Indiana University Bloomington

Hermaneutic, Autobiography, and