A Jury of Her Peers
American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 608 pp.
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...