Bada** Women in Literature: An Interview with Professor Susan Fraiman
As a Foreign Affairs and East Asian Studies major, I am no stranger to reading long and complicated nonfiction books. Fiction, however, is not really my forte. In spite of this, I decided to step out of my comfort zone this past fall semester and take an English course titled “Women in Literature: Contemporary Women’s Texts,” and it has easily become one of my favorite classes I’ve taken at U.Va.
The class’ success can be attributed not only to the texts around which the course is based, but also to the professor herself. Professor Fraiman challenged the entire class not only to look carefully at the texts themselves, but also to think about the authors and the messages they are trying to relay.
Having graduated from high school in 1974, Professor Fraiman grew up during the birth of the twentieth-century women’s movement. The excitement around women’s issues and her own passion for women’s rights led her to pursue the study of women and gender in literature. From joining a consciousness raising group in college through her local women’s center to writing a senior thesis offering a feminist critique of D.H. Lawrence, Professor Fraiman’s passion for literature and gender studies have always gone hand-in-hand.
The idea that literature written by women should be approached differently than literature written by men particularly intrigued her.
“It’s not that works written by women aren’t as good as works by men, but they may differ in a way that inspires a new critical approach, an alternative set of questions. Feminist criticism does more than argue that works by women are important; it also points out that our criteria for evaluation have been biased, reflecting the fact that men have been the taste makers.”
This focus on women writers and their works ultimately led to the establishment of women studies in the academic community. “
It’s true that all kinds of representations--literary, cinematic, and other media images reflect the society--but they also produce notions and contribute to social norms. They allow you to imagine stories for yourself that you couldn't otherwise imagine.”
Through the course of our conversation, I myself began to better understand not only how the women’s movement began, but also the implications of this new perspective on women and their literature.
“In every case, one needs to say, ‘Wait a minute, what happens if we take women as the norm?’ Shifting the lens in this way, taking a new kind of person as typical, produces new knowledge not just of women but of non-elite men as well. There is a synergy between theoretical work and political activism. Feminist scholarship was an outgrowth of feminist activism; it began as the intellectual arm of the women’s movement. In turn, its findings can help to articulate new political agendas.”
Professor Fraiman’s most recent work is on domesticity and the different ways in which it exists in modern society.
“My goal is to value domesticity—domestic labor, spaces, and people’s relationship to domestic objects. I want to challenge the common idea that domesticity necessarily equals “happy house wife” equals heternormative values. Being domestic is not just being Martha Stewart. It’s about surviving at a basic physical and psychological level. All animals nest. Domesticity is about laboring to create the kind of safe, cozy space that everyone needs.”
Professor Fraiman has also recently been interested in gender studies in pop culture and the way women are portrayed in cinematic and other media forms. This quickly led to a discussion of the Virginia Film Festival that took place recently and to the film WildLike.
Directed by Frank Hall Green, this film tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Mackenzie who is sexually abused by her uncle. She runs away, but eventually realizes she needs help from a grownup in order to return to her home in Seattle. She meets a man named Bartlett and pursues him relentlessly until he finally agrees to help her get home.
“I love the idea that [Mackenzie] is looking for a grownup to rescue her, even a father figure to rescue her, but she is ultimately the one who is the agent of that rescue. So this isn’t just the story of a girl victimized by one man and then rescued by another; she really rescues herself by so aggressively demanding that he help her.”
Representations of women in popular culture such as this are a positive sign that the women’s movement has challenged and successfully changed the way society views men and women. Although there are plenty of obstacles that we as a society still have yet to overcome, Professor Fraiman believes there is reason to be optimistic about the future of gender equality.
“Women in college are often better students, more ambitious students, and they make up a growing number of women in professional schools. Even though that isn’t reflected at the highest levels of business and government, there are certainly women in the pipeline.”