It was a daunting task that Elaine Showalter set herself in A Jury of Her Peers: to put together a history of more than 250 American female writers from 1650 to 2000. The title comes from a one-act play, Trifles, that became a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers”, in 1917. Both the play and the story were written by Susan Glaspell, a Des Moines reporter, after covering a sensational murder case.
When a farmer is murdered, the sheriff and some helpers, and their wives, come to the farmhouse — the men to hunt for clues, the wives to pack some clothes to take to the widow, who is in jail awaiting trial for her husband’s murder.
While the men search for clues to support their foregone conclusion, the women read the clues quite differently; they set out to conceal or destroy whatever might be to the widow’s detriment — in effect, constituting themselves “a jury of her peers” — and in doing so, they acquit her of the crime.
Not only does Showalter trace the development and treatment of what has come to be called “the female experience”, but she says she is “interested in women writers’ efforts to move beyond female experience, to create male characters and to write outside of their own race and place.”
She has divided the phases in women’s writing into “feminine,” “feminist,” and “female” and, finally, by the end of the 20th Century, the fourth and final stage: “free”.
Although reading A Jury of Her Peers chronologically is enlightening, the book may be dipped into at any chapter with much reward. Chapter 3 opens with an Edinburgh critic asking, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” This in the era of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.
Contemporaneously, the work of three female US writers — Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Caroline Kirkland — was intellectually respected by such men as Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and Edgar Allen Poe, who praised Kirkland for her “truth and novelty”. Kirkland wrote about backwoods Michigan, “then the unsettled frontier or ‘the West.’ “
Showalter captures so well, often in just a few paragraphs, the image of the women she writes about. Kirkland is described as “funny, free and flashy”.
In 1837, Kirkland and her husband gave up their jobs in Detroit “and set out to create a model frontier village of their own in Pinckney, Michigan, where they would spend the next six years.” Kirkland wrote a humorous roman a clef under a pseudonym — but Pinckneyites recognized themselves and were outraged.
Fast forward to Joyce Carol Oates. Raised on a small farm in New York, she moved to Detroit, which, she said, “changed my life completely.”
Showalter thumbnails the plots of some of Oates’ books, including Them, about a brother and a sister, children of a worker on the Chrysler assembly line. The boy “understands that even at his weakest he has more power than a woman. ‘A woman in a car only appears to be in control!’ he thinks as a teenager: ‘Inside, her machinery is as wobbly and nervous as the machinery of her car.'”
Reading A Jury of Her Peers is not only an education in literary history, it is eminently satisfactory intellectual nourishment.