A Jury of her Peers, By Elaine Showalter

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The Independent Culture

In the late 1970s, after Elaine Showalter had published her acclaimed feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, she was urged to write a companion volume about American women writers. She refused, and went on to produce a series of important, often controversial studies of women and madness, sexual anarchy, the teaching of literature, and the "academic novel". Only now, perhaps looking back on a lifetime's teaching, scholarship and journalism, has she produced this authoritative study of American female literary production, while expressing her surprise that no one else had got round to it.

Although there are partial accounts by other feminist critics, and Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar's magnificent Norton Anthology of Literature by Women has introduced readers to a host of forgotten material, this is the first to cover five full centuries. Had Showalter written it in the 1970s or 1980s, she would have missed out on a vast body of post-Second Wave Feminism writing that is crucial for her argument. This book takes as its title the name of a short story by Susan Glaspell, which gestures to the fate of the American woman writer in a patriarchal literary culture. A woman writer's female peers can best understand and judge her words – and Showalter is your woman. There is no other critic who could produce such a clear, seamless history of women's writing, relating it so elegantly and wittily to literary, social and political contexts. Who else, with her finger on the popular pulse, would point out the first poem about empty-nest syndrome (1659) and the first about leg-shaving (1958)?

In some ways this is an old-fashioned account, focusing on US women rather than women of the Americas (so we lack towering figures such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Isabel Allende), offering brief biographical summaries, with less on journals, diaries and non-fiction, and weaker on poetry than fiction. Her own preferences and judgements are offered as definitive. This canonical survey is structured by the narrative of female production first outlined in A Literature of Their Own – namely, three stages of feminine, feminist and female writing. It concludes with 1990s writing as reflecting a fourth stage, "free" – when women could think of themselves "primarily as writers, and subject to the same market forces and social changes, the same shifts of popular taste and critical fashion, the same vagaries of talent, timeliness, and luck, as men". But the evidence she produces suggests that this is utopian feminist wishful-thinking.

A wry observation often made is that the great American male writers describe men in boats, while women focus humbly on houses and gardens. Indeed, Anne Bradstreet, America's first published woman, is dubbed Poet Parsleyate after her humble invocation, "Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bayes". To some extent, Showalter's history bears this out, noting the domestic constraints on women's role and relationships. From the earliest colonial days to the 1980s, women found their literary subject in the tedium and hardships of domestic life, especially housework and childcare, as well as in the complexities and tragedies of sexual and marital life.

The many stories of paternal and spousal incompetence, cruelty, economic failure, illness, lack of emotional support form a framework within which female literary production stirs, flourishes, falters and often fails. One is reminded of Virginia Woolf's familiar refrain, of the need for an income and a room of one's own before women could measure up to their male counterparts. This story traverses an often sad narrative of disastrous marriages, abortions, emotional breakdown, suicide and emotional and sexual frustration. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many women left or avoided men for strong passionate relationships, sometimes sexual, with other women – and in some cases, such as Gertrude Stein, they found "wives" to care for their daily needs so they could continue work without domestic interruption. The situation improves dramatically following the Second Wave women's movement, so to some extent this is a story with a happy – or more liberated – ending.

All the obvious, and many little-known, writers are here, and those who were footnotes are given new life. In a memorable example, Julia Ward Howe, known for composing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", published in 1853 a collection of anonymous poems about unhappy domestic life, Passion-Flowers, the best "a sophisticated, outspoken, and memorable portrayal of the tensions between creativity and maternity". So powerful was this collection that, when Julia's identity was revealed, her husband refused to speak to her for three months, threatened a divorce and refusal of access to her children. Such threats were too great, so her poetic life ended and a passionless, lonely married life ensued. The writing career of the mid-20th-century novelist, Jean Stafford, offers a further example. Despite the support of the writers' colony Yaddo, she moved from a wretched childhood to marriage to Robert Lowell (who horribly injured her in a car crash), and subsequent alcoholism, mental breakdown, alienation from friends, and finally aphasia.

While there isn't space to elaborate on class, race and regional issues, Showalter makes clear the way that slavery dominated all 19th-century women's writing. She gives due credit to African American women's writing, as well as that of other ethnic groups: Asian American (Gish Jen), Latina (Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez) and Native American (Louise Erdrich). She never obfuscates the racial tensions between women writers, especially in recent years - notably the falling-out between Muriel Rukeyser and Alice Walker.

This is also a story of successes. Many women have won Pulitzer Prizes; two American women have received the Nobel Prize. Women have produced some of the nation's most resonant global bestsellers: think Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Toni Morrison's Beloved. Women readers outnumber male, and to some extent determine the market. Showalter has given us a huge feast of information, ideas, quotations and gossip; it is for others to fill in the tantalising gaps.

Professor Helen Taylor teaches at Exeter University; her books include 'The Daphne Du Maurier Companion'

Elaine Showalter: words for women

Elaine Showalter, now a retired Princeton University professor, is celebrated as one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in America. She developed the concept of gynocritics - the study of women writers as a distinct literary tradition. Her work has straddled academia and popular culture; she has combined scholarly classics such as Towards a Feminist Poetics and her studies on madness in Victorian literature with controversial writing on fashion and a job as a television critic for People magazine.