Eliot, George: General Commentary

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Eliot, George: General Commentary


SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. "George Eliot." In Collected Essays, Vol. 1, pp. 196-204. London, England: Hogarth, 1966.

In the following essay, originally published in her 1925 The Common Reader, Woolf highlights the complexity of Eliot's thinking about womanhood and "feminine aspirations."

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SOURCE: Smith, Sherri Catherine. "George Eliot, Straight Drag and the Masculine Investments of Feminism." Women's Writing 3, no. 2 (June 1996): 97-111.

In the following essay, Smith discusses Eliot's "nuanced understanding of the binary that underwrites gender hierarchy" and reveals the function of misogyny in her feminist tendencies.


"There was clearly no suspicion that I was a woman"1, George Eliot marvelled in 1858, no tell-tale sign that the mysterious and applauded author of "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" was in fact Marian Evans, erstwhile translator, journalist, and editor of the Westminster Review. There might have been pleasure enough in knowing that one had hoodwinked a readership inclined to believe women the intellectual and aesthetic inferiors of men. But for Eliot, the pleasure of the deception was almost perverse. Not only had her first story met with the approval of the very society that had shunned her for eloping with a married man, but Eliot herself received the misreading as a kind of compliment, a testimony both to the respect that she believed manhood warranted and to her ingenuity in harnessing that respect by acting like a man.

Eliot did much to support such an impression of herself. Even her earlier translations and critical essays were shaped in large part by the anonymous male persona she assumed long before she emerged on the literary scene as the novelist "George Eliot." Her theatricals also extended beyond her authorial persona to encompass her everyday conduct with her closest friends and literary acquaintances. While the novelist Eliza Lynn Linton remembered her to be "uncouth," "unkempt," "unwashed and unbrushed," this reputation for gracelessness suited Eliot quite well in the social contexts in which she often found herself. A great number of intellectual men regularly invited her to gatherings made up chiefly of other intellectual men, and where the parties and soirées were of mixed company, Eliot could routinely be found fraternizing with the men.2



Mrs. Browning is, perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex; which superadds to masculine vigour, breadth, and culture, feminine subtlety of perception, feminine quickness of sensibility, and feminine tenderness. It is difficult to point to a woman of genius who is not either too little feminine, or too exclusively so. But in this, her longest and greatest poem, Mrs. Browning has shown herself all the greater poet because she is intensely a poetess.

Eliot, George. An excerpt from "Belles Lettres." In Westminster Review. O.S. 67, 1867, pp. 306-26.

When Jacques Derrida remarked 120 years later that "[f]eminism is nothing but the operation of a woman who aspires to be like a man"3, Eliot, no doubt, would have made a choice candidate for admission into the feminist fold. But it was a sisterhood to which she never wanted to belong, on either a personal or a political level. Convinced that "women were interested only in ephemeral subjects and not likely to use their vote wisely," Eliot did not support John Stuart Mill's proposal to alter the language of the Second Reform Bill to include women in the franchise.4 Moreover, Eliot shied away from projects associated with women, including projects of a practical rather than a strictly political nature, which might otherwise have engaged her interest and energies. When approached by Bessie Rayner Parkes about contributing to the fledgling English Woman's Journal,for example, Eliot refused on the grounds that "a public display of inferior work by women would do more harm than good."5 Her infamous essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," written just before she took up the novel-writing craft herself, is also unabashedly critical of the "foolish facility" that most women mistake for "mastery."6 More baffling still, especially to feminist literary critics, is the conservatism of Eliot's novels.7 Most of her fictional heroines seem almost ritually unable to achieve the level of autonomy and possibility that Eliot herself enjoyed.

While Eliot's gender politics may be difficult for today's feminists to classify, Eliot was not ambivalent about the practicalities of self-fulfillment. Attracted to erudite circles, she went where she could find them. And her animosity toward most women's activism was, above all, self-interested. Still, Eliot's discordant relations with women appear so germane to the pleasure she took in the company and discourse of men that she is left vulnerable to the charge of misogyny. Are her respective sentiments toward men and women fundamentally unrelated, or does her desire to act like a man in fact facilitate her disaffection toward women? Christina Crosby, among others, has speculated in this vein: "As the Prophetess of Humanity, Eliot had to rule women out.…One might ask her what [Daniel] Deron da's mother asks her son: 'You speak as men do—as if you felt yourself wise. What does it all mean?'"8

