“The men looked at her and immediately wanted to fill her with babies. She hadn’t even had a baby yet. (Kurt Vonnegut)
“He could feel her breasts, ripe but firm.” (George Orwell)
“Her breasts, of which she was normally proud, had folded in on themselves, as if depressed.” (Jeffrey Eugenides)
I plucked these glorious portrayals of men writing women in less than five minutes from the subreddit thread “She got boobily down the stairs.” There were no hashtags in the 1970s, but if there were, #notallmen would probably have been redundant, at least in the realm of literature. There was an undeniable patriarchal bias in the way women were portrayed in literature, and in a non-virtuous circle this bias contributed to the construction of the male-dominated canon, further excluding women who would arguably have written themselves differently.
In the 1970s, feminist literary criticism exposed this bias and challenged the idea that the male-dominated canon represented a neutral, objective worldview. As an undergrad, I read one big 19th century novel a week without stopping to reflect on the reductionist and patriarchal stereotypes I was internalizing, and since the curriculum was largely devoid of female writers and still untouched by theory, few alternative readings presented themselves.
Two seminal texts that attempted to expose stereotypes and to reclaim and reinterpret texts by women in order to create a feminist tradition were Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977) and The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. and the Literary Imagination of the Nineteenth Century (1979). Showalter was attacked as “separatist, careerist, theoretical, anti-theoretical, racist, homophobic, politically correct, traditional and uncanonical”, she later observed wryly, “for being the first” to challenge the cannon in this way.
From our perspective, more than 40 years later, these texts are inevitably outdated, but reading them as a postgraduate student was like pulling the curtains back again and again. I enrolled in women’s studies to understand why so few female writers entered the canon, and these theorists gave me answers.
New writing style
Another kind of revolution was being sown by French literary theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous, who wanted to overturn what they saw as a masculine or “phallocentric” tradition by creating an entirely new style of writing. Feminine writing or female writing is a term coined by Cixous in her seminal 1975 essay, The Laugh of the Medusa. Cixous argued that “almost everything is yet to be written by women on femininity” and “woman must write herself: must write about women and lead women to writing, from which they have been driven out as violently as from their body”.
The rich and heroic scholarship of these feminist literary critics challenged the canon, changed English literature as a discipline, and paved the way for women writers to come. Women writers of the late seventies continued to push formal boundaries in exciting ways. A recent read, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, reminded me, in its rambling, frantic depiction of our rambling, frantic online lives, Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976).
In this feminist classic, journalist Jen Fain rushes to New York reporting on life as she finds it, in urgent and vivid prose: And then it’s over. You have caught the rhythm of it once and for all, in your sleep at night. The city, of course, can destroy it. So much insomnia. So many rhythms collide. The saleswoman, the owner, the guests, the passers-by, sixteen varieties of social circumstances in one day. Everyone has the power to question your whole life here. Too many people have access to your mindset.
The book comprises a series of vignettes, with little transition or plot, and a deeply refreshing exterior look.
She quotes the unforgettable phrase: “You don’t have to rape her or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her”, as an example of the melodrama of the novel
At that time, the women who were to become the great ladies of literature were rising in strength. Edna O’Brien wrote her first memoir Mother Ireland (1975); Joan Didion published her second novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and her second collection of essays, The White Album (1979); Joyce Carol Oates completed her seventh novel after The Wonderland Quartet and published her 12th collection of short stories, All the Good People I’ve Left Behind, in 1979; Anne Tyler, after disowning her previous novels on the grounds that they favored spontaneity over revision, effectively did it again, publishing three novels in the seventies; and Margaret Atwood published her novels Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976) and Life Before Man (1979).
It was the era of feminist fiction on the subject of marriage. These authors explored social constructions of gender and identity as manifested in marriage and family life. Marilyn French’s debut album, The Women’s Room (1977), an international bestseller, was revisited by Nuala O’Faolain a quarter of a century after it was first read. She quotes the unforgettable phrase: “You don’t have to rape her or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her”, as an example of the novel’s melodrama, describing it as “cartoon-like”.
I read it in the 1990s and agreed (which was a bit rich considering the internalized patriarchal stereotypes, above). In the decades since its publication, the novel has been criticized for its cast of largely white and middle-class characters, and dismissed as early as its time. O’Faolain concludes that while such ‘horrible warning literature’ might still be needed in many parts of the world, ‘the privileged world’ (The West, 2003) has moved on. However, given recent statistics on domestic violence during the pandemic and the need for new coercive control laws, I’m not so sure.
