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Sandra M. Gilbert (born December 27, 1936, New York City), Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Davis, is an influential literary critic and poet who has published widely in the fields of feminist literary criticism, feminist theory, and psychoanalytic criticism. She is perhaps best known for her collaborative critical work with Susan Gubar, with whom she co-authored, among other works, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), a landmark in 1970s American feminism. Madwoman in the Attic is widely recognized as a text central to second-wave feminism.
She lives in Berkeley, California and, until 2008, in Paris, France. Her husband, Elliot L. Gilbert, was Chair of the Department of English at University of California, Davis, until his death in 1991. She also had a long-term relationship with David Gale, renowned mathematician at University of California, Berkeley, until his death in 2008. She is the mother of three and grandmother of four.
Gilbert received her B. A. from Cornell University, her M. A. from New York University, and her Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia University in 1968. She has taught at California State University, Hayward, Williams College, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and Indiana University. She held the C. Barnwell Straut Chair of English at Princeton University from 1985 until 1989. Most recently she was named the inaugural M. H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor at Cornell University for spring 2007, as well as the Lurie Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Creative Writing MFA program at San Jose State University for spring 2009.
Gilbert is a former president of the Modern Language Association. She has been a recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, NEH, and Soros Foundation fellowships and has held residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Bellagio, and Bogliasco. In 1988 she was awarded a D. Litt. by Wesleyan University. In 1990 she was a co-recipient (with Karl Shapiro) of the International Poetry Forum's Charity Randall Award. More recently, she has won a Patterson Prize (for Ghost Volcano), an American Book Award (for Kissing the Bread), the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry (from the Italian-American Foundation), the Premio Lerici Pea awarded by the Liguri nel Mondo association, and several awards from Poetry magazine. In 2004 she was awarded the degree of Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2012, she was award the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle.
Collaboration with Susan Gubar
Gilbert and Gubar met in the early 1970s at Indiana University. In 1974, they collaborated to co-teach a course on literature in English by women; their lectures led to the manuscript for Madwoman in the Attic. They have continued to co-author and co-edit, and have been jointly awarded several academic distinctions. Notably, they were jointly named Ms. magazine's "Woman of the Year" in 1986 for their work as head editors of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English.
Feminist literary criticism and theory
Gilbert's critical and theoretical works, particularly those co-authored with Susan Gubar, are generally identified as texts within the realm of second-wave feminism. As such, they represent part of a concerted effort to move beyond the simple assimilationist theories of first-wave feminism, either by rejecting entirely the given, oppressive, patriarchal, male-dominated order of society, or by seeking to reform that order. Gilbert's texts, in turn, lay themselves open to many of the criticisms levelled by third-wave feminism, or thinkers who regard patriarchy not as an integrated and foundational system, but a set of repeated practices which may vary over time and space.
Gilbert is often said to have found her theoretical roots in the earlier 1970s works of Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter, as the basic premise of her thought is that women writers share a set of similar experiences and that male oppression or patriarchy is everywhere essentially the same.
"The Anxiety of Authorship"
In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar take the famous and influential Oedipal model developed by literary critic Harold Bloom and adapt it to their own purposes as feminist critics. Bloom's well-known theory of the anxiety of influence argues that writers suffer from an Oedipal fear and jealousy for their perceived literary "fore-fathers". As such, the unpublished writer puts himself under a great deal of pressure to break free from his most immediate, direct influences, to form his own voice, even to "kill" the threatening and over-bearing "father" of his particular literary experience and inspirations. Gilbert and Gubar argue that this model is male-oriented, as certainly the associations of Oedipus are, and offer for women a theory of "The Anxiety of Authorship". Here, they question the ability of the anxious woman writer even to contemplate her status as an author. In a culture whose literary tradition is in vast majority a patriarchal one, with a distinct dearth of female writers, and an overabundance of flighty female characters appearing in texts authored by members of both sexes, how can a woman arrive at the confident self-conception necessary to write successfully?
Where Bloom wonders how the male author can find a voice that is his own, Gilbert and Gubar wonder how a woman writer can see herself as possessing a literary voice at all. Where Bloom finds aggression and competition between male literary figures in terms of self-consciously feeling influenced and desiring to be influential, the "anxiety of authorship" identifies a "secret sisterhood" of role models within the Western tradition who show that women can write. These models too are "infected" with a lack of confidence and insoluble internal contradiction of ambition curdled by the culturally induced assumption of "the patriarchal authority of art."
Gilbert's theoretical works have come under fire from several later thinkers, particularly those attached to third-wave feminism and/or post-feminist theories. Writers such as Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Ann Oakley have challenged the general assumptions of the type of second-wave feminism that Gilbert represents. Her works have not usually been marked out for criticism because of their specific content, but rather for their cultural associations and the theoretical perspective from which they are borne. Her approach has been called "Anglo-American" and overly "liberal."
Gilbert has also been criticized for seeming to group together all forms of female experience, displaying a failure to consider issues of race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and historical period. Her yoking together of Anne Sexton and Charlotte Brontë is a pertinent example. Put simply, Gilbert's most oft-cited error is that of creating universal standards, both for women and for the patriarchal systems which oppress them.
- "I, TOO, WILL BE "UNCLE SANDRA"". Titanic Operas.
- Acts of Attention: The Poems of D.H. Lawrence (Cornell University Press, 1972)
- A Guide to The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (W.W. Norton, 1985; revised second edition 1996)
- The War of the Words, Volume I of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 1988)
- Sexchanges, Volume II of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 1989)
- Letters from the Front, Volume III of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 1994)
- Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama (Rutgers University Press, 1995)
- The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writers and the Nineteenth century Literary Imagination
- In the Fourth World (University of Alabama Press, 1979)
- The Summer Kitchen (Heyeck Press, 1983)
- Emily's Bread (W. W. Norton, 1984)
- Blood Pressure (W. W. Norton, 1989)
- Ghost Volcano (W. W. Norton, 1997)
- Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999 (W. W. Norton, 2000)
- The Italian Collection (Depot Books, 2003)
- Belongings (W. W. Norton, 2006)
- Aftermath: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2011)
- Wrongful Death: A Medical Tragedy (W. W. Norton, 1995)
- Death's Door: Modern Dying and The Ways We Grieve (W. W. Norton, 2006)
- Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions (W. W. Norton, 2011)
Gilbert has edited a collection of elegies:
- Inventions of Farewell (W. W. Norton, 2001)
With Susan Gubar, she has edited several collections:
- Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (Indiana University Press, 1981)
- The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English (W.W. Norton, 1985, 1990, 1996, 2007)
- Women Poets, Special Double Issue of Women's Studies (1980)
- The Female Imagination and the Modernist Aesthetic (Gordon and Breach, 1986)
With Susan Gubar and Diana O'Hehir, she has edited a collection of poetry:
- MotherSongs: Poetry by, for, and about Mothers (W.W. Norton, 1995)
With Wendy Barker, she has edited a collection of essays on the work of Ruth Stone:
- The House is Made of Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996)
- John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names 2012 Award Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
- The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 120, ed. R.S. Gwynn (1992)
- UCDavis Academic Profile
- The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001)
- Making Feminist History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ed. William E. Cain (1994)
- Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (1985)
- "Interview with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar", Critical Texts 6.1, Elizabeth Rosdeitcher (1989)
- "Literary critic Sandra Gilbert named M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor", Cornell Chronicle (17 October 2006)
- Gilbert's personal webpage
- UCDavis academic profile
- Indiana University's academic profile of Susan Gubar