If we are talking about where to place an unruly Eliot in a history of feminism, then Crosby's question invites us to complicate that history, to take account of the misogyny not only in Eliot but also in feminism.9 To that end, Eliot's reluctance to identify with women as a class—despite her commitment as a woman to overcome the ascription of social and intellectual deficiencies—opens up an important perspective on the paradox inherent in Derrida's definition of feminism as well as in that branch of academic feminism which champions the quest for "equality" as the central creed of women's movements over the past two centuries. The suggestion that feminist objectives merely duplicate male desire (for control, knowledge, self-possession, and the like) would seem to recommend a feminism set against itself, or at least one willing to risk its collective goals in the interest of the unsystematic attempts of individual women to make it in a man's world.10 Many theorists have looked at the apparent conflict of interests in egalitarian feminism and have concluded that this tack is best abandoned, not only because it slowly erodes the coalitional politics that often justify feminism as a critical method but also because it advances like a snake eating its own tail, using what is most appealing about humanist incorporation to destroy the specificity of women's bodies and women's experience. As Nancy Cott has noted, however, paradox is part of the very nature of feminism:

[Feminism] aims for individual freedoms by mobilizing sex solidarity. It posits that women recognize their unity while it stands for diversity among women. It requires gender consciousness for its basis yet calls for the elimination of prescribed gender roles.11

The paradoxes of feminism demand a variety of methods, most of which are in conflict with one another. It is with this understanding that I propose a re-examination of one strategy that is quickly and unfortunately losing currency among feminist theorists today. Specifically, my purpose here is to consider the political and aesthetic advantages of masculinism in Eliot's critical writing and to show how Eliot's identification with men should be regarded as an outgrowth of feminism at the same time it appears to be—and perhaps is—a rejection of it. While part of my assessment will involve taking sober account of the misogyny that made Eliot's feminism such an oxymoron to the nineteenth-century women's movement12, I also intend to describe the excesses of her feminism as sites of ingenuity and resourcefulness. If "feminism continues to require its own forms of serious play," to use Judith Butler's formulation13, then Eliot's investments in the masculine become politically significant for us today as studies in impersonation, "in-vestment," drag. A closer look at Eliot's life and work not only brings to light the risks of this type of feminist play but also clarifies the returns we can expect on such questionable investments.


The satisfactions of drag have already been claimed for feminism by Judith Butler in her landmark text on gender performativity.14 Much like Eliot, Butler does not shrink from a strategic appreciation of so-called masculine modes of behavior. She contends, in fact, that feminism must work "within the terms of power itself" or, more precisely, engage in deliberate play with the male/female binary which structures identity politics.15 But as to method and purpose, Eliot and Butler part ways altogether. Butler views gay drag as a more conspicuous, and hence politically necessary, version of the gender performances already undertaken by straight men and women. Revealing gender as performative would consequently undermine its status as a natural and apparently fixed determinant of power. Eliot, on the other hand, invests herself in masculinity as a straight woman, not in order to displace gender distinction but, as I will show, in order to exploit its significance.

Above all, gender is illusory for Butler, and because such "illusions of [gendered] substance" underwrite the subjugation of women, Butler believes that the logic and political efficacy of gender must be challenged. This is best accomplished by multiplying gender distinction ad nau-seam, "to the point where it no longer makes sense."16 Where gender codes overflow, "mascu-line" and "feminine" attributes will inevitably turn up on bodies that are not correlatively sexed. Both the lesbian parody of heterosexual exchange (e.g., "butch" and "femme") and gay drag, for example, effectively dislocate gender from a physiological and psychological essence, according to Butler, and thus double back to publish the performative and unprotected nature of normative heterosexuality.

What is most striking about Butler's central trope, gay drag, is that she uses it as though it were feminism's last, best hope, even though it is meant only to help her speak more shrewdly about heterosexual paradigms. If, "[i]n imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency"17, then further attention to "the imitative structure of gender itself" might be in order. Is gay drag the only thing that is going to reveal this structure to us?18 Or is there any room for such play—such "gender trouble"—in the everyday practices of heterosexual populations? Despite George Eliot's ambiguous sociosexual posturing, she repeatedly rebuffed the lesbian advances of Elma Stuart and Edith Simcox, telling Simcox that "she had never all her life cared very much for women."19 Eliot, then, would be unwilling to associate her "masculine" social predilections with some sort of libidinal interest in women. But if gay drag makes the gender binary available to feminism for subversive ends, as Butler argues, then perhaps something like straight drag would do the trick as well.20

