Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Women (and Others)

Celia Daileader opens the book Women and Others: Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Empire by discussing "the other woman," the woman who is not us, who is other-ed because she is like us (a woman) and unlike us (an unwelcome third). She is our competitor, our rival, sometimes our enemy. She is the anti-mother, whose destructive sexuality sets her apart from Angel in the House womanhood while at the same time encapsulating everything that is frightening and Other in a patriarchal society. Is she a whole (a whole person, with all her parts), or a hole (only one of the parts, or a lack of a part)?

Daileader points out that often the other women is other-ed racially, as well: "in the heyday of American slavery, the (white) wife's sexual "rival" was likely to be a woman of color" (4). In Shakespeare's sonnet sequence, there are two love objects--the innocent, lovely, fair young man, and the sexual dark lady who disrupts the relationship between the speaker and the young man. Traditional values of dark and light apply here, and are often applied between women to distinguish them from one another. White privilege is often constructed in literature by "aligning beauty, virtue, high rank, and white skin" (5), or, in the case of Oronooko, by giving him all the characteristics of white beauty without the whiteness (his Roman nose, his thin lips, his bright eyes).

The connection with Oroonoko is made here when Daileader points out that Behn, a woman, creates a black heroine, Imoinda, as beautiful and virtuous as any white heroine in "a rare moment of interracial woman-to-woman identification" (6).  She references Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's writings as being especially indicative of an openness to racial (and moral) otherness in her descriptions of and reactions to Turkish women she encounters. This ties into Daileader's initial question: how can women speak for/as each other, or can we only speak for/as ourselves?

Her answer is that, to encourage change, we may try to speak for others. But we must also listen, and cultivate other ways to listen. And we might look to other literatures--literatures that tell stories outside of white, middle-class, nuclear family America--for "emancipatory potential".

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