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Telling Women's Lives

Telling Women's Lives: Subject/Narrator/Reader/Text

Judy Long
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Telling Women's Lives
    Book Description:

    For centuries, the "great man" format and masculine discourse of biography and autobiography have eclipsed women. If we accept this history, we remain ignorant of "Lady Sarashina," a Japanese woman of the Han period, whose book survives from the 11th century. We overlook Margaret Cavendish and Dame Julian, two early English autobiographers. And we fail to consider sufficiently slave narratives, oral histories, or lesbian "coming out" stories. Telling Women's Lives assesses existing traditions of autobiography and biography in search of a method capable of conveying the distinctive content of women's lives while retaining the tenor of feminine subjectivity. Drawing on feminist research methodologies of the past two decades as well as anthropology and sociology, Long paves the way for the formulation of an emergent feminist methodology for telling women's lives. This highly original study seeks to revise and recreate the genre so as to accommodate a feminine discourse, narrator, reader, and subject. The "messiness" of women's lives-the daily work and detail that men have programmatically excluded-acquires new meaning as Long develops here an innovative theory of sociobiography.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6522-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Telling Women’s Lives
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book germinated in my fascination with another woman’s life,¹ and my need to grasp what would be involved in telling it. Propelled by these two forces, I entered upon a journey of discovery that many other readers and writers are making in the last decades of the twentieth century. At first my subject herself filled my focus; she was a fascinating individual who, then in her middle seventies, had been living in Mexico as a “political refugee” for thirty years. The first mystery that attracted me was the challenge of subjectivity. I was awed by Lini’s life and the...

  5. 2 Gender and Genre
    (pp. 15-26)

    Some theoretical and critical work on autobiography reads as though the autobiographical impulse translates unproblematically into action, with the text emerging automatically. Upon inspection, such work without exception assumes a male subject. To invest oneself with historical significance, to claim the attention of the reading public, to follow the model of previous notable lives—all are positionings more easily attained by male than female subjects. The interlocking prerogatives of maleness and subject-ness facilitate the connections between the self and history, man and society. Women’s trepidation about committing themselves to writing autobiography has everything to do with the unacknowledged masculinity of...

  6. 3 Scribbling Women
    (pp. 27-44)

    Female autobiography is not autobiography as usual. Women’s self-writing is animated by the tension between external control of women and the assertion of female subjectivity, a tension visible in women’s personal narratives of whatever form. For the woman autobiographer, the process of self-discovery is accompanied by a sense of contestation and risk. Autobiographical strategies employed by women convey some degree of challenge to the all-male tradition of autobiography and often a feeling of threat. Women subjects anticipate difficulty in being “read” or “heard” by a male audience. And women writing their lives for a public cannot escape the terrors and...

  7. 4 Translating Darkness
    (pp. 45-58)

    Readers seeking women’s narratives will find few in the canon of autobiography. Women are heavily represented among authors of “noncanonical,” subordinated forms of writing. Readers will be obliged to adopt a broader definition and look outside the canon—in letters, diaries, fiction, and poetry. For women’s lives demand new forms of narrative, shaped by their purposes and the conditions of their lives. In addition to problematics of form, narrators of women’s lives have recognized a problematic of language. As subjects and as narrators women are seeking terms for significant realities that have not previously been inscribed. As Marguerite Duras says,...

  8. 5 The Second Person in Social Science
    (pp. 59-72)

    In examining autobiography we focussed on a tradition of life-telling that emphasizes first-person accounts; biography, in contrast, emphasizes third-person accounts. In the social sciences we find both kinds of narrative. While mainstream social science is dominated by third-person accounts, the tradition of sociological life history provides an enduring counterpoint in the form of first-person accounts. Putting our focus on sociology allows us to explore some fundamental issues that affect an author’s choice of first-person or third-person voice and the consequent shaping of the text. This choice depends heavily on how the researcher’s role is defined.

    The goal of this chapter...

  9. 6 Sociological Life History
    (pp. 73-100)

    In the last chapter I argued for a transformation of the way we think about social researchers and social research, replacing the researcher with a narrator. I proposed life-telling with a narrator who is sociologically situated, and suggested a way of reading texts that acknowledges the narrator’s location in hierarchies of social class, gender, age, and race. The tradition of sociological life history offers a strategic site for the contestation between old and new philosophies of sociological research. Life history tells uniquely on issues of subjectivity and objectivity in life-telling. Moreover, in life history the narrator is an important and...

  10. 7 Feminist Biography
    (pp. 101-116)

    In the life history tradition, failure to come to terms with unresolved issues in the relationship between subject and narrator created persistent contradictions. That relationship, more thoroughly examined in the literature on biography, is the starting point of this chapter. Biographers seek to grasp and communicate the subjectivity of the subject and, often, their own as well. In biography the neglected second person is often visible—and audible. The subject “speaks to” the narrator—and the narrator, more often than not, replies. Sometimes the narrator speaks directly to the reader.

    With biography defined as the intersection between the personality of...

  11. 8 A Feminist Approach to Telling Women’s Lives
    (pp. 117-134)

    William James’s quote is applicable to all endeavors that take human beings as their subject-matter. It is a plea for empathy and respect in the face of difference. It is also a warning against arrogance in interpretation, against chauvinism and against universalizing one’s own subject-positioning. Above all, it is a reminder that there is never only one narrative, a reminder that we must bear in mind in this chapter, as we look forward and backward at the challenges of telling women’s lives.

    The task of this book has been to identify the elements of a woman-centered methodology for telling women’s...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 135-158)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 159-178)
  14. Index
    (pp. 179-184)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 185-188)