By the age of 26, Eliot had become quite used to participating in a rigorous, intellectual, and masculine world, well aware, also, of the very conventions that had linked reason with masculinity in the first place. She had already completed translations of Alexandre Rudolf Vinet's Mémoire sur les libertés des cultes and David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, and when her unorthodox friend and confidant Charles Bray purchased the Coventry Herald, he found in Eliot a clever columnist and book reviewer. Eliot, in fact, had been moving quite comfortably within the Coventry intelligentsia for nearly 5 years. Yet, remarkably, she refused to reconceptualize her strength of intellect as an unsexed human attribute. She chose, instead, to account for her intellectual authority by reinventing her social identity. In other words, rather than feminize her intellect, Eliot set out to resolve the apparent social incongruities of her life by masculinizing her public and private persona.

The complex nature of Eliot's investment in the masculine becomes more intelligible if we examine a tongue-in-cheek letter that she sent to Bray in October of 1846. In the letter, Eliot spins a tale about a German professor who appears on her doorstep asking for her hand in marriage. The suitor, a Professor Bücherwurm ("Bookworm"), has come to London to "secure a translator in the person of a wife" and, at the recommendation of others, has determined that Eliot presents "the required combination of attributes": the ability to translate German, "a very decided ugliness of person," and a fortune sufficient to the publishing and smoking needs of the prolific scholar. Although she pleases him in most respects, he is compelled to confess that "I am rather disappointed to see that you have no beard, an attribute which I have ever regarded as the most unfailing indication of a strong-minded woman." Thrilled to be saved "from the horrific disgrace of spinster-hood," Eliot accepts the proposal and allays the professor's sole misgiving with the following response:

As to my want of beard I trust that defect may be remedied, since I doubt not there must be creams and essences which gentlemen … employ to cherish the too reluctant down, and it is an interesting physiological experiment yet to be tried, whether the feminine lip and chin may not be rendered fertile by this top-dressing.


Eliot's sense of her own large and manly physical features clearly amuses her, for she recognizes that the earnest self-deprecation of homely femininity turns out to be of a piece with the daily masculine affectations of any unfortunately effeminate young gentleman. She has no particular interest here in detaching her genius from the norm of masculinity, for in suggesting that a gentleman's toilette could produce the desired effects on either a man or a woman, she implies that the norm of masculinity is itself detached and available.

That this anecdote is conceived in the context of a traditional marriage proposal ensures that the "femaleness" of Eliot's body is not forgotten, however. The professor has come to London to take a wife, after all, not simply a translator. Here we see the dynamics of what Butler calls the "compulsory system" or "situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs."22 By narrating a domestic scene, Eliot presents first the orthodoxy of the "original," the expectation that biological sex retains its essence beneath her investment in masculinity. But the link between masculinity and reason—scrupulously maintained as it is in the image of a bearded, strongminded woman—actually begins to call the female body into question. Eliot notes that "the Professor prefers as a female garb a man's coat, thrown over what are justly called the petti coats, so that the dress of a woman of genius may present the same sort of symbolical compromise between the masculine and feminine attire of which we have an example in the breastplate and petticoat of the immortal Joan."23 Once the professor accepts Eliot as a "woman of genius," Eliot's femaleness inevitably turns into femininity, a garb rather than an essence, as much an effect as the cultivation of facial hair. Accordingly, as the professor's translator-wife, Eliot enters a new sphere of action and influence that both depends upon and undermines the "compulsory system" that gives it social intelligibility. Unwilling to displace gender distinction altogether, Eliot never discards her petticoats; they give shape to the difference which distinguishes masculinity as politically serviceable to her. By putting a man's coat over her petticoats, therefore, she claims her social, intellectual, and professional freedoms out of the very sexual differences that she appears to contest.

So it is with pointed irony that 8 years after such raillery, in the course of praising the intellect of French women, Eliot turns to rebuke her British sisters for deigning to imitate men. In her 1854 review essay, "Woman in France," Eliot writes:

With a few remarkable exceptions, our own feminine literature is made up of books which could have been better written by men;… when not a feeble imitation, they are usually an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire.


