Fetterley’s Feminism: An Argument Against Universalism Built on Generalization

Judith Fetterley’s Introduction to The Resisting Reader is a strident statement of discontent with the way Fetterley feels the canon of American literature has been constructed. Fetterley begins by claiming that literature is political and sees it as necessary to inform her audience that this is “painful to admit” (991). This is confusing because she seems to be entirely motivated and fascinated rather than pained by political interests and self-interest. She includes a quote from John Keats supporting her assertion, and the time between the quote and her writing suggests that her assertion about political intents is not shocking or painful at all. Fetterley uses similar language throughout the essay and the first section of it, throwing terms such as “universal truths” and “confusion of consciousness” to make her statements seem more groundbreaking and revolutionary.

Fetterley relies more on the tone of her article than her actual argument to create that impression because her assertions are not revolutionary, and her demands are really just as exclusionary as the status quo she critiques. She creates a binary distinction between male and female, leaving out a plethora of excluded groups. She seems not to care about true inclusivity, but rather the inclusion of her narrative. Her seeming ignorance, based on its absence from her text, of people of color, gender queer, and non-binary individuals suggests a lack of reflection on self in preparation for writing this piece.

What “male” means to Fetterley is not expressly defined in this introduction, but that is almost as revealing as a definition would be. Because she chooses not to tell her audience what she means by the two identifiers her entire argument hinges, her writing exposes the ways she does exactly what she rebels against throughout the introduction. She assumes that her understanding of male and female is obvious, or as she likes to say, “universal” (991). That is not only ironic but suggests the lack of self-examination that becomes clearer and clearer as she continues her argument.

A moment that stuck out as relevant to my impressions was when Fetterley states, “To read the canon of what is currently considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male” (991). This sentence reveals assumptions she has made about the nature of reading based on her individual experience. Fetterley believes that to read something and gain from the experience, the audience member has to identify with the subject or author’s sexual identity.

She says in her “Rip Van Winkle” example that, “universal desire is made specifically male. Work, authority, and decision-making, are symbolized by Dame Van Winkle, and the longing for flight is defined against her” (991). These, I would argue, are not the typical attributes stereotypically given to women and men. The stark contrasts she chooses to make support a reading of her as a binary and exclusionary thinker. She seems to see the term as a designated sex at birth rather than a spectrum. Much of this is a result of the time at which she was writing, but she also leaves out all racial identities aside from white, and that was not the only critical approach to literature in 1978.

Her focus on “female” inclusion in literary canon assemblage is not a fault, but her refusal to acknowledge any other group or identification that is left out of foundational literature (991). She also relies entirely on texts from long before she wrote this piece such as “Rip Van Winkle”, which forces her to pursue a negative argument in her opening that continues throughout the piece. She chooses not to argue for the merits of works including the female voice forces her to pursue an entirely negative argument. Rather than currying emphatic support, her rhetorical strategy and general diction choice led me and likely other audience members to have an echo reaction to her work, rejecting her narrow goals for the canon.

3 thoughts on “Fetterley’s Feminism: An Argument Against Universalism Built on Generalization”

  1. I too was bothered by Fetterley’s highly specific selection of evidence for her article. I think she could have made her argument (while it is admittedly limited in perspective) using two approaches: either by focusing on representations of women in American literature, or the prevalence of men in it. I think if she had chosen to concentrate more on women, her argument would have gained plausibility. While Fetterley does offer Daisy and Catherine as examples of women in American literature, her presentation of the genre as occupied by men is so curated and assuming that I cannot fully trust it.

  2. I completely agree with you assertion that Fetterly “creates a binary distinction between male and female, leaving out a plethora of excluded groups” and that she appears to not “care about true inclusivity, but rather the inclusion of her narrative.” I too was struck by Fetterly’s seeming ignorance of the plight of people of color, gender queer persons, non-binary individuals, and other members of minority groups, and it appeared to me that she was a bit selfish and egotistical in her argument, focusing only on the way in which white women, such as herself, are excluded from the larger male narrative. I also agree that Fetterly create a completely negative tone within her argument- it might have benefited her to have supplied counterarguments to grapple with so that she couldve enhanced her point further. Great blog post!:)

  3. I love that you pointed out the irony in Fetterley’s assertion that the understanding of gender (referring only to male/female) is universal. I felt that she was trying to prove that everything is gendered, which may be true, but she failed to recognize cultural differences in this understanding. Her version of “universal” is really just a white, Western understanding of the terms. Her argument is not very intersectional. Additionally, I felt that her tone was accusatory instead of thoughtful. However, I want to think about whether the tone would have been perceived differently if a man had written it. In this way, I see her point that writing is possibly inherently male, and I’m aware of the gender bias in writing and academia.

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