Femininity Versus Androgyny: The Ideological Debate Between Cixous and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

January 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

There is much debate in feminist circles over the “best” way to liberate women through writing. Some argue that a female writer should, in an effort to recapture her stolen identity, attack her oppressive influences and embrace her femininity, simultaneously fostering dimorphic literary, linguistic, and social arenas. Others contend that the feminization of writing pigeonholes women into an artistic slave morality, a mindset that expends creative energy on battle and not production, and inefficiently overturns stereotypes and foments positive social change; rather, one should lose gender self-consciousness and write androgynously.Hélène Cixous and Virginia Woolf, in “The Laugh of the Medusa” and “A Room of One’s Own,” respectively, epitomize these opposing ideologies, highlighting different historical sources for women’s literary persecution, theorizing divergent plans for women’s progress, and stylistically mirroring their ideas. Ultimately, the primary difference is in each philosophy’s time frame and belief over how much influence writing has to “empower,” to borrow a current feminist buzzword. For Cixous, women’s writing goes hand in hand with women’s liberation: “Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (311). Woolf, however, sees women’s writing as emblematic of and dependent on women’s progress in general; only with “a room of her own and five hundred a year,” through widespread social change, will her fictional Mary Carmichael “be a poet” (94).One of Cixous’s main intents is “to break up, to destroy” (309). This destruction of injustice colors her entire perspective; much of her essay is devoted to reaction, to toppling the tyranny of men. Men’s writing, she argues, “is a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, over and over, more or less consciously, and…has grossly exaggerated all the signs of sexual opposition” (311). Cixous compares women’s self-image to that of disenfranchised blacks: “They can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black. Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous…And so we have internalized this horror of the dark” (310). Through these cultural judgments, men “have made for women an antinarcissism!…They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove” (310). She connects this antilove most strongly with self-loathing for the body: “We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty” (315). “Shamefully” here has two meanings; men have been morally shameful in the lessons they have handed down, and women now bear that shame: “Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time” (312).This embarrassment of the self has destroyed women’s will to speak, to act, to individuate themselves: “I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs” (309). Cixous continues this passage with more imagery of pent-up eroticism and creativity: “Time and again, I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst…And I, too, said nothing, showed; I didn’t open my mouth…I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear” (309). The verb “swallowed,” a passive act of subservience with sexual overtones, embodies women’s plight of mental subjugation. Though Woolf acknowledges this historical enslavement, she ties it less to abysmal self-image and shame and more to a socioeconomic servitude that has shackled women to the domestic sphere and prevented them from writing.Woolf’s Manichean views on gender relations center on self-sufficiency obtained through money: “I pondered why it was that Mrs. Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind” (24). Money, for Woolf, is one of the defining providers of freedom, and this freedom translates into a sense of superiority or, in the case of poverty, inferiority: “Life…calls for confidence in oneself…And how can we generate this imponderable quality…? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority – it may be wealth, or rank…–over other people” (34-5). Woolf relates this superiority/inferiority play to the relationship of men to women: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size…That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge” (35-6). Since women have been traditionally oppressed to fit men’s needs, it follows that a man’s triumphs should parallel a woman’s failures. Woolf illustrates this with a concentrated look at the fictional life of William Shakespeare’s sister.Judith, as Woolf calls her, is immediately presented as an appendage to the home, while her brother is allowed free rein: “That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London…Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe…Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home…she was not sent to school…before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler” (47). William’s “hub of the universe” is a depressing contrast to Judith’s wool-stapler of a husband. Woolf’s martyr runs off to London, where she is greeted with more misogyny, this time of a more personal nature: “No woman, [the stage manager] said, could possibly be an actress…She could get no training in her craft” (48). Judith eventually commits suicide in the face of this adversity. Her story is a parable of the intense social and economic struggle with which any creatively-oriented woman dealt, but Woolf locates another reason for women’s silence: a lack of economic and social freedom moored to a lack of personal freedom, of privacy. “If a woman wrote,” Woolf writes, “she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightengale was so vehemently to complain, – “women never have half an hour…that they can call their own” – she was always interrupted…Jane Austen wrote like that at the end of her days. Œ…She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected'” (67). This bonding to the family room not only diminished the amount of work women produced, but also guaranteed the variety would never rival that of men’s literature: “Had Tolstoi lived…in seclusion…he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace” (71). Furthermore, War and Peace is considered one of the world’s greatest novels because “it is the masculine values that prevail…This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room” (73-4). Thus, according to Woolf, it is the triumvirate of economic, social, and domestic slavery that has inhibited creative women in the past. Like