Eliot's brusqueness and lack of sympathy with women in general makes some sense so long as her identification with men takes on the character of a personal project of self-determination and success. But why admonish other women for choosing the same course for themselves? Why celebrate French women who "wrote what they saw, thought, and felt … without any intention to prove that women could write as well as men, without affecting manly views or suppressing womanly ones"?25

Eliot's discrimination between the mimicry of other women and her own intellectual cross-dressing derives from her assessment of the quality of the performance and the measure of dissonance that the impersonation generates. As I have suggested above, Butler valorizes drag as parody, pastiche, a "failed copy," as it were—the protraction of observable distance between sex, gender, and the gender performance.26 Because the drag queen is subversive only in her failure to "pass" as a straight woman, bad acting, for Butler, turns out to be feminism's chief stratagem. Eliot, on the other hand, would find such parodic impersonations unconvincing, absurd, unproductive. Instead, the careful, contrived style of social intercourse in the seventeenth-century French salon captures Eliot's attention as the gender performance par excellence, valued not only for its self-consciousness but also for its precision.

The evolution of social interaction between French men and women was founded first of all on what Eliot believed to be an earnest appreciation of sexual difference. Because the reigning "womanly characteristics" of the day included "affection," "imagination," and a "dread of what overtaxes [the] intellectual energies," these "réunions of both sexes" forced French women, on the one hand, to invent a "new standard of taste" and French men, on the other, to conform to it. Exalted sentiment and "simplicity of language" were all the rage in the salon; "everything was admissible, if only it were treated with refinement and intelligence." Hence, the great thinkers of the day (Balzac, Richelieu, La Rochefoucauld, to name a few) were expected to "present their best ideas in the guise most acceptable to intelligent and accomplished women." And the by-product? An increase in dramatic facility with every attempt at self-presentation, and a decrease in the margin between acting the part of the genius and acting the part of the man.27

In sum, Eliot's regard for this highly stylized form of social interaction ("genre précieux," as she calls it) is grounded not only in its performative character but also in its inherent attachment to the original ideas of the French men who frequented the salons. No mere pretense, the "guise" here is a form or genre, a kind of ad hoc self-fashioning, yes, but with roots embedded in a larger history of genius, intellectual communion, and liberty of thought and practice. Eliot goes on to critique some of the later imitative salons, where "simplicity degenerated into affectation, and nobility of sentiment was replaced by an inflated effort to outstrip nature."28 But what Eliot wants to duplicate in her own life is this so-called original "genre précieux," where to cross-dress, even metaphorically, is to do more than simply put on the trappings of masculinity; it is, rather, to be implicated in those myriad histories which underwrite the political significance of masculinity. Eliot, therefore, finds masculine traits and accoutrements to be insufficient as feminist ends in themselves. Women who imitate men badly are merely foolish rather than subversive, and remain unqualified to abandon the feminine sphere of thought and duty for larger social responsibilities and privileges.29 Given this attention to the meaning as well as the shape of masculinity, Eliot's defence of genre précieux is particularly provocative today in the face of renewed feminist interest in essentialism and the body.30 Although Eliot does not overlook the fact that gender is a mobile construct, she does appreciate an originality in gender that Butler misses, an essential promise of intellectual and social privilege that makes mimicking the observable silhouette of gender alone an inadequate strategy for her.

These subtle distinctions between the mobility and the originality of gender become somewhat clearer, at least theoretically, in a brief essay called "Notes on Form in Art" (1868). Eliot essentially re-evaluates prevailing aesthetic philosophies, offering in their stead an expressly organic reading of the constitutive elements of art, including, most importantly, form.

Even in the plastic arts Form obviously, in its general application, means something else than mere imitation of outline, more or less correctness of drawing or modelling—just as, with reference to descriptive poetry, it means something more than the bare delineation of landscape or figures.… Artistic form, as distinguished from mere imitation, begins in sculpture and painting with composition or the selection of attitudes and the formation of groups, let the objects be of what order they may.… [T]he choice and sequence of images and ideas—that is, of relations and groups of relations—are more or less not only determined by emotion but intended to express it.


Form is no mere frontage that can be imitated by the student without recourse to the idea that unifies a particular work of art. To capture and reproduce form, then, one must have some sense, or aesthetic sensibility, for the "design" or purpose that governs it.

Not surprisingly, Eliot applies her analysis of art to the human organism, the "highest Form." This analogy has its own significance in the context of her aesthetic inquiry, but it also helps us to reread Eliot's skepticism about the democratization of English society in general and the women's movement specifically. Eliot suggests that it is pointless to regard affectation or "airs of superiority" as the effects of "true culture." Such pretenses are nothing more than "mere acquisitions carried about, and not knowledge thoroughly assimilated so as to enter into the growth of the character."32 Where form (or gender) is reduced to "mere acquisitions," the return on one's investment is negligible. Masculinity is politically useful for Eliot only in so far as it is socially and intrinsically linked with genius. Silly lady novelists, on the other hand, have atomized gender and culture, copying the "mere outline" of what they deem to be socially empowering. Although it is important to remember that Eliot does not consider the "masculine" to be available exclusively to men, she is never tempted to feminize the power, privilege and society that she seeks. "Women become superior in France," she notes, "by being admitted to a common fund of ideas, to common objects of interest with men."33 Eliot recognizes that, at least for Victorian society, the value attached to these "ideas" and "objects of interest" proceeds from the judgement of men and governs the aspirations of men—even if some of those "men" are only playing at it.


