Écriture féminine: Searching for an Indefinable Practice?

  1. 1. Mark Olsen

    Department of Romance Languages - University of Chicago

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Écriture féminine:
Searching for an Indefinable Practice?


University of Chicago


University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia




Kretzschmar, Jr.



Some 25 years ago, Hélène Cixous provocatively anticipated a distinctly female
practice of writing. She declared that écriture
féminine would be marked by characteristics which challenge the logic
of writing within the “phallocentric” tradition, by its focus on the female
body, glorying in a femininity too long repressed, and breaking up received
truth through laughter. Her argument, based on her view of the poetic, implies a
form of “false consciousness” in that not all women would, or even could,
produce texts from this alternative practice. Further, she declared that écriture féminine cannot be defined or identified
outside of itself:
It is impossible to define a feminine
practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for
this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, encoded, coded —which
doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the
discourse that regulates the phallocentric system: it does and will take
place in areas other than those subordinated to
philosophical-theoretical domination. It will be conceived of only by
subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no
authority can ever subjugate.

Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa" in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1:4
(1976) 883.

A generation of French and America feminist critics have addressed Cixous’
declaration, pro and con, which is based on two questionable propositions: that
écriture féminine cannot be defined outside of
its own terms and that not all women writing may be said to participate in this
unique practice.
It is unfortunate that so important a declaration would be auto-marginalized by
positing its own epistemological and social indefinability. While Cixous may be
right, that a practice of women’s writing would be hard to identify, she carries
her attack of “phallocentric systems” of knowledge—rationality and logic—to such
an extreme that any attempt to demonstrate the possibility of the existence of,
or isolate some of the characteristics of, an écriture
féminine is invalidated. I would argue, however, that any putative
feminine practice of writing should be identifiable as recessive traits in the
literary production of women who predate Cixous’s declaration and that these
traits may be detected using systematic methodologies.
A considerable body of recent work on gender marking in language use shows
important, even critical, differences in male and female use of language.See for example, Deborah Tannen, You just don't
understand: Women and men in conversation (Ballantine, 1990) and
Gender and discourse (Oxford, 1994).
While much of this work has been restricted to less formal forms of
communication—speech, e-mail, and student essays—there is some evidence that
gender is an important discriminant in more formal literary texts. For example,
Minna Palander-Collin finds in her study of 17th century private letters that
there are marked differences between female and male writing, suggesting that
the women's letters are more interactional, personal and “involved” than letters
by men, which are common features of women’s communication in Present-Day
English.Minna Palander-Collin, "Male and female styles in 17th
century correspondence: I THINK", in Language Variation and
Change, 11 (1999), 123-141. More generally, recent
studies by Moshe Koppel, Shlomo Argamon and Anat Shimoni have detected a wide
variety of simple lexical and syntactic feature differences in literary texts by
men and women in the British National Corpus (BNC). Using machine learning
techniques, they are able to infer the gender of an author of an unseen document
with approximately 80% accuracy, with moderately better performance for works of
fiction than nonfiction.Moshe Koppel, Shlomo Argamon, Jonathan Fine
and Amat Shimoni, "Automatically Categorizing Written Texts by Author
Gender", forthcoming in Literary and Linguistic
Computing (2003) and Moshe Koppel, Shlomo Argamon, Jonathan Fine
and Amat Shimoni, "Differences in Writing Style Between Male and Female
Authors" (paper submitted for publication). The success of text
categorization techniques to identify modern literary texts by gender of author
suggests that there are gendered practices of writing and that these gendered
traditions are grounded in the history of literary culture and would be an
important component of Cixous’ prospective écriture
In the early 1990s, I attempted to examine the question of écriture féminine using the ARTFL database, only to be confronted by
the very significant gender bias of the TLF database as it was then constituted,
concluding that the sample of texts by women (3.8% of the titles) was too
limited to allow for useful comparisons. This limitation led directly to our
ongoing effort to digitize a large collection of French literary texts by women,
ARTFL’s French Women Writers ProjectARTFL's French Women Writers
Project is one of many projects to digitize neglected literary and
non-literary texts by women, most inspired by the Brown Women Writers
Project, including the University of Chicago Library's Italian Women Writers
and commercial products such as Alexander Street Press' North American Women's Letters and Diaries. See for a
partial list of current projects and products. to redress the gender
bias of the corpus which was used to compile the TLF dictionary. The gender bias
in the data used to compile a massive and “definitive” dictionary is itself an
important example of one mechanism of how patriarchal language is propagated and
authorized."Gender representation and histoire des mentalités: Language and Power in the Trésor de la langue française," in Histoire et measure VI (1991): 349-73. My initial
studies of gender representation in early modern and modern French—based
exclusively on male writers describing the feminine —produced some striking
examples of long-term shifts in the use and meaning of common gender terms, such
as femme."Quantitative Linguistics and
Histoire des mentalités: Gender
Representation in the Trésor de la langue
française, in R. Köhler and B. B. Rieger (eds.), Contributions to Quantitative Linguistics (Kluwer, 1993), pp.
361-381. Age categorization of women— young/old—becomes one of the
most notable patterns only towards the end of the 18th century, reflecting both
the rise of the romantic novel and a new politics of desire. Equally important
are long-term continuities, such as the collocation of femme with possessives, suggesting that the semantic field of the
feminine begins with putting her “in her place,” being possessed by a male.See also Tuija Pulkkinen, "The History of Gender Concepts: The Concept
of Woman", in History of Concepts Newsletter, 5
(2002), 2-5. Cixous’ complaint that “woman has always functioned
‘within’ the discourse of man” simply because women must express themselves in
“the language of men and their grammar”Cixous, p. 887. is a
position that is certainly implied by my initial studies and needs to be taken
into account when characterizing earlier examples of feminine writing.
In order to examine possible earlier practices of écriture
féminine, I am assembling two corpora of about 350 literary texts
each by male and female authors from the 17th to the early 20th century,
balanced by time period, genre, and subject matter (or collection). The women’s
texts are drawn from a variety of current holdings at ARTFL, including 110 texts
in French Women Writers, 70 from the ARTFL database, 40 from BASILE (Editions
Champion), and 130 from various collections produced by Editions
Bibliopolis.Links to the ARTFL/PhiloLogic implementations of
these collections may be found at .
The comparative male corpus will be selected from the same sources. Comparisons
of the two corpora will be based on several distinct types of analysis.
A comparative overview of the two corpora using the combination of
some of the relatively simple lexical and syntactic features used by
Koppel and his team, broken down by time period;
A comparison of collocations of gender terms (femme, homme, mari, mère, etc.),
loosely based on results from my earlier studies, effectively looking at
how men and women represent themselves and the other gender, again
broken down by period and genre.
Examination of the “agency” of male and female actors as represented
by the tense and the functional status of selected verbs associated with
gender denoting terms.
And a general assessment of the pragmatics associated with literary
writing by males and females, by looking at use of hedges as well as the
density of pronouns and adjectives.

