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“Maybe if you shatter glass ceilings, you have to walk on broken glass.”

The authors who wrote Madwoman in the Attic return 42 years later, still mad.

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Left, Susan Gubar. Right, Sandra M. Gilbert.
Left, Eli Setiya. Right, Peter Basmajian.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the scholars behind the landmark 1979 feminist book The Madwoman in the Attic, are still mad.

That’s the title of their new book, and the idea that animates it: that nearly half a century after they first wrote about the madwoman, they are still angry. They are furious.

There is still so much for women to be furious about. Despite what corporate pseudo-feminism has promised us, there is still so much work left to do.

“Maybe if you come a long way, you encounter territorial backlash,” Gilbert and Gubar write in Still Mad. “Maybe if you shatter glass ceilings, you have to walk on broken glass. Maybe if you lean in, you topple over.”

In 1979, The Madwoman in the Attic became one of the first books of feminist literary theory. It examined books by 19th-century women writers like the Brontës, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen; writers who today are considered safely part of the canon, but who in the 1970s were rarely granted serious scholarly attention. The title comes from Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, and from one of Gilbert and Gubar’s great insights: that the madwoman is not just a nonsensical flourish of lurid gothicness. She is the anger of Jane Eyre, trapped in the attic of her mind. She is the violent rage of all women, forced into an unforgiving and overlooked corner of the narrative.

The Madwoman in the Attic gave us a way of reading the passionate, violent emotions of women writers who for a long time were considered bland, passive, and boringly angelic. Now, in Still Mad, Gilbert and Gubar return to their project of reading women’s fury.

Still Mad covers the grand sweep of contemporary feminist women’s writing, from Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich in the 1950s through to Claudia Rankine and Patricia Lockwood in the 2010s. Reading their work as part of a single continuous movement, Gilbert and Gubar track the ways in which feminism survived the ebb and flow of popular opinion throughout the conservative ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s to reach a new relevance after the 2016 election — and how in all that time, women’s anger kept screaming out onto the page. It’s less an excavation of women’s history than a synthesis, a way of establishing a framework that puts the feminist thought of our own era into sharp and vivid context.

To get some insight into how literature has shaped feminism and vice versa over the past 70 years, I spoke with Gilbert and Gubar over Zoom. Together, we discussed the fracturing of feminism, which wave of feminism we’re in today, and what happens when angry women vote for Donald Trump. Highlights of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, appear below.

Let’s start with The Madwoman in the Attic. What led you to write that book in 1979?

Sandra M. Gilbert: We taught a class together, and it was such an experience of consciousness-raising.

Susan Gubar: It was like a revelation.

SMG: A revelation or an apocalypse. We had been brought up to read mostly male authors. We read female authors, but only recreationally. Suddenly we were reading only female writers, all together in the classroom, and finding incredible connections. I would go home every night just gasping in amazement.

SG: Neither one of us had ever had a woman professor. It’s hard to remember that back in 1973 when we met, there were very few women on the faculty. The canon that was being taught in English departments, both undergraduate and graduate, was overwhelmingly male and white. So it was a revelation to us, and all that excitement generated immediately the idea that we have to go in and produce a book.

And then what led you to write Still Mad, 42 years after The Madwoman in the Attic?

SMG: I was visiting our editor, Jill Bialosky at Norton, and she said, “Have you ever thought about writing about what it was like in the ’70s?” I thought she meant a kind of memoiristic thing, and I outlined something. She didn’t like it. She wanted more historical sweep. More social context.

So I asked Susan if she would want to do it with me, or Susan volunteered to do it with me, and we decided to do it together. We thought it would be fun.

SG: We were also very motivated by the Women’s March after the Trump victory and the terrible downfall of Hillary Clinton. We were both too disabled to attend, so we thought writing would be our way of participating in an activist movement that seemed to be on the brink of a kind of revival. And we still believe that in fact, feminism is going through a kind of revival.

Part of the work that both Still Mad and The Madwoman in the Attic are engaged in are this excavation of women’s anger, how it hides itself and reveals itself. There’s been a rising conversation about that issue over the past few years, playing out in books like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her. The counter-argument I’ve seen going around is that these books might uncritically treat women’s anger as an inherently productive force, and ignore the angry women who for example used their anger to elect Trump. How do you respond to that argument, and what do you think is valuable about studying the anger of women?

SG: Well, the first thing I would say to that is that we are very interested in the women who elected Trump. One of the themes in this book is that a whole bunch of very angry women were involved in a backlash against feminism, led by Phyllis Schlafly. Starting in the mid-’70s up till today, we can trace this history of anti-feminist angry women. So we don’t associate anger, pure and simple, with the political bright side.

SMG: I would add that much more than The Madwoman in the Attic, this book is excavations of women’s lives and struggles, literary women’s lives and struggles against a sweeping political background. We didn’t do that much in Madwoman. In fact, in certain ways we were criticized for not doing it. Here, we’re very, very engaged with contemporary politics. We start with Hillary Clinton and end with Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris. Which is very important to us.

SG: The anger in the text of The Madwoman really needed to be elucidated. Because it appeared in pockets of the texts, or as we say, in the attic rather than the main floor of the story. That’s not the case for the writers we’re dealing with in Still Mad. The anger is right there on the surface, from Kate Millett through Andrea Dworkin through Adrienne Rich, etc. It doesn’t need to be elucidated.

So what we wanted to do was talk about the social movements of the second wave as a political power, and the ways in which it was fueled by imaginative women. I mean, I don’t think I can think of another moment in history where a political social movement was so prominently led by literary women: journalists, poets, dramatists, singers, and novelists. It’s extraordinary. The only thing I can think of as comparable might be the Spanish Civil War, where literary people played an enormous role.

