Studies of women, culture, and politics by definition must be interdisciplinary. This book attempts to integrate the expertise of members of the Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America, whose disciplines are history and literature, and arrive at a synthesis about women writers active in the Southern Cone countries at the end of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. Blending literature and history requires what Toril Moi, in Sexual/Textual Politics (1988), calls contextual-textual analysis, which considers how the feminist writers respond to their environment. Because research of this nature also attempts to discover each writer’s psychological makeup, it may reveal the personal. Naturally, such research must consider the problems of taking subjective expression as truth; but then the philosophical question must also be asked, what is not subjective?
The collective nature of this work is more than an edited volume implies: it represents a long-term mutual study endeavor as well as a pioneer research methodology. Yet the results are less impressive than the enterprise, if the goal was methodological and theoretical synthesis. The reader might hope that each case study included here would present a blending or cross-fertilization of methodologies and analyses of existing studies, but some articles do this better than others.
Corrections. In a book review by Peter Gerhard in the November 1994 issue, the Greek word ἓϑvoς was incorrectly typeset. In another review in the same issue, the name of reviewer Alejandro de la Fuente was misspelled. The HAHR regrets these errors.
The book’s value lies in the conjunction of information about literary development and the historical moment. Readers learn what modernism meant to women writers in the twentieth century and how current events shaped those women’s views. Francine Masiello, for example, argues that dissident female writers became traitors to their nations because they challenged the virtue of patriarchal patriotism. Feminists, in challenging the constraints of domesticity and arguing for a place for the female experience, formed a counterpoint to the national image. They were “erotic, undisciplined, immoral, apolitical, irrational,” and needed to be controlled by a patriarch. This reviewer would ask whether these women were a counterpoint outside the definition of national principles, or whether they campaigned to redefine the national image to include women’s perspectives.
Mary Louise Pratt builds on Masiello’s article by focusing on Benedict Anderson’s argument that the nation is an ideal that projects historical values and culture. Women had been used as national icons symbolizing virginity, liberty, indigenismo, and national virtue in times of war. Feminist writers, however, rejected these images, as well as the values of modernization and urbanization. They preferred the natural state of humanity in the countryside, symbolized by a woman whose temperament did not conform to rules of urban living.
Kathleen Newman shows how feminist writers refuted the images of the modern woman found in film and literature. Submissive, idle, beautiful virgins symbolized the ideal and hid the ugly reality. Feminist writers pointed out that the reality consisted of labor strikes, unjust pay scales, unemployment, and the miserable lives of domestic servants. These writers advocated women’s becoming public figures with worldly experience.
Marta Morello-Frosch and Gwen Kirkpatrick apply this type of analysis to Alfonsina Storni, who was known as a poet and eccentric feminist. Actually, Storni was viewed as asocial and a threat to traditional and vanguard portrayals of proper women. Much of the information in these two articles can be obtained from other, more extensive biographical and literary analyses. Yet Kirkpatrick shows Storni as a feminist aware of class analysis and supportive of education and labor reform, children’s and women’s rights, the deleterious effects of culture (particularly the rigid and debilitating ideals of beauty) on true women, and the eradication of prostitution. Storni noted the consequences of social pressure, such as emigration, poverty, single motherhood, and religion, on women’s chances for self-determination. Yet for all her insightful analysis of Argentina’s social conflicts and women’s issues, Storni concluded that women were as yet unprepared to fight for and win new rights because they were insufficiently educated and they did not find common cause with other women.
Janet Greenberg focuses on Storni’s contemporary Victoria Ocampo, an upper-class feminist. Ocampo’s autobiography reveals her doubt about fomenting a women’s movement, with all its potential to destabilize the class structure, because she was loyal to her class. Unconventional but elitist, Ocampo was as much against the Catholic church as she was against leftists.
Several chapters seem a bit out of place. Emilie Bergman’s piece on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz offers little new information about the first American feminist poet. Francesca Miller’s article on Pan American feminism has nothing to do with literature, though it does establish that international women’s movements existed from the beginning of the century. The Inter-American Commission for Women, the first international movement in the world to adhere to an international organization (the Pan American Union), enabled women of the American hemisphere to attempt to pass equal rights legislation to circumvent the obstacles placed before them in their home countries.
The seminar argues convincingly that feminist writers throughout the Americas had contact with one another and were aware of perspectives and issues confronting women. The volume also provides future scholars with a good bibliography. There are some startling omissions, however—Cuba, for instance—which might have modified the sense that the Southern Cone produced more feminist writers than other areas of Latin America.
This is a good book that challenges all researchers committed to reanimating feminist or female lives to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. It also wins another point for postmodernist theory by exposing particular and intimate forces that determined women’s lives. It does not, however, lose sight of the overarching conditions that influenced women’s lives and inspired them to write.