In suggesting that we consider the resource of non-libidinal appropriations of masculinity by women, I have concentrated on a figure from the nineteenth century whose life and work were fashioned out of the expectation that equality between men and women would be worth pursuing personally and locally but that such equality must be manufactured from the very differences that threaten to suppress its further possibilities. Therefore we should take care not to construe Eliot's play at being a man as disregard for an "original" difference between herself and her model. The originality of gender—and hence its value—comes, for Eliot, out of history itself, out of the narratives that precede and follow traditions, institutions and nations, giving meaning to social and political order as well as to "the growth of the character." These histories are intrinsic to the experiences and identities of both individuals and groups, and while they may not be "essential," they are inevitable, at least within the contexts in which they are told.

Still, there are problems with using Eliot as a case-study for feminism today, problems that may be obscured by the antiseptic character of academic writing as well as by the historical and critical distance that scholarly work presupposes. David Lehman has wisely reminded us of Orwell's dictum that "[t]he problem of jargon … is that it can all too easily confer a bogus veneer of respectability on barbarous behavior."34 WhatIwantto consider now are the liabilities of a theoretical analysis of a role model for feminism. What dilemmas ensue when we celebrate, or perhaps construct, behaviors in Eliot that we would condemn in our own academic departments and political life?35

In her retrospective on feminism and the academy over the last 30 years, Mary Ellen S. Capek admits that what has been judged by many as feminist progress may have become, in fact, a new form of "barbarous behavior":

With few exceptions …, writers cited in the current debates about feminist literary theory are white scholars writing from bases in prestigious institutions, often writing in traditional male academic writing styles. This is not to knock success. In the process of staking our claims in the academy, however, we need not abstract ourselves from our sources.…As we struggle for tenure and recognition in the academy, tools that have helped us deconstruct embedded sexism and heterosexism in texts too often fail to help us find the embedded racism and classism, those status needs that shape our own language and styles of discourse.


In reconsidering the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual preference, Capek believes that contemporary feminist appropriations of "male academic writing styles" are no longer about a feminist assault on the Old Boys Club.37 According to Capek, the "status needs" that have driven the individual feminist to mimic masculine virility have left intact other forms of discrimination (racism and classism) and thus support a picture of feminism that is corrosive at best, spurious at worst. Should we be surprised, then, when stories of Eliot's repeated affronts against her female contemporaries and friends as well as her frequent opposition to the women's movement begin to lose their theoretical appeal upon closer inspection?

Furthermore, were we to follow Eliot in her insistence that mimicking mannerism isn't enough—that we must reach further into the heart of masculinity to find genius, to find a solid basis on which to build notions of responsibility and freedom for women—then we would come into direct conflict with feminist theorists and philosophers such as Elizabeth Grosz, Carole Pateman, Sandra Harding, Teresa de Lauretis and Dale Spender, who have been instrumental in piloting a systematic critique of knowledges in the interest of maintaining "an essential difference between a feminist and a non-feminist understanding" of "woman, women, and the world."38 These theorists read the quest for equality as both delusive and distracting, and propose instead a feminist program for theorizing women's specificity en route to securing women's autonomy from rather than equality with men. This strategy, it is argued, works toward not only disabling men as a dominant class but also undermining their position as a standard for comparison. Eliot's reliance on a masculinist definition of genius would ultimately defeat the purpose of that investment for feminism, according to these critics, and contribute "to the very forms of male dominance feminism should be trying to combat."39

Without further elaboration, these two brief examples illustrate the likelihood of theoretical slippage when feminists try to write a coherent and continuous history of feminism.40 Why, for example, don't feminists of earlier generations ever appear adequate to the collective cause of later generations, and what are we to do with this inadequacy, this inappropriateness, this annoying naiveté, if not to disavow it? Have we given up too much when we theorize the possibilities that inhere in a nineteenth-century feminist strategy of straight drag? And what fundamental contradictions are produced by calling this strategy "feminist" in the first place?