Finally, following Pulkkinen’s call to consider the history of the concept of
“woman” as a political construct, I would like to look at contrasting
representations of social groups—inclusive and exclusive use of nous and other terms denoting belonging—a technique
well known in lexicologie politique."Enlightened Nationalism in the Early Revolution" The nation in the Language of the Société de
1789 in Canadian Journal of History
(24), 1994, p. 28ff Using a combination of quantitative and
systematic qualitative approaches to the two corpora, I hope to show changing
patterns of gendered writing in French literature over a several century
The continued expansion and improvement of electronic text holdings, in terms of
the quality of the data as well as coverage of wider ranges of literatures well
outside of established national canons, allows us to revisit theoretical and
substantive problematics that we could not address previously. Women's writing
is surely a case-in-point of this laudable development, facilitating systematic
examinations of propositions made by critics and theorists like Hélène Cixous.
Identification of the practices and distinguishable characteristics of écriture féminine in the centuries predating her “call
to the pen” may help situate the traditions of gendered discourse the past as
well as their relationship to current feminine writing.

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Conference Info

In review

"Web X: A Decade of the World Wide Web"

Hosted at University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia, United States

May 29, 2003 - June 2, 2003

83 works by 132 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: http://web.archive.org/web/20071113184133/http://www.english.uga.edu/webx/

Series: ACH/ICCH (23), ALLC/EADH (30), ACH/ALLC (15)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None