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Who are your peers? Or, more precisely, whom do you consider your peers? And are they the same folks you would want to sit in judgment of you on a jury? These provocative questions animate Elaine Showalter’s survey of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. Showalter takes her title from a 1917 short story by Susan Glaspell in which a farm woman is accused of murdering her husband. The suspect, Minnie, never appears in the story, which Showalter says is “less about her innocence or guilt than about the ways the men and the women who are thinking about the murder reach conclusions and judgments.” The men who inspect the crime scene are unable to find the evidence they need to convict Minnie, who proclaims her innocence. The women, attentive to the disturbance of various domestic details, understand that Minnie has strangled her violent husband; nonetheless, they conspire to conceal or destroy the evidence they have found in order to protect Minnie from what Showalter calls “the patriarchal system of the Law.”

Against this backdrop, Showalter assembles a jury for three-and-a-half centuries of American women’s writing. With each generation, she studies the “peers” against whom and by whom women authors have been judged, and illustrates how historical circumstances determined the course of American women’s literature. A Jury of Her Peers is not a chronicle of the best women writers, or a catalog of “firsts.” Rather, it is a collection of stories about all the ways women writers have struggled, excelled, and protested against the judgments that were made and continue to be made on their work. “I am asking,” Showalter writes in the introduction, “how American women negotiated the act of writing professionally, how they were changed by committing themselves to writing as a vocation, how they reconciled their public selves with their private lives, and how changes in the status of women affected their lives and careers.” This turns out to be a much more interesting way to think about the literary heritage of American writers than a simple assemblage of “the best” or even “the representative.”

The most obvious “jury” that sits in judgment of women writers is the audience they write for. In the 1850s, women were emerging as the majority of fiction readers—a fact that some scholars believe may have influenced not only which genres were sold, but what kinds of plot lines and topics were developed. The contemporary “chick lit” phenomenon (which Showalter traces to the 1996 publication of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary) recognized the existence of this audience and, in so doing, gave it greater power to drive the market. Showalter quotes a bookstore owner explaining, “We have fiction on one side of the store and then history and politics and biography on the other side.... It’s like the bride and groom at the wedding. People part when they come in the door, with women heading for fiction.”

Although readers determine an author’s popularity, critics hold the most power when it comes to defining the canon, and historically those critics have most often been men. Some men have been more generous than others in considering women writers as their “peers.” Among those determined to shut women out of the literary pantheon was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Showalter describes as especially resentful of female competitors. Writing in the eighteenth century, Hawthorne complained that “America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” Among the less volatile and sometimes generous gatekeepers was Henry James, who, in 1887, said of women writers: “We need no longer question their admission into the world of literature; they are there in force; they have been admitted with all the honors on a perfectly equal footing.”

Even women who win the acclaim of critics and the reading public are susceptible to private doubts and demons. The stories of the 1963 suicide of Sylvia Plath and the less-well-known 2003 suicide of Indian-American poet Reetika Vazirani illustrate how the craft of writing can dominate (and distort) the writer’s field of vision. Showalter considers the network of forces that often make women writers their own most injudicious critics, without reducing her subjects to the cliché of the mentally troubled artist. For Showalter, individual pathologies always have cultural and historical features as well.

A Jury of Her Peers does not idealize the “sisterhood of women.” Showalter reveals that women writers have often been ambivalent judges of each other’s work, regarding their contemporaries as competitors. When George Eliot died in 1880, many American women writers were “both saddened that a great era had passed and relieved that so formidable a literary rival was gone.” And Sylvia Plath confessed that, when reading about the honors given to her literary rival Adrienne Rich, “occasionally I retch quietly in the wastebasket.”

Not all these ambivalences were fueled simply by private jealousies. Showalter details the multiple ways women’s judgments were inflected by regional, racial, and class alliances. For example, white Southern writers of the nineteenth century often opposed “women’s rights” advocates, extolling and exaggerating the order and harmony of their own way of life. As late as the twentieth century, as the African-American novelist Alice Walker found success, questions were raised about who deserved credit: her African-American peers (like Zora Neale Hurston) or her white mentors at Sarah Lawrence College (like Muriel Rukeyser). These tensions mirrored the divisions among women of color and white women in the feminist/womanist movements.

Showalter maintains the thread of her extended metaphor of juries and judgment as she follows women writers through the centuries. Ultimately, though, the survey still reads as a progress narrative—the message is clearly that it is better to be a woman writer now than two hundred years ago. Modern juries are more democratic and fair; modern women writers have more generous peers. “American women’s literature has reached the fourth and final stage, which I would now call ‘free,’” Showalter asserts in her introduction. “American women writers in the twenty-first century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose.” In this, Showalter echoes both Marilynne Robinson and Cynthia Ozick, whom she cites extensively. “When I write, I am free,” Ozick insists. “I am, as a writer, whatever I wish to become. I can think myself into a male, or a female, or a stone, or a raindrop, or a block of wood, or a Tibetan, or the spine of a cactus.”

While I applaud the optimism, I wonder whether the forces of global capitalism and digital technologies are not a new jury to which American women writers must appeal. Yes, women writers might in many ways be freer than their historical predecessors, yet contemporary writers are now judged by an anonymous and rapidly changing jury chosen by forces beyond both control and imagination. There are both benefits and losses to these structural changes in how, why, and whom we read. But I suspect Showalter’s early observation that women writers must continually negotiate with their craft will remain valid.

In A Jury of Her Peers, Showalter tells the often fascinating, sometimes tragic, occasionally funny stories of how American women became writers, and how their work has been judged by various literary and social juries. She explores why we read the women writers we do, why we seldom read others, and why we might want to consider re-reading some. This history is a valuable companion to the many anthologies of the “best” women’s writing, since, as in Susan Glaspell’s story, the final judgment is often less revealing than the process by which that judgment is reached.

Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: 

Melissa M. Matthes teaches in the Government/Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

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