The history of women’s autobiographical writing stretches far back, situating itself as a mark of chastity and virtue (Lamb). In the Renaissance, non-fictional writing – often in the form of diaries – represented the only type of writing permissible for women in good social standing, as women who read or wrote fiction were thought to gain sexually and socially transgressive ideas from the genre (Lamb). Early women’s autobiographies “manifested Christian virtue [which was] an excellent thing in women” (Heilbrun 17). The earliest recognized female autobiography, published in 1656 by Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, exemplifies the narrow scope of self-representation available to women: “ . . . Likewise, we were bred Virtuously, Modestly, Civilly, Honorably, and on honest principles . . . we lived orderly” (Cavendish 178). Cavendish’s autobiography, among others, represents not the advent of the female autobiographical tradition, but a continuation of the male tradition catalyzed by St. Augustine. According to Georges Gusdorf, male autobiography stresses “the defense and glorification of a man, career, a political cause, or a skillful strategy” (Benstock 8). Female autobiography (up until around 1980, when Estelle Jelinek’s groundbreaking Women’s Autobiography was published) reflected a reinforcement of the “token woman” – the inevitable response to the “masculine man” as presented in male autobiography – (Heilbrun 16) and a continuation of the “one plot” available to women, which ended either in marriage or death (17).
Women’s autobiography has a tradition of being “sentimental and passive” (19), bringing only the expected out for the public to see and leaving the private – goals, hopes, anger – to private spheres (19). Disconnect between the private and the public is seen particularly in Jane Addams’ diaries in contrast with her published autobiography. While her autobiography demonstrates the passivity characteristic of female discourse, her diaries – unpublished and private – reveal the challenges and frustrations she had with establishing Hull House (19). Women were expected to speak with authority only of “family and religion” (19). Addam’s status as businesswoman was therefore relegated to her private writing.
The tradition of women’s autobiography sees a shift in the development of confessional writing, however. This writing, with its emotive and tell-all nature, defied the conventional literary script within which women’s autobiography was expected to operate and opened women to their “uninhibited autobiographical impulses” (23). The advent of such writing marks the beginning of the “rhetoric of uncertainty” (18) that today characterizes women’s life writing. Unlike male autobiographical writing, women’s life writing “has become an exploration of painful experience rather than denial of pain and struggle” (25), moving from introspection outward (24) and extending their experience to a larger population (Benstock 8).
With the defiance of masculine autobiographical tradition, women’s life writing became inherently politicized. The act of confession, of making the private public, essentially catapulted women’s autobiography into feminist discourse, creating room in women’s life writing to integrate the political and the personal, as Estelle Jelinek demonstrated in her essay, “Political and Personal Autobiography Integrated: The Fusion of Kate Millett.” According to Jelinek in her 1980 publication, Women’s Autobiography, women’s “self-portraits” are informed by “irregularity rather than orderliness” (17), a long-standing distinguishing feature of women’s life writing in contrast to men’s. This “irregularity” is often seen in pronominal switching and disruption of chronology. In her analysis of Millett, Jelinek indicates that “irregularity” has been expanded in women’s life writing to include writing that seems like “a jungle of fragments” (171), with truncated sentences without proper subjects and perhaps consisting only of a phrase or even a single word, resembling “the kind of shorthand writing characteristic of diaries and notebooks” (171), interrupted by passages that are “chronological, progressive, and strictly grammatical” (171). These stylistic trends of women’s life writing, Jelinek argues, are the ways in which politicization of the female text occurs. Through the multiplicity of the singular subject, which Benstock states stands in direct contrast to the male resistance of the “discordant ‘I’ ” (8) and various other structural and stylistic choices that distinguish women’s life writing from the male tradition, women have developed a means by which their selves – coherent, fractured, and multiplied – are represented outside of the traditional prescriptive forms.
In “Reading for the Doubled Discourse of American Women’s Autobiography,” Helen Buss argues that in the wake of the development of politicized women’s life writing, female autobiographers now face a unique challenge – the much present their autobiographical self in a “stable, unified” (97) way in order to adhere to the conventions of a genre which begs for the “self” as subject and in a way that reveals the “subject as fragmented, decentered, and dominated by forces largely beyond her control” (97). In other words, the female autobiographer is challenged to negotiate between self-perception – the “I” as a unified self – and social politicization, which casts the “I” an unstable result of a history of oppression and representative of a collective larger than the singular self. Combining Jelinek’s observation of the longstanding tradition of fragmentation in women’s writing with Buss’ argument about the doubled discourse in women’s life narratives, it seems that a way of negotiating the demands of the double discourse would be to engage in such self and structural fragmentation. Thus, the fragmentation in women’s life writing is the reflection of the feminized politicized self, acknowledging a history of oppression and disabling cultural forces while speaking for both the unified “I” and a larger female majority.
Up until this point, I have conflated the terms “women’s life writing” and “autobiography.” In doing so, I have attempted to reflect a movement begun by feminist autobiography theorists, which casts various non-fictional forms, including memoir, letters, and diaries, as sub-categories in the overarching genre of autobiography (Smith and Watson). Hornbacher’s memoir with which I am working will therefore be considered as an example of women’s life writing, and will be evaluated within the history and feminist framework previously delineated. Thus, her memoir will be considered an example of and possible extension to a genre relatively new in its existence, but long in its historical lineage.