We would not go wrong in remembering the slogan with which Fredric Jameson christened the preface of his book, The Political Unconscious. "Always historicize!" he exhorts, and with that in mind, Eliot's investment in masculinity takes on a radically contingent character.41 We begin to see that the narrative which links masculinity with both genius and its consequent philosophical and political liberties is a narrative that is subtly transformed every time women tap into its logic. Over time, as this narrative shifts under the inclinations of feminist play, the terms of that play will shift as well, in response to the specificities of what is original to masculinity at given moments in history. Hence the so-called inadequacy of Eliot's investments, from a late twentieth-century feminist perspective, reflects not Eliot's lack of relevance as a feminist but masculinity's lack of fixity and unity as a cultural and historical product. For if it is true that "the pervasive threat of misogyny brought into being feminist discourse," to quote Susan Gubar, then where that threat migrates, feminist discourse will tend to follow.42

The nature of these misogynist and feminist migrations, however, goes beyond a simple game of follow the leader. Even Susan Gubar's dialogic theory—where feminism and misogyny are said to "bob and weave" or "feint and jab" their way through history43—does not account for feminism's own investments in masculinity in feminist terms. Although Eliot's intellectual cross-dressing emerged first and foremost from personal ambition, defined by a set of goals achievable in her lifetime (respect, intellectual and vocational fulfillment, public mobility), her value as a role model for feminism turns on a different axis altogether, one that draws our attention to the marked historicity not only of straight drag but of feminism itself.

In the first instance, we learn from Eliot to read straight drag as a means (of critique), not an end (to inequality). In forcing us to recognize that straight drag is neither ahistorical nor revolutionary, this lesson heightens our awareness of the broad spectrum of women's oppressions and fosters, more generally, a healthy realism to counter the utopian strains of some feminist theory and activism. Thus, we see that even as straight drag mimics potency, it is ultimately impotent (at least in a revolutionary sense) and must repeat itself in order to put any critical strain on misogyny. When the feminist woman "aspires to be like a man," both the narrative and physical features said to constitute masculinity lose their political importance as a mark of difference, and misogyny is forced to revise its justifications and move on. Acting like a man, then, does not have to be about women suppressing the historical specificity of their own gendered subjectivity, nor must it mean that women think themselves historically, if not essentially, inferior to men and hence rely on legislation to answer this inequality. Rather, straight drag—a non-utopian feminist strategy—simply publishes the fault lines concealed by the story that unifies masculinity and power. What it does not do is produce any sort of equality that should ever satisfy us.

This tack, of course, repeatedly compels misogyny to reconsolidate masculinity, to invent new marks of difference even as it loses the efficacy of its old ones. Hence the crisis of feminism in an age of backlash: if feminist play invokes new and reactionary forms of misogyny, feminism could be said to circulate the very thing it seeks to disrupt. Furthermore, straight drag, by definition, is unable to bring about any end to masculinity as an organic product of history and culture and is limited, at best, to motivating the perpetual mutation of the political functions of masculinity. While it is true, then, that feminism is to some extent implicated in misogyny, it is not the repetition or mimicry of masculinity itself that puts the integrity of the feminist project at risk, but the way in which straight drag obliges misogyny to reinvent itself in order to survive. More specifically, if Eliot is to be labelled a misogynist, it is not her manliness that should give us pause but the fact that her play will, over time, render the identification of masculinity with intellectual authority politically moot and force the narratives which underwrite sexual hierarchy to reinvest in another site of sexual difference—say, for instance, citizenship.

It could be argued that the reactions and consequences which feminism invites by virtue of its critical methods stand beyond the scope of feminist responsibility. I would assert, to the contrary, that this is perhaps the only real risk feminism ever takes—and it is, indeed, feminism's distinctive wager. There is still room for women to agitate "as duplicate men" precisely because the benefits of such agitation have been repeatedly embraced, however grudgingly, by almost anyone willing to call herself a feminist today. Recognizing and then taking responsibility for the limitations of egalitarian feminism has, for example, enabled someone like Elizabeth Grosz to build a theory of sexual difference atop, as well as in spite of, a foundation of legislative progress for women over the past 150 years. This is not to say that Grosz is uninterested in critiquing equality politics. Such a critique is clearly one of her chief aims in re-evaluating knowledges that have been produced by men and uncritically mimicked by women. But where feminism begins to accept its byproducts for what they are likely to bring with them, critics such as Grosz are compelled to presuppose, even as they investigate, the hallmarks of egalitarian feminism. Along with the prohibitive perspective of phallocentric institutions comes the irresistible materiality of women's greater access to education; the pernicious "double load" and equitable child custody laws are available only as a package deal. Whatever beginnings, means, or ends feminism is ready to avow—without going so far as to sanction wholesale—constitutes the measure of feminism's responsibility to itself.