Any review of ’70s women’s writing would be incomplete without the inclusion of Lestat, the most successful vampire since Dracula and anti-hero in Anne Rice’s 1976 debut novel Interview with the Vampire.
The Sea, The Sea (1978), the award-winning Booker-MacConnell novel by Iris Murdoch, is another marriage indictment told through the eyes of Charles Arrowby, who has retired to a house by the sea. the sea to write and “learn to be good”. Murdoch – whose day job was a moral philosopher at Oxford – draws on a range of genres, including comics, gothic horror, supernaturalism, realism and magical realism, to explore his themes of good and evil through the characters of retired comedian Charles and his witty cousin Jacques. Reviews were split, with some finding the writing spotty and the plot implausible – Charles, in his splendid isolation, stumbles upon an ex-girlfriend, a coincidence on which the plot hinges – but for the reader willing to hang in disbelief , the variety of styles and sheer horror of Charles makes for an entertaining read.
Murdoch’s convoluted plots and witty prose had made her immensely popular in the sixties and seventies, and her books had been shortlisted for the Booker three times previously. Perhaps what made The Sea, The Sea his 19th novel, was the successful combination of Murdoch’s philosophical concerns with storytelling that creates a genuine emotional connection with the reader.
Any review of ’70s women’s writing would be incomplete without the inclusion of Lestat, the most successful vampire since Dracula and the anti-hero of Anne Rice’s 1976 debut novel Interview with the Vampire, which led to a proliferation of new vampire fiction such as the wildly popular Twilight and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I admit I find vampires pretty silly, but in the interest of research, I gave the novel another chance and, for good measure, I showed the film directed by Neil Jordan starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt . While I enjoyed the costumes and the camp and the veins-between-the-teeth, I haven’t changed my mind. Not that it would have troubled Rice; his novel sold over eight million copies and led to hugely successful sequels that became The Vampire Chronicles, a spin-off series, two film adaptations, and a television adaptation slated for release this year.
It’s probably no coincidence that Jordan also directed Angela Carter’s self-titled short story The Company of Wolves, which taps into the same gothic sexuality, partly inspired by Rice. In a feminist act that aligns with Cixous theories, Carter (Angela Olive Pearce) sets out to “demystify” the fairy tales upon which the stories in her 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, are based, by writing down women’s bodies. , with all their fluids and pleasures and agency, back in these tales.
The late 1970s also saw the start of Maeve Binchy’s literary career with her collection of short stories, Central Line (1978), followed two years later by another collection, Victoria Line. Both were well received and sold moderately well, but it wasn’t until 1982 that she published her breakthrough novel, the hugely successful Light a Penny Candle.
Scottish-born LGBT poet Carol Ann Duffy published her first solo collection of poems, Fleshweathercock and Other Poems (1973) and a collection with Adrian Henri, Beauty and the Beast (1977). In The War Horse, Eavan Boland expands the field of Irish women’s writing to include the suburban experience (1975). American author bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) published her first book of poetry in 1978, And There We Wept: poems. Although not published until 1981, Hooks was also writing his seminal work Ain’t I a Woman? Black women and feminism, a historical account of the historical impact of sexism and racism.
By the late 1970s Maya Angelou had already written three autobiographies and two volumes of poetry, and in 1978 she published her third, And Still I Rise. You’re one lucky reader if you haven’t yet read the titular poem, Still I Rise, Angelou’s triumphant anthem of resistance and empowerment.
Better yet, treat yourself to a reading of Angelou herself.
A literature of their own, Elaine Showalter (1977)
Pioneering work on the recovery of British women writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The madwoman in the attic: the woman writer and the 19th century-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)
A groundbreaking study of women in male-authored novels (as angels or monsters) and as writers in the 19th century.
The Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous (1975, translated into English in 1976 by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen)
A manifesto for the creation of a new literary movement.
Speedboat, Renata Adler (1976)
The New York of the 70s as seen by journalist Jen Fain. Fragmented exteriority in all its splendour.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French (1977)
The often unhappy lives of women in 1960s and 1970s America against a backdrop of second-wave feminism.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)
Charles Arrowby alternately annoys and entertains.
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice, (1976).
Classic vampire antics.
The Bloody Room, Angela Carter, (1979)
Putting women’s bodies back in fairy tales.
And I Get Up Again, Maya Angelou, (1978)
A black feminist anthem still too relevant.