I’m really interested in the way you position these figures as second-wavers. Still Mad starts with this idea that the revival of interest in feminism we’ve witnessed over the last decade is continuous with the second wave, rather than being a third or fourth wave. What are the advantages of working with the idea that the second wave is still going?

SG: In the first wave, you can see this long sweep from Seneca Falls [Convention of 1848, where Susan B. Anthony and other activists formally called for women’s suffrage] right in the mid-19th century, all the way through the beginning of the 20th century and the gaining of the vote [in 1920]. Looking at the second wave in this long sweep, we can see the ways in which writers are working with each other, and dialoguing with each other, and also with the first wave.

So to take Claudia Rankine as an example, she’s writing, what, in 2014 or ’15, around there, and she’s very, very dialogically involved with Zora Neale Hurston. So there she is in the second wave, thinking back through a predecessor in the first wave, and really evolving her own words through her dialogue with Zora Neale Hurston.

SMG: But you want to emphasize the fact that she is part of the second wave, that it’s not a third wave. Right? So we track women from 1950 to 2020. We see them as all being part of the same wave. Which curiously, and despite established historical ideas, does begin in the ’50s. It really begins with the women being very irritable in the ’50s, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. And it then goes gathering momentum and forcing fuel on into the 2020s.

SG: Another way to come at your question is to think about, let’s say, Plath and Rich, and the difficulty they had combining career ambition on the one hand and wifedom and motherhood on the other. Those are still problems to negotiate today for women. They’re still returning to those, unfortunately, extremely recalcitrant tensions in their lives. It’s through the tensions in their lives, we’re arguing, that the imagination gets sparked. Since those tensions are at the same polarities in the ’50s and in the 21st century, that’s one of the reasons we see them working with the same paradoxes, irony, problems.

So much of the internal movement politics you describe in Still Mad are very similar to the arguments we see now among the left, in terms of questions of gatekeeping and who gets to be considered a real radical and whether the enemy of my enemy is ever my friend. Do you see those fights in any way as a cautionary tale?

SG: I think in the ’90s we do see a fracturing of the women’s movement between, let’s say, Chicano feminists, Black feminists, poststructural feminists, activist feminists. The irony of this is that they’re all being lumped together in the ’90s as feminazis. It’s a very problematic time for feminism at that point.

SMG: But it’s gotten better.

SG: Oh yeah, it’s gotten much better.

SMG: The big irony is that what made it better was the election of Donald J. Trump. Isn’t that ironic and grotesque? The election of this absolute misogynistic clown united women in a way that nothing else could have.

Except for the many white women who voted for him.

SG: Absolutely. But feminists are not necessarily women. A lot of men really came to the forefront of the feminist movement, too, because of Trump. Understanding that there was a kind of proto-fascism at work that was putting us all in jeopardy.

SMG: Yes, when I said “united women,” I meant united the women who were feminists and other women in feminism. The women who voted for Trump were clearly not feminists. They were either non- or un- or anti-feminists. Or they were just clueless.

I want to jump back a bit to this fracturing you mentioned occurring in the ’90s. One of the big evolutions you trace is the way that for a long time, academic feminism and activist feminism were in really close conversation, and they were both pretty accessible to outsiders. And then as you show around the ’80s, academic feminism started to get more insular and more engaged with these esoteric theorists, who were harder to understand for people outside of the settings of the university. So how did we see that shift come about?

SG: I think part of it has to do with the extraordinary allure of theory in English departments and in creative writing programs, I would say from the ’90s on, and the powerful magnetism and charisma of people like Foucault and Derrida. So it’s not just a problem in feminism, it’s a problem in general.

But we also are not trying to be anti-intellectual, because the post-structuralist feminists, in particular Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, contributed enormously to the conversation that led to queer theory and that also resulted in trans studies. So I don’t think we’re taking them to task in any way.

There was a bifurcation, without a doubt, I think we would say, between activists working on the ground and people in what we call the ivory closet, a wonderful phrase Sandra created.

SMG: This is something that was happening in the academy itself. Within the academy, everything was getting more theoretical. Why was everything getting more theoretical in English departments? Because English departments were in competition against STEM studies, and they wanted to have an arcane language of their own, just the way physicists did. So they evolved this Derridean talk.

SG: Or Foucaultian.

SMG: Or Focaultian or Lacanian. And feminists, wanting to show that they’re just as good as their misogynistic brothers, evolved it, too.

There was also a tremendous influence, and I would trace this back to the ’80s, of French intellectual feminists like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva. All of that thickened the dialogue, thickened the language of feminism.

Which I think was unfortunate, because it did lead to a kind of splitting between the feminists in the academy and those feminists left who wanted to work on the street or in newspapers, lay media, journals.

One of the central questions of Still Mad is: “Must the president have a penis?” Did you come to any conclusions?

SG: At the beginning of the book, when we wrote that, we thought that indeed, the answer was yes. Because there was Trump, an ignoramus, and he had defeated a perfectly competent, seasoned politician. But I think by the end of the book, we were very heartened by the election of Joe Biden. Partly because, as we write, of our admiration for Dr. Jill Biden, and partly because of our admiration for Kamala Harris.

SMG: And also when you consider that now Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi are second in line for the presidency … It’s not as good as having elected Kamala Harris or Hillary Clinton to the presidency would have been. But it’s a step up the ladder.

SG: And who knows, maybe soon there’ll even be more bathrooms for women in the Senate.

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