The Female Imagination
is a non-fiction book published in 1975 by the American author and literary scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks. A nominee for the National Book Award for Arts and Letters, The Female Imagination
surveys a number of female writers with the aim of identifying how a woman's creative voice differs from a man's. In a review
in The Harvard Crimson
newspaper, Wendy B. Jackson calls the book "by far the most comprehensive treatment of women writers to date."
Over the course of the book, Spacks examines the prose of fifty women, from literary luminaries such as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir to the progenitors of more popular entertainments like Betty MacDonald, the creator of Ma and Pa Kettle. If there is a theme that unites the entire book, it is one of power. Spacks explores how women balance power and passivity, the ways they exercise agency through their role as domestic caretakers, and how they embrace writing to compensate for a lack of control in other aspects of their lives.
Spacks begins by exploring a conundrum that many women face. While they wish to express a distinctively feminine experience, women writers often fear that doing so will lead to the public at large dismissing their work as inferior to the work of men. She cites many works that are considered classics because they consciously break free from female tropes of complacency or compliance. Here, Spacks examines Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening
, which tells the story of Edna Pontellier who struggles to forge an identity that is separate from motherhood and matrimony. While such works of early feminism are groundbreaking and inspiring, Spacks asserts that books in which the characters actively rebel against societal expectations of womanhood have a tendency to be reactive, and therefore, dependent on the very regressive ideas of gender to which these writers stand in opposition.
The identity of women as mothers is a highly fraught subject for many of the writers Spacks cites. Pregnancy—and by extension motherhood—is often depicted as an act of destruction. For beautiful women, pregnancy destroys the body. For career-oriented women, pregnancy is a distraction. For the independent woman, motherhood threatens to negate the self entirely, or at the very least subjugate it to the needs of the child. Here, Spacks quotes extensively from Sylvia Plath's loosely autobiographical 1963 novel The Bell Jar
. Its protagonist, Esther Greenwood, grows increasingly mentally unstable as she struggles to fit into societal expectations of womanhood. Esther witnesses a woman in labor suffering extraordinary pain and later learns that the doctor gave her a drug to make her forget the physical torment. Esther says, "I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless, and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again." In Esther's mind—and by extension Plath's—pregnancy and motherhood is primarily a function of society's demands that women serve men and suffer horribly for it.
Anger is another major theme of Spacks's analysis. Historical and modern gender inequities create ample opportunities to women to feel anger. However, the way that anger is expressed differs greatly from writer to writer. In writing about Virginia Woolf, Spacks places special emphasis on her extended essay, A Room of One's Own
. Published in 1929, Woolf argues that women writers need both a physical space and a figurative space in which to exercise their craft. Otherwise, they will be consumed by a lack of agency, and the writing will come entirely from a place of anger that can feel disconnected from anything outside the writer's singular experience. Woolf's solution is to pad the anger with humor, irony
, and metaphor
In contrast are writers like Kate Millett who wrote the 1970's Sexual Politics
, one of the key texts of second-wave feminism. Millett's writing is fiery and indignant, dispensing almost entirely with the kind of calm yet biting satire of much of Woolf's work. Both approaches are valuable, Spacks says, as Millett's work is arguably more visceral in its outrage.
Spacks explores the work of other writers, including George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans. Much of her 1871 classic, Middlemarch
, concerns the story of Dorothea Brooks, a highly intelligent young woman who marries a man she believes is brilliant in order to help with his research. However, her husband rejects her attempts to help him, feeling that his intelligence is inferior to hers. Spacks writes, "The complicated pessimism of George Eliot's attitude towards society exemplifies the characteristic tone of women writing on the subject."
Though it is difficult to grasp a unifying theory on women writers from Spacks's book, The Female Imagination
offers a valuable series of analyses of some of the greatest literary minds of the past two hundred years.