Reading American women's autobiography: Spheres of identity, spheres of influence

Amy Corine Getty, Marquette University


Women's autobiographical writings are in a unique position to influence positively political movements concerned with equality. When women, especially, speak out about their lives, they create new spaces and narratives for the stories of following generations. However, within what Deborah Tannen has labeled the "argument culture," the binary thinking surrounding identity, specifically when concerning the issues of essentialism and social constructionism, can threaten autobiography's particular political qualities by sidetracking the issues and nullifying the validity of identity politics. When we embrace the current conciliatory trend concerning this binary (specifically in the works of Gerda Lerner, Edward Wilson, and Laura Brady), noting also that Kenneth Burke's "paradox of substance" demands that identity at all times be both intrinsically (essentially) and extrinsically (socially) influenced, we can begin to move beyond strict binaries and hierarchies in order to reclaim the impetus and agency of lifewriting. Within this both/and structure of identity, we can look to specific authors to examine how they use the assumptions around both essentialism and social constructionism to connect with their audiences, to testify about their experiences, and to encourage empathetic solidarity. Nancy Mairs, Dorothy Allison, and Mary Brave Bird all foreground how their different societies have shaped them without ever losing the notion of a shifting intrinsic core which also guides them and makes them connect essentially with their audiences. Within their separate "fields" of experience, among which are disability, gender, class, sexuality, race, and ethnicity, all three embrace their differences to speak past a culturally imposed shame. Meanwhile, they open new political spaces for their audiences to tell their own stories and act upon the shared information. In an often fragmented poststructural and postmodern world, we can look to such autobiographies to pull us toward fighting for "universal" human rights, never forgetting the uniqueness of the individuals making up any specific political movement.

Recommended Citation

Getty, Amy Corine, "Reading American women's autobiography: Spheres of identity, spheres of influence" (2000). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9977732.