Madwomen in Social Justice Movements, Literatures, and Art
Over forty years have passed since Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote The Madwomen in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, their quintessential work of feminist literary criticism. Their work, and its title, struck a contentious chord by making a heavy-handed literary reference to Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr. Rochester, who is kept in the attic and described in bestial terms in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Gilbert and Gubar’s attempt to place the “madwoman in the attic” at the forefront or center of literary conversation is a gesture that gave agency to the phrase, encouraged meaning-making around it, and strove to keep madwomen alive as a critical subject. The literary argument that they were making transformed literary criticism and scholarship in the 80s and 90s, and its literary relevance continues to evolve; but the title and the concept of the “madwoman in the attic” still strikes a deeper chord and waxes relevant outside of literary studies, suggesting that there is something high stakes that has yet to be unexplored within and beyond it.
The “madwoman” trope and label has not become outdated; to the contrary, it continues to signify, to take on cultural, literary, and power-related meaning, meaning that extends to academic, cultural, legal, political, and other arenas. What happens when we de-contextualize “the madwoman” from her orthodox contexts in order to consider her in ways that seek to produce and uncover meaning not relegated to the woman writer or to the nineteenth century literary imagination alone? Conversations on the madwoman, on madness, and on madness-and-women or madness-and-gender have moved beyond strictly-literary contexts and are now happening among disability studies scholars, mad studies scholars, historians, feminist and gender studies scholars, queer studies scholars, and legal scholars, respectively. This collection seeks to provide space for interdisciplinary and intercultural conversation on the subject of the madwoman, based on the understanding that the identity category continues to be potent and urgent for the production of meaning. The collection will relate to, expand, and develop new directions in literary, theoretical, creative, and other inquiries relating to the concept of ‘the madwoman.’
More specifically, as the tentative title suggests, the collection will deliberate on the category of ‘the madwoman’ within social justice movements, literatures, and art – grappling with both literary and cultural constructions of ‘the madwoman,’ as well as with the ways that women writers, artists, and activists have embraced or subverted the category of ‘madwoman’ and used the construct and label in positive ways, reclaiming it and undermining its patriarchal uses, in order to work for various forms of social justice. Papers in the collection will respond to questions, such as: Why is the term ‘madwoman’ used? How is the term being used? What is its history? How are madwomen treated – in literature, art, and in society? How do they rebel? Are their actions seen through the eyes of other women or men (e.g., in terms of characters in a novel)? How does this affect our readings and understandings of the categories of ‘madness’ and ‘sanity’? These are just some of the many questions that the collection will explore. The collection will also consider how ‘madwoman,’ used pejoratively to alienate and destroy the credibility of women and non-binary or queer folx who are outliers in thought and deed, has become a shared identity category and the implications of that.
This inquiry into the madwoman as a subject is largely a result of growing attention to persisting problems of social injustice within various academic fields, as well as the emergence of the fields of disability studies and mad studies to a place of greater recognition and prominence within academia. It is also a result of the fact that both of the fields of disability and mad studies came out of social justice movements, which situates them uniquely within the academy and positions the work produced by them uniquely, in terms of the purposes they serve and how they go about fulfilling them. Scholarly and artistic interrogations of the category of the madwoman are needed as the global mad people’s movement continues to grow and new controversies and conversations continue to emerge on the subjects of madness, agency, autonomy, and rights. What scholars and artists are writing and creating on the subject of the madwoman in this collection speaks directly and indirectly to the ways in which mad people, and especially women who identify as or are labeled ‘mad’ or ‘mentally ill,’ are treated by societies, within public policies, and in hospitals and courtrooms across the world.
Writers, artists, and scholars, including and especially those who identify as mad, are invited to submit to this collection of papers that will interrogate the category of the madwoman and that will consider the meaning of the madwoman in and out of context, as a subject capable of acquiescence and resistance to categorization. Papers that explore the category of the madwoman in relationship to power structures and sources of domination and oppression are especially welcome, but all papers that consider the madwoman in relevant and meaningful ways will be given full consideration. Interdisciplinary papers, essays, and creative pieces relating to the madwoman as a subject are welcome.
Proposals should include the contributor’s/author’s name, a brief biography, and a 500-word abstract. Please send proposals to Jessica Lowell Mason (email@example.com) and Nicole Crevar (firstname.lastname@example.org).