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How Gender and Sexuality Shaped Modernism

The study of modernism looks quite different now than it did when the practice of literary criticism took off in the early 20th century. Though modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather often included themes of gender and sexuality in their work, it took the rise of gender and sexuality studies in the 1990s to fully understand that engagement.

As Professors Allison Pease (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) and Celia Marshik (Stony Brook University) explore in their new book, Modernism, Sex, and Gender, gender and sexuality studies provided the critical lens to comprehensively understand the groundbreaking shifts that women writers wrought on modernism.

Using T.S. Eliot’s argument that new works affect older works (“the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered”), Pease and Marshik apply the same idea to literary criticism.

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T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

They begin by turning to second-wave feminism, and the ways in which that movement sought to dig beneath the heavily-male modernist canon to highlight works from women. “One cannot overstate how profoundly the scholars of second-wave feminism altered the landscape of modernism in terms of what we read and study as well as what counts as art,” they write.

Pease and Marshik’s subsequent chapters concentrate on how those writers contributed to larger topics of masculinity, sexuality, and the intersection of gender and sexuality with politics and law, which in turn shaped the concept of modernism.

“Literary movements are often defined by their first critics, whose narratives become master narratives that can define a field for decades, if not centuries,” Pease told SUM. “We are hopeful that Modernism, Sex, and Gender will uncover several alternative and potential narratives about literary modernism in the U.S. and the U.K.  and around the world that have been true since modernism’s inception, but have been overlooked.”  

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Modernism, Sex, and Gender
Bloomsbury, 2018

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Allison Pease (Professor, English) | Profile 1