The work of Wyndham Lewis seems like a strange place to go looking for innovative configurations of gender. Notoriously associated with what Jeffrey Herf termed “reactionary modernism,” Lewis is well known for the flamboyant misogyny and homophobia expressed in both his fiction and his theoretical writing. Unlike male modernists whose work has been subjected to richly revelatory feminist and queer rereadings (James Joyce, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway), Wyndham Lewis was for a long time generally assumed to be unsalvageable for any kind of progressive or even very interesting politics of gender and sexuality.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald appeared on the cover of Hearst’s International magazine in 1922, held up as icons of the Jazz Age, of youth, talent, and burgeoning literary celebrity. This image remains one of the most recognizable of the couple. However, alongside this iconicity, Zelda Fitzgerald’s various diagnoses of mental illness have prompted critics both sympathetic and unsympathetic to remember her primarily in terms of the tragedy of her life—whether as the mad wife who brought about the downfall of her brilliant husband, or as the victim of patriarchal control and pathologization.
My approach to feminist aesthetics in modernism takes as one point of departure an ongoing critical negotiation with Theodor Adorno’s theory of heteronomous autonomy of art in the context of feminism and race theory. This approach is not without its risks, as it has to confront and struggle with the persisting racial and gender exclusions even in the more progressive Western intellectual traditions.
Why aren’t black women writers more central in conversations around the avant-garde in modernism? Without resorting to VIDA-like statistics, we can observe that black women’s writing still occupies a marginal role in modernist inquiry despite several decades of recovery work.
During my first term as a new lecturer in twentieth/twenty-first century women’s writing and gender studies, a male colleague said that he would never teach H.D. in a course with Pound and Eliot because she “just wasn’t in the same league, at all.” When I disagreed, a second male colleague offered to sit down with me “and go line by line and prove why her poetry was not as good as that of her male counterparts.” The cocktail-party conversation
There is a lag between the advent of a major social change—the right to vote, the availability of education, working for pay outside the home—and the moment when any one individual avails herself of the opportunities arising from such a change. Activists and visionaries fight for the change long before it comes; pioneers are the first in line to participate; others hesitate and face resistance. Each woman changes her mind at a different rate from the legal and policy changes of the culture at large, and writing by women dramatizes the sometimes liberating, sometimes uneasy responses to those cultural changes.
Contributing to a discussion about feminism, modernism, and methodology is a daunting prospect. Not only is “feminism” a notoriously slippery concept to define once and for all (the “for all” is the part that tends to generate the most difficulty), but also the term “methodology” seems too antiseptic, too premeditated, to describe feminist work in the humanities. Social justice work in the humanities is often messy (in the generative sense described by Martin Manalansan) and contingent.
“Mind the Gap! Modernism and Feminist Praxis” marks Modernism/ modernity’s first forum dedicated to feminism and women modernists. Our forum situates its arguments at the nerve center of twentieth-century feminism, engaging diverse aspects of modern women’s lives through equally diverse methodologies. Feminism serves as a mode of critical discourse as well as an object of study, a rich doubling that shapes our dialogues about two constitutive aspects of modernism
It runs like this: First, a film has to contain two female characters; second, they have to talk to one other; third: they have to talk about something besides a man.
Who today hasn’t heard of the Bechdel test? Having gone viral, it increasingly serves as a litmus test in class discussion for marking outsized gender bias in texts. The test provides a handy algorithm, generating a consistent output: a fundamental feminist insight that far too many texts do not contain women who talk about anything besides a man.