Professor Ruth Evans on feminism in academia
Professor Ruth Evans is Dorothy McBride Orthwein Professor of English, St Louis University, Missouri, USA. She is Executive Director of the New Chaucer Society. Prof Evans was the keynote speaker at the international conference, Redrawing Gender Boundaries in Literary Terrains, organised by the Department of English and Humanities, BRAC University on May 18-19, 2017. The title of her paper was “Unrelatability: Reading Literary Works from the Past in the Feminist Present”. In a conversation with Rifat Mahbub on May 20, 2017 in Dhaka, Evans talked about the relationship between literature and feminism. Excerpts:
Let me start by asking what made you interested in feminism?
My interest in feminism has a lot to do with English literature and the kind of reading I did when I was 16, 17, or 18. I read a lot of novels written by women. I started reading Doris Lessing, her The Grass is Singing, to begin with, and then I moved on to read some of her feminist novels. But feminism was not taught as part of our undergraduate course.
And which year are you referring to?
1977. It was in 1980 I started reading feminist theories in a feminist reading group comprised of young faculty members and graduate students at the University of Leeds, where I was doing my PhD. We used to read feminist theoretical texts together. The importance of Virginia Woolf which they were teaching, and Mary Wollstonecraft, came up. It was team talk, a group of young women talking to each other.
How much was this feminist consciousness influenced by the Second Wave Feminism?
Very much. For me, I was never part of any feminist consciousness raising group. But I think being part of that particular feminist reading group was a very important way of raising feminist consciousness. We talked a lot about literature and theory but at the same time we did talk about our family, and how supportive our husbands might be, and what kind of family life we might have. I read anything as long as they were written by women. So, that was really interesting. And I started to think how these books reflected my life and thoughts.
But the difficulty or the challenge is to make the students move beyond the tendency to see the text as a simple reflection of social reality. We don’t really want to have this kind of simplistic reading.
Had reading feminist literature changed the way you read literature?
Yes, it did. It emphatically did. It was my first exposure to the theoretical approach to literature. I can still remember the reading group discussions on the difference between the feminist critics and gynocritics, terms coined by Elaine Showalter. Feminist theories for me opened up the ways to link my life to the politics of reading. I began to see reading as a politics which I never thought of before. And that for me was absolutely groundbreaking.
Tell us a little about teaching feminism in the literature classroom.
That’s interesting. My students now are really interested in feminism. They want to read texts from a feminist perspective. So in a way you don’t have to teach them how to approach a text from a feminist perspective — it’s already there. But the difficulty or the challenge is to make the students move beyond the tendency to see the text as a simple reflection of social reality. We don’t really want to have this kind of simplistic reading. So, it is important to use some theoretical material to understand textual representation. And in this sense, I think Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter are texts that students can very easily relate to because they theorise gender identity. Butler provides very firm grounding to understand both identity and resistance.
There was a famous conference in Britain that was called Beyond the Fragments that was held in Leeds in1980 where feminists gathered together to talk about how feminism could include marginalised and oppressed groups of women that fell outside the frame of feminism as it was then conceived
Where do you see the future of feminist politics is headed?
That’s really a very good question. I think feminist politics means different things in different countries and contexts. It means different things to different people. In 1980 everyone in Britain was talking about the fragmentation of feminist politics. There was a famous conference in Britain that was called Beyond the Fragments that was held in Leeds in1980 where feminists gathered together to talk about how feminism could include marginalised and oppressed groups of women that fell outside the frame of feminism as it was then conceived. That conference really marked the challenge to white middle-class feminist politics in the UK. What really is interesting, as I have found it in the last five years or so, is the strong comeback of feminism particularly among young women. They have a strong feeling that the changes in society are not good enough, such feelings are coming through in a number of ways. Young women see that attitude towards sexual violence and rape against women have not changed. They are very anxious about it. They are angry and I think they use social media, tweeter, Facebook and there are a huge number of online feminist publications, such as Jezebel, that feature very serious issues that women face every day.
You are talking about the relationship between feminism and social media as well as popular media. Where do you think the relationship between feminism and literature stands now?
I still think that feminists read and value literature. Our interest in literature, our interest to know the other world has not gone away, but feminist theory is no longer grounded in literature, as it was in the Second Wave Feminism. It has moved into a different direction. Intersectional feminism, grounded in social justice, is now the focus. Young women are massively aware of the fact that even societies and cultures that seem liberal such as that of America also have serious practices of misogyny. Young women are turning to feminist activism because they really want to see positive changes in society.
You came to Bangladesh to attend a conference on gender. How do you feel about it?
The conference to me is particularly important on two counts. One is to realise how important fiction actually still is. People are talking about films but people are talking a lot about novels and fiction too. Young women and, even in some cases, young men are very fired up by the books that they are reading. It was really interesting to find that feminism is very much alive in the discussions. I don’t think there is any future without feminism, and young people in Bangladesh may see their future through feminism.
Dr Rifat Mahbub is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English and Humanities, BRAC University.