism. As I came to understand, focusing on women’s lives changes how we might see ethical life, since women bring to the fore other kinds of moral concerns. And as I hope to make clear in Feminism Without Gender, a feminist account that centers the lives of women as they are represented in a host of Middle English texts promises to challenge the ways that we’ve traditionally thought about subjectivity and experience. More on that soon…

[1]See Sandra Harding, ed., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies(New York: Routledge, 2004), for all of these essays and more—page references are to this volume.

[2]Jameson traces feminist standpoint theory’s use of Georg Lukács’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” and “Class Consciousness.”

[3]Kristen Intemann, “Feminist Standpoint,” Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. Oxford: OUP, 2016. 261-82.

[4]In this project, of course, the work of Angela Davis and Nancy Fraser is key.

[5]See her History Mattersright this very instant.

[6]Langland, I argue, questions what it means to be a woman.

[7]My project seeks to build on those arguments made by previous generations of feminist medievalist literary scholars. See my ChauR article for my discussion of those analyses and their influence on my understanding of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

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