Today, a feminist's contributions as a woman will always also include her satisfactions in emulating men (whether she argues for equality or not) because the material resources and institutional supports on which her work depends are rooted in feminisms of equality. This wider frame of reference also gives the feminist access to a larger battery of techniques and perspectives that compel greater nuance in comprehending and describing the nature of women's oppressions. The risks of this expansiveness may mean that the future of feminism is uncertain, but its past will be less so, since the paradox of what feminism wants will always require the divisions, gaps, misunderstandings and multiple origins that define feminism historically, no matter what is in or out of vogue at the time.


  1. George Eliot (6 December 1857) "Journal Entry," The George Eliot Letters (Ed. Gordon S. Haight; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55), vol. 2, p. 409.
  2. Ina Taylor (1989) A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.), pp. 67, 103-105.
  3. Jacques Derrida (1978) Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche (tr. Barbara Harlow; Intro. Stefano Agosti; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 65.
  4. Taylor, A Woman of Contradictions, p. 188.
  5. Ibid., p. 171.
  6. George Eliot (October 1856) "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, 56, p. 254.
  7. For a good summary of feminist reaction to George Eliot's fiction, see Ellen Ringler (1983) "Middlemarch: A Feminist Perspective," Studies in the Novel, 15.1, pp. 55-61. For a more recent picture of Eliot's reception history among feminists, see Jeanie Thomas (1988) Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press), pp. 47-65; Laurie Langbauer (1990) Women and Romance: The Consolations of Gender in the English Novel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 188-232.
  8. Christina Crosby (1991) The Ends of History: Victorians and "The Woman Question" (New York: Routledge), pp. 42-43.
  9. See Susan Gubar's recent work on "feminist misogyny." As Gubar puts it, "although feminism historically has not been the condition for misogyny's emergence, the pervasive threat of misogyny brought into being feminist discourse." The two are lifelong "slam dance" partners in dialogic relation to one another, co-implicated in one another's projects to such a degree that traces of both feminism and misogyny can be teased out of virtually every major author and work of the literary canon (Susan Gubar [1995] "Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of 'It Takes One to Know One,'" Feminism Beside Itself [Eds Diane Elam & Robyn Wiegman; New York: Routledge], pp. 142, 144).
  10. Some critics have begun to challenge openly the notion that collectivity is politically necessary or desirable at all for feminism, although I am not sure to what extent this shift can ever be achieved self-consciously. I am thinking, in particular, of the anthology Feminism Beside Itself, co-edited by Diane Elam & Robyn Wiegman, as well as its companion conference held at Indiana University in April of 1995. In both cases, the governing logic of the editors/organizers betrays an orchestration behind the discord—perhaps a remnant of anxieties about giving up the political leverage of unity too soon?
  11. Nancy Cott (1987) The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 5.
  12. Karin Cope might argue that my refusal to absolve or "exonerate" Eliot is a presumption of greater authority on the part of my feminism because of its apparently more enlightened (read: later) position in feminist history, and is likewise an attempt to reify the shifting moral values that label someone a role model in one age and a misanthrope in another. Cope's point is well taken, although my desire to preserve Eliot's misogyny in all its offensiveness does not stem from my disappointment in her as a feminist "foremother." Rather, I simply want to take seriously this example of feminism's masculine investments in order to understand more clearly how feminism might be served by them. Karin Cope (1995) "'Moral Deviancy' and Contemporary Feminism: The Judgment of Gertrude Stein," in Feminism Beside Itself, pp. 155-178.
  13. Judith Butler (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge), p. viii.
  14. Butler, Gender Trouble.
  15. Ibid., p. 30.
  16. Ibid., pp. 146, 127.
  17. Ibid., p. 137 (Butler's emphasis).
  18. As Diana Fuss assesses the problem, "[m]uch lesbian-feminist theory sets up the lesbian subject as a natural agent of subversion, an inherent revolutionary subject." While Butler makes several attempts to distance herself from this sort of valorization (particularly in her discussion of Monique Wittig in chapter 3, part 3), her theory of gender performativity is too dependent on gay drag to avoid this problem altogether (Diana Fuss [1989] Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference [New York: Routledge], p. 46).
  19. Gordon S. Haight (1968) George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 535; see also Taylor, A Woman of Contradictions, pp. 207-209.
