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Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, by Sandra M. Gilbert.

June 5, 2012

Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, by Sandra M. Gilbert. W. W. Norton & Company (2011), Hardcover, 380 pages.

An important collection of articles tracing Gilbert’s role in creating the field of women’s literature.

When Sandra Gilbert and her collaborator, Susan Guber, published Madwoman in the Attic in 1980, it was a landmark event. Surveying women’s writings in English during the nineteenth century, their book examined what these authors said about being women, a question that was still an innovative one in academia. Gilbert and Guber would go on to write more books examining twentieth-century women writers and composing anthologies of works that have since become something of a women’s “cannon.”

As someone whose feminism also dates from the same period as Gilbert, I loved her account of how she was drawn into the excitement and discovery of those early years. Despite blatant sexism, Gilbert was trying to establish herself as an English scholar as well as raise three children in the 1970s. She was sympathetic to the feminists who were beginning to speak out, but not involved in the movement. Then she and Susan Gubar were asked to team-teach a course on women’s literature. In the process they and their students discovered what rich material was there to be explored. The course became the book as they shared the issues and themes they shared. Now in Rereading Women, Gilbert takes us back over some of that ground with her autobiographical writings and her discussion of some of the major books in women’s literature in English.

Rereading Gilbert’s articles brings us back to basic questions that initially ignited the scholarship by and about women. She asks us to reconsider some major women writers and think about what they have to say about being women who write. In addition to some general autobiographical essays, she devotes chapters to such authors as Christine de Pisan, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and George Eliot. One of my favorite sections was her discussion of various contemporary women poets, including Slyvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Denise Levertov, where Gilbert emphasizes the questions they ask about their own identity as women writers. In the end, I was left wanting to find and reread some of the authors which Gilbert presented. Which, of course, is a compliment to her.

Rereading Women shows why Gilbert has had such an impact on the study of literature and on women’s studies more generally and why we need to consider what these writers said about being women. I am no literary scholar and, at times, I got lost in her highly detailed reading of texts, but at other times I was swept up again in the thrill of discovering other women and what they had to say.

I highly recommend Rereading Women, especially for those with an interest in women and literature.

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