Cixous, Woolf argues that men have affixed an “inferior” label to women which has muted them; unlike her counterpart, Woolf does not focus on the nuances of this inferiority complex, namely the theft of the body from women’s identity. Her historical study is more akin to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which explores the “problem without a name” that has confined women to the sphere of domesticity. This division of opinion becomes more apparent in Cixous’s and Woolf’s solutions to bolstering women’s writing.Cixous calls for nothing less than a gender revolution through literature: “When the Œrepressed’ of their culture and society returns, it’s an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions” (315). She asserts that their “fragility; a fragility, a vulnerability, equal to their incomparable intensity” has enabled women’s “bombarding [Freud’s] Mosaic statue with their carnal and passionate body words” (315). Cixous’s directions for subject matter are undoubtedly segregationist: “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (310). This does not mean writing like most women through the ages, which Cixous derides as either indistinguishable from male writing or stereotypically feminine – “sensitive – intuitive – dreamy, etc.” (311). Rather, women should form a new terrain in which they can celebrate themselves and their bodies: “It is time for women to start scoring their feats in written and oral language…It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women…in a place other than silence” (312). Language is the key for Cixous; affirming that she will blow up Lacan’s “Law,” she exhorts “Let it be done, right now, in language” (316). “Woman has always functioned Œwithin’ the discourse of man,” she contends, and the most sexual imagery in the essay emerges in her appeal to overthrow men’s language: “It is time for her to dislocate this Œwithin’…biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of. And you’ll see with what ease she will spring forth from that Œwithin’ – the Œwithin’ where once she so drowsily crouched – to overflow at the lips she will cover the foam” (316). Indeed, this passage is unlike that of any male essayist – informal, poetic, charged with erotic imagery that appropriates male ejaculation. This new “bisexual” language goes facilitates the new subject matter: “It is women who are opening up to and benefiting from this vatic bisexuality which doesn’t annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number” (314). Liberating writing, she insists, must be constantly conscious of liberation: “Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics” (315). The reclamation of a woman’s body necessarily comes through the act of writing: “Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood” (317). While Cixous sees feminist writing as the key to feminist independence, Woolf argues that gender-consciousness should be limited to politics and has no place in art.Woolf explains how she avoided the pitfalls of Judith’s life: a sizable inheritance has guaranteed her economic and private security. This money has rid from her mind the impulse of slave morality: “Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change in temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me” (38). Woolf alleges that “genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, and servile people” (48). Though this smacks of elitism, Woolf’s position is that Shakespeare was able to produce masterpieces because he had no ax to grind: “All desire to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed…If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded…it was Shakespeare’s” (56-7). To achieve this artistic incandescence, female writers must have what Coleridge termed an “androgynous mind”: “Coleridge did not mean…that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to their interpretation…He meant…that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided” (98). Woolf’s essay is an example of this; nowhere does she rant and rave against men as Cixous does. Rather, she uses clear logic and a style that could never be blindly identified as coming from a woman’s pen. Once a woman writer achieves this stylistic freedom, Woolf allows, she is at liberty to write about women if she likes (as Woolf often did). Just as Cixous pushed the advantages of bisexual writing’s faculty for enlightenment, “It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men…Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?” (88)But not everyone has the advantages Woolf had, and she reasons that these will come about with time, provided women do not hurt their own cause by laying “the least stress on any grievance,” for “it cannot grow in the minds of others” (104). With time, she hopes, women will gain their freedom from the domestic sphere and, in an intimate finale, “then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down” (114). Cixous, roughly half-a-century later, echoes Woolf’s cry for sisterhood: “I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at me in a way you’ve never seen me before: at every instant…In one another we will never be lacking” (320). Their closing remarks are distinctive; Woolf’s is political and prophetic, while Cixous’s is deeply personal, speaking directly to her present-day audience, using inflammatory remarks and exclamations that, while risking credibility (as Achebe does in his essay on “Heart of Darkness”), draws attention to her message’s urgency. Both women are products of their time: Woolf wrote in the era of women’s suffrage and flappers in the U.S., while Cixous penned her monumental work on the cusp of the women’s movement in the U.S. Woolf was at the dawn of 20th-century feminism, and she saw women’s basic needs which were left unfulfilled, and plotted feminism’s course appropriately. By Cixous’s time, woman had made great strides in certain areas, such as employment, but sexism was more complicated, with gray issues like sexual harassment. A cloudier climate called for a more active, sometimes violent response. Though Woolf may have scorned “Laugh of the Medusa” for being “impeded,” perhaps by the 1970s feminists felt they could no longer afford to wait for the male-dominated political body to effect change. Women had to seize control with their own bodies.WORKS CITED:Cixous, Hélène. Signs I, Summer 1976. University of Chicago Press. Translated by Keith and Paula Cohen.Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989.

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