  20. The lack of theoretical attention given to straight drag becomes even more remarkable when Butler quotes Parker Tyler's "The Garbo Image" in an epigraph: "Garbo 'got in drag' whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man's arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck … bear the weight of her thrown-back head.…How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not" (Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 128). Although I am interested primarily in Butler's oversight with regard to straight forms of cross-sexual drag, one wonders why she does not use this epigraph to launch an extended analysis of what might turn out to be the most subversive form of drag - an excess of femininity on the female body.
  21. George Eliot (21 October 1846) "George Eliot to Charles Bray," in The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols (Ed. Gordon S. Haight; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55, 1978), vol. 8, pp. 13, 14.
  22. Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 139.
  23. Eliot, "George Eliot to Charles Bray," p. 15.
  24. George Eliot (October 1854) "Woman in France: Madame de Sablé," Westminster Review, 62, p. 448.
  25. Ibid., p. 449. Elsewhere, Eliot praises Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century because "[t]here is no exaggeration of woman's moral excellence or intellectual capabilities, no injudicious insistence on her fitness for this or that function hitherto engrossed by men" (George Eliot [13 October 1855] "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft," The Leader, 6, p. 988).
  26. Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 146, 137.
  27. Eliot, "Woman in France," pp. 452-453.
  28. Ibid., p. 453.
  29. It is worth noting that ethical responsibility and aesthetic genius were always linked in Eliot's mind. Both were the chief measure of a masculinity to which she aspired; both were void of the femininity which she often disparaged: "For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature, that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer's art" (Eliot, "Silly Novels," p. 319).
  30. See, for example, Elizabeth Grosz (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Rosi Braidotti (1991) Patterns of Dissonance (Cambridge: Polity Press); Naomi Schor & Elizabeth Weed (Eds) (1994) the essential difference (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking.
  31. George Eliot (1868) "Notes on Form in Art," in Rosemary Ashton (Ed.) (1992) George Eliot: Selected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 356-357.
  32. Eliot, "Margaret Fuller," p. 989.
  33. Eliot, "Woman in France," p. 472.
  34. David Lehman (1992) Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: Poseidon Press), p. 89.
  35. Here again Karin Cope's insightful essay is relevant as I consider the extent to which feminists of an earlier generation can be ethically appropriate or politically expedient role models for later generations, given the contingency of moral value and politics (Karin Cope, "'Moral Deviancy' and Contemporary Feminism").
  36. Mary Ellen S. Capek (1992) "Post-Tweeds, Pipes, and Textosterone: Perspectives on Feminism, Literary Studies, and the Academy," in The Knowledge Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship (Eds Cheris Kramarae & Dale Spender; New York: Teachers College Press), pp. 74-75.
  37. For further reflection on the question of academic writing and feminism, see Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (1992) "Editorial: On Writing Feminist Academic Prose," Signs, 17, pp. 701-704.
  38. Teresa de Lauretis (1994) "The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the US, and Britain," the essential difference, p.1. See also Elizabeth Gross & Carole Pateman (Eds) (1986) Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (Boston: Northeastern University Press); Sandra Harding & Merrill B. Hintikka (Eds) (1983) Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and the Philosophy of Science (Dordrecht: Reidel); Dale Spender (Ed.) (1981) Men's Studies Modified: The Impact of Feminism on Academic Knowledge (London: Pergamon).
  39. Elizabeth Grosz (1994) "Sexual Difference and the Problem of Essentialism," in the essential difference, pp. 90-91, 82. Judith Allen provides an excellent bibliographic history of the emergence of the feminist critique of knowledges in the late 1970s and its commitments up to the present day (Judith A. Allen [1992] "Feminist Critiques of Western Knowledges: Spatial Anxieties in a Provisional Phase?" in Beyond the Disciplines: The New Humanities [Ed. K. K. Ruthven; Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities], pp. 57-77).
  40. For a discussion of some of the assumptions of periodization and classification that have kept historians of feminism locked into unproductive methods of historiography, see Judith Allen (1990) "Contextualising Late-Nineteenth-Century Feminism: Problems and Comparisons," Journal of the CHA/Revue de la S.H.C., pp. 17-36.
  41. Fredric Jameson (1981) The political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), p. 9.
  42. Gubar, "Feminist Misogyny," p. 142. This is not to say that men and masculinity are logically prior to women and femininity, or that women are or should be defined relative to men. But it would be a mistake to think that feminism as a political and theoretical strategy is not guided in important ways by the character of the misogyny and patriarchalism it aims to undermine.
  43. Ibid.