Deborah Yaffe

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Remembering feminist history

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2018 01:00PM

In Jane Austen’s time, as we know, women’s lives and opportunities were circumscribed in ways we can scarcely imagine today. Women were excluded from the professions; the sexual double standard was brutal and inexorable; married women couldn’t own their own property; husbands and fathers had power little short of tyrannical.


No doubt we’ve come a long, long way.


On the other hand, it’s salutary to be reminded from time to time of just how recently male authority figures still felt empowered to enact their sexism – and just how hard women had to fight to hold them accountable.


Today’s text is drawn from a fascinating recent article in the alternative weekly DigBoston, which chronicles the nine-year effort by Austen scholar Julia Prewitt Brown to reverse Boston University’s 1981 refusal to grant her tenure, the lifetime job security that is the academic equivalent of the Holy Grail.


At the time, Brown was a young scholar whose first book, the feminist-influenced Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, had recently been published by Harvard University Press.


Her tenure was refused by high-ranking university administrators after her department and two lower-level committees voted to grant it, and Brown argued that she was the victim of sex discrimination. Eventually, she won a jury verdict giving her tenure, legal fees, and $215,000 in damages; the verdict was upheld on appeal, and Brown is retiring this year after forty-four years in BU’s English department.


The case was relatively high-profile in its time because BU’s then-president, John Silber, was known nationally for his outspoken and uncompromising conservativism. In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts.


In trial testimony aimed at discrediting Brown’s scholarship, Silber, a philosopher, “implied that Austen was an inherently less complex or worthy subject than Dryden or Kant,” writes Max L. Chapnick, author of the DigBoston article.


Silber wasn’t the only Austen-disser to testify: Brown tells Chapnick that BU’s dean, who had offered her a three-year extension of her contract in lieu of lifetime tenure, testified that although he was not a literary scholar, “he felt comfortable judging a book on Jane Austen because he had lived in England near where Jane Austen lived.” (“Not in those times?” the judge asked. “Not quite, sir,” the dean replied.)


Brown might have been denied tenure even if she hadn’t been a feminist scholar writing about a female novelist whose subject was the domestic lives of women. Nevertheless, Brown’s case resonates with a certain unfortunate historical strain in the response to Austen.


Over the past two centuries, Austen’s fans have been male as often as female, but contemporary Austen fandom – and, to a lesser extent, scholarship – skews female. I’ve long been convinced that sexist denigration of Austen fans (those cute middle-aged women in their bonnets!) borrows from a tradition of sexist denigration of Austen dating back to her nephew’s affectionate but trivializing 1870 Memoir.


In this tradition, Austen is caricatured as either a sweet maiden aunt writing charming little romance novels or, alternatively, as a sour spinster working out her sexual frustration by satirizing other people’s love stories – anything but a morally serious professional artist. And these attitudes still crop up, especially in popular treatments that draw more on movie adaptations of Austen novels than on the novels themselves.


Brown won her case in part because her adversaries were so unsubtle: Silber described BU’s English department, whose faculty ranks comprised six women and more than fourteen men, as “a damn matriarchy.” Today’s adversaries are sometimes less obvious (though, #metoo knows, not always). Still, history tends to repeat itself, if we let it. Remembering stories like Brown’s is one way to make sure it won’t.


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