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The Untidy History of Sisterhood

A visit with Devoney Looser, Professor, Department of English

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: ageism sexism feminist scholarship sisterhood Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a novel about the tribulations of two loving but very unalike sisters, ends on the happy note that “…though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.” Austen humorously addresses the reality of sisterhood—that any kind of sisterly accord or unity is not a foregone conclusion. For Devoney Looser, Professor of English and scholar of 18th-century women’s literature, the concept of “sisterhood” (figuratively and literally) in authorship is a complex exchange with positive and negative aspects. In fact, the “messiness” of women’s literary history is crucial to many aspects of her scholarship and teaching.

Dr. Looser credits her interest in 18th-century women’s literature to a gift from her mother, a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility bound together. Understandably, the young adolescent found the text difficult and gave up after her first attempt to read it, but her mother encouraged her to try and try again. Finally, the third time she tried to read the novel, Looser says, “it just took, and I got into the culture, the world of the novel, and just loved it.” Her mother’s influence was crucial to her development as a scholar, despite the fact that “a lot of years later I learned that my mother had never read the book herself; it was just one that she knew educated people should read, and she knew that it was a good book.” Since this catalyst, Dr. Looser remains firmly committed to the study of women’s literature, studying not just Jane Austen’s work, but also that of her contemporaries who have often been ignored by scholars.

Historically, Looser tells us, the political agenda of feminist scholarship was to comb the past for positive role models and evidence of sexism, and “the problem is, sometimes the facts don’t suit those two emphases.” This reality plays back into the “messiness of history” that Dr. Looser acknowledges in her subject matter. Sometimes the women writing at the time didn’t have a feminist message; some even made arguments for women staying within their traditional roles. In their own personal lives as well, women writers had a wide variety of lifestyles. Some were married and made their name by describing themselves as good wives, and some, like Austen herself, were never married and relied on a variety of sources of support, including male relatives. Some women writers of the time even relied on their writing to help support themselves and their families. Some sought a community of women writers for encouragement and support, while others felt limited or excluded by it. Of Austen, critics have debated about “the degree to which we should call her a feminist,” and while Dr. Looser sees Austen as such, she is open to debates and uses them to interpret Austen’s “slippery language and slippery points of view.” Just like today, not all women can be pigeonholed into a single category or political position over the course of their lives and careers, and doing so to women of the past may damage our understanding and appreciation of their history.

One thing women writers of the time period had in common, though, was a critical reception that was markedly different from that of their male peers. While some modern scholars believe that we should move beyond looking at women’s literature as a separate category, Dr. Looser feels that it is still essential to do so precisely because of that reception (and not, she notes, because there are inherent differences between the writings of women and men). Most prominently, as she explored in her recent book Women Writers in Old Age in Great Britain, what we now call sexism and ageism were rampant in criticism of women’s writings. One example Looser gives is Frances Burney, who, although highly acclaimed in her younger years, had her later works dismissed in reviews that focused on the author’s age. Her last novel, The Wanderer, was written when she was sixty-two (which was considered “old” at the time), and one review criticized her as “an old coquette author who endeavours. . . to compensate for the loss of the natural charms of freshness, novelty, and youth,” implying that Burney had no business writing about courtship and love at her age. Not every older woman writer suffered such harsh criticism, but most who lived into late life and continued to publish were dismissed to some degree on the basis of their age.

The reception of women’s work is also a factor in Dr. Looser’s current book project—she is presently doing biographical research on Jane Porter and Anna Maria Porter, women who were sisters both by blood and by profession, as widely popular authors of Jane Austen’s era. Jane Porter, whose work was more acclaimed, was a historical novelist; her sister published novels as well as poetry. The two women corresponded with each other extensively, and, conscious of their fame, saved “seemingly every scrap that passed through their hands.” The Porter sisters’ popularity faded over time, and they now often go unacknowledged by scholars. As far as the sisters’ writing is concerned, Dr. Looser doesn’t “think anyone is going to go back and see in them an undiscovered Jane Austen.” However, she believes the documents they meticulously saved provide an extensive, fascinating historical record of the position of women authors in that time period. Those documents have been preserved in multiple archives; one such resource is the Huntington Library, in San Marino, CA, where Dr. Looser says she has been fortunate enough to spend many days absorbed in the early 1800s.

Not only does Dr. Looser study the concept of sisterhood academically, she also practices it in her personal life—as a member of Columbia women’s non-profit, flat-track, roller derby team, the CoMo Derby Dames. She speaks of her teammates with great fondness, saying “there just isn’t a boring one in the bunch” and notes that they have been very supportive as she learns the sport. Dr. Looser feels that roller derby is a feminist activity, not just because of the physical power and norm-eschewing behaviors on the track, but also in the core of the sport. Derby teams are nearly all completely player-run, meaning that the women and a few male volunteers are doing everything, from holding events to training each other. Roller derby is entirely about women doing what they love through their own power and passion.

The sisterhood of roller derby even spans oceans. As part of the spectacle, each skater takes on a persona and skates under a name—similar to the tradition in wrestling (though not so staged)—and Dr. Looser skates as Stone Cold Jane Austen. However, when Dr. Looser went to register her derby name, she learned that a skater in Liverpool, England had registered the name just two weeks before. In the spirit of sisterhood, that skater graciously agreed to grant permission for Dr. Looser to skate under the name as well.

Dr. Looser’s work, whether in scholarship, teaching, or skating, reminds us of the value of complexities—by embracing messiness, past or present, we gain a fuller understanding of our history, engage in more rigorous and fruitful debates, and establish camaraderie in what might seem unlikely places.