“Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away. She hadn’t had even one baby yet.” (Kurt Vonnegut)
“He could feel her breasts, ripe yet firm.” (George Orwell)
“Her breasts, of which she was normally proud, had withdrawn into themselves, as if depressed.” (Jeffrey Eugenides)
I plucked these glorious representations of men writing women in under five minutes from the subreddit thread “She breasted boobily down the stairs”. There were no hashtags in the 1970s but if there were, #notallmen would arguably have been redundant, at least in the arena of literature. There was an undeniable patriarchal bias in the way women were represented in literature, and in an un-virtuous circle, this bias contributed to the construction of the male-dominated canon, further excluding women who would, undoubtedly, 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 undergraduate, I read a hefty 19th-century novel a week without stopping to consider the reductionist, patriarchal stereotypes I was internalising, and as the curriculum was largely devoid of women writers and as yet untouched by theory, few alternative readings presented themselves.
Two cornerstone texts which attempted to expose the stereotypes and to recover and reinterpret texts by women in order to create a feminist tradition were Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979). Showalter was attacked as “separatist, careerist, theoretical, anti-theoretical, racist, homophobic, politically correct, traditional, and non-canonical”, she later observed wryly, “for being the first” to challenge the canon in this way.
From our perspective over 40 years on, these texts are inevitably out of date, but reading them as a postgraduate student was like drawing back the curtains, again and again. I had enrolled in women’s studies to understand why so few women writers had made it into the canon and these theorists were giving me answers.
New style of writing
Another kind of revolution was being sown by French literary theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, who wanted to subvert what they deemed a masculine or “phallocentric” tradition by creating a new style of writing entirely. Écriture feminine or women’s 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 about femininity” and “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies”.
The rich and heroic scholarship of these feminist literary critics challenged the canon, changed English literature as a discipline and cleared a path for the women writers to come. The women writers of the late seventies continued to push formal boundaries in exciting ways. A recent read, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, reminded me, in its disjointed, frenetic representation of our disjointed, frenetic online lives, of Speedboat by Renata Adler (1976).
In this feminist classic, journalist Jen Fain dashes about New York reporting on life as she finds it, in urgent, vivid prose: “Speech, tennis, music, skiing, manners, love-you try them waking and perhaps balk at the jump, and then you’re over. You’ve caught the rhythm of them once and for all, in your sleep at night. The city, of course, can wreck it. So much insomnia. So many rhythms collide. The salesgirl, the landlord, the guests, the bystanders, sixteen varieties of social circumstance in a day. Everyone has the power to call your whole life into question here. Too many people have access to your state of mind.”
The book comprises a series of vignettes, with little by way of transition or plot, and an outward gaze that is deeply refreshing.
She quotes the unforgettable sentence, “You don’t have to rape 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
In this period, the women who would become the grandes dames of literature were coming into their strength. Edna O’Brien wrote her first memoir Mother Ireland (1975); Joan Didion published her second novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and second collection of essays, The White Album (1979); Joyce Carol Oates completed her seventh novel after The Wonderland Quartet and published her 12th short story collection, All the Good People I’ve Left Behind, in 1979; Anne Tyler, having disowned her earlier novels on the basis that they prioritised spontaneity over revision, effectively started again, publishing three novels in the seventies; and Margaret Atwood published her novels Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976) and Life Before Man (1979).
This was the era of marriage-themed feminist fiction. These authors were exploring social constructions of gender and identity as they played out in marriage and family life. Marilyn French’s debut, The Women’s Room (1977), the international bestselling example, was revisited by Nuala O’Faolain a quarter of a century after she had first read it. She quotes the unforgettable sentence, “You don’t have to rape 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, describing it as “cartoon-like”.
I read it in the 1990s and concurred (which was a bit rich given patriarchal stereotypes internalised, above). In the decades which followed its publication, the novel was critiqued for its largely white, middle-class cast of characters, and dismissed as of its time. O’Faolain concludes that while such “literature of the Awful Warning” 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 laws on coercive control, I’m not so sure.
Any review of seventies’ women’s writing would be incomplete without the inclusion of Lestat, the most successful vampire since Dracula and antihero of Anne Rice’s 1976 debut novel, Interview with the Vampire
The Sea, The Sea (1978), Iris Murdoch’s Booker-MacConnell prizewinning novel, is another indictment of marriage as told through the eyes of Charles Arrowby, who has retired to a house by the sea to write and “learn to be good”. Murdoch – whose day-job was moral philosopher at Oxford – draws on a range of genres, including comic, gothic horror, supernaturalism, realism and magic realism, to explore her themes of good and evil through the characters of retired thespian Charles and his spiritual cousin James. Critics were divided, with some finding the writing uneven and the plot implausible – Charles, in his splendid isolation, bumps into an old girlfriend, a coincidence on which the plot hinges – but for the reader willing to suspend disbelief, the variety of styles and the sheer awfulness of Charles makes for an entertaining read.
Murdoch’s convoluted plots and witty prose had made her hugely popular in the sixties and seventies, and her books had been shortlisted for the Booker three previous times. What got The Sea, The Sea, her 19th novel, over the line, may have been the successful combination of Murdoch’s philosophical concerns with storytelling that creates a real emotional connection with the reader.
Any review of seventies’ women’s writing would be incomplete without the inclusion of Lestat, the most successful vampire since Dracula and antihero of Anne Rice’s 1976 debut novel, Interview with the Vampire, which led to a proliferation of new vampire fiction such as the hugely popular Twilight, and the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I confess to finding vampires quite silly, but in the interests of research, I gave the novel another go, and for good measure, streamed the Neil Jordan-directed film starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I enjoyed the costumes and the camp and the veins-between-the-teeth, I did not change my mind. Not that this would have troubled Rice; her novel sold over eight million copies and led to the hugely successful sequels that became The Vampire Chronicles, spin-off series, two film adaptations and a TV adaptation which is scheduled for release this year.
It is probably not a coincidence that Jordan also directed Angela Carter’s eponymous short story, The Company of Wolves, which draws on the same gothic sexuality, in part inspired by Rice. In a feminist act that aligned with Cixous’ theories, Carter (Angela Olive Pearce) set out to “demythologize” the fairy tales on which the stories of her 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, are based, by writing women’s bodies, with all their fluids and pleasures and agency, back into these tales.
The late seventies also saw the beginning of Maeve Binchy’s literary career with her short story collection, Central Line (1978), followed two years later by another collection, Victoria Line. Both were well-received and sold moderately well, but it was not 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 widened the scope 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 her seminal Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, an historic account of the historical impact of sexism and racism.
By the late seventies, Maya Angelou had already written three autobiographies and two volumes of poetry and in 1978 she published her third, And Still I Rise. You are a lucky reader if you have yet to read the titular poem, Still I Rise, Angelou’s triumphant anthem of resistance and empowerment.
Better still, treat yourself toa reading by Angelou herself.
A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter (1977)
Pioneering work of reclamation of British women writers of the 19th and early 20th century.
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)
A ground-breaking 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 to English in 1976 by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen)
A manifesto for the creation of a new literary movement.
Speedboat, Renata Adler (1976)
Seventies New York as observed by journalist Jen Fain. Fragmented exteriority at its finest.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French (1977)
The often-unhappy lives of women in sixties and seventies America against a backdrop of second-wave feminism.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)
Charles Arrowby irritates and entertains by turns.
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice, (1976).
Classic vampire romp.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter, (1979)
Putting women’s bodies back into fairy tales.
And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou, (1978)
A still too-relevant black feminist anthem.