Sara Mills


This is the first issue of the series English Studies: Working Papers on the Web. This electronic series is hosted by the English Department at Sheffield Hallam University. We aim to publish cutting edge academic writing on a range of subjects by staff and postgraduates in both the English Department at Sheffield Hallam and other institutions. All of the articles contained in English Studies: Working Papers on the Web have been refereed by academics from a range of universities in Britain, Europe, the United States and Australia.

Each issue of the series will be focused around a particular theme. The subject for this first issue is Feminist Practice. All of the articles here work with a complex notion of what constitutes feminist theory at the moment. Feminist theory itself has moved from a simple notion of feminism being concerned with equal opportunities for women to a troubling of the categories `woman' and `women' and indeed subsequently `feminism'; this has meant the feminist theory now is less united around a series of shared concerns than ever before, but perhaps it is precisely because of that instability -that sense of difficulty in defining terms, a difficulty in coming to an agreement amongst groups of feminists - that interesting theoretical work around the issue of definitions has been taking place. Out of the recognition of differences, alliances can be formed, but perhaps more importantly a sense that not all women are going to agree on everything has been recognised so that utopian myths about feminism and about women can be dispensed with, or at least recognised as stories which we would like to be able to tell ourselves. This obviously makes political action complex and fraught, but it also makes Western feminists in particular a little more careful about making universalist claims about what women want or what would be in women's interests.

It is this recognition of complexity and difficulty within feminist theory at the moment which shapes all of the articles collected here. All of the articles are working with a newly problematised notion of the female subject and subsequently the heterogeneous feminist theory necessary to describe this unstable range of subject positions. None of the authors here is content to assume that they can make generalisations about all women, but instead are trying to formulate ways of making statements beyond the particular case that they are describing.

The essays collected here are very varied in terms of their subject matter: some of them are primarily focused on linguistics and language analysis, others are more literary. But all of them bring to their field of analysis this new complex notion of working with and against feminist theories, working with and against generalisation and particularities.

Clare Walsh in her article `Speaking in different tongues: a case study of women priests in the Church of England' examines the troubled position of women priests and relates their situation to the broader position of women intervening within the public sphere. She analyses the tensions between the ways that they are represented and the way that they represent themselves, and in so doing engages with feminist theories of identity construction.

Jacqueline Hodgson-Blackburn's article `Indigestible secrets: female melancholia in the work of Evelyn Lau' is concerned with the analysis of the work of the Chinese Canadian writer Evelyn Lau. Drawing on psychoanalytical theory, she analyses the very different access that women have to melancholia, and in this article she maps out the parameters of a female melancholia.

Janine Liladhar's article `Jenny Éclair: "The rotting old whore of comedy": a feminist discussion of the politics of stand-up comedy', analyses the difficulty of assigning a single univocal meaning to Jennie Éclair's stand up act. Drawing on Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque and Christie's reader response model, she argues that, at one and the same time, Éclair's statements can be read as progressive in feminist terms to some members of the audience and also as affirming sexist beliefs for other members of the audience.

Lizzie Knowles' article is an engagement with feminist linguistic analysis of transitivity. In analysing literary texts by Mary Shelley and Angela Carter she looks at the contextual meanings of various verbal processes, rather than assuming that the meaning of transitivity is simply a matter of a correlation between the grammatical choice and a particular form of encoding of agency. In this way she tries to map out a position for expressing feminist agency.

Kathryn Longden's essay on middle class British women's philanthropic activity in the nineteenth century tries to analyse this work without either judging the middle class women as ineffective or risible creatures caught up in an ideology of a women;'s place in the public and private sphere, or assuming that their work was received by working class women in the way that they intended. She analyses the conflictual meanings of this type of cross-class work.

All of these essays, whether they are more literary or more linguistically focused, engage with feminist theory and try to map out a practice, which is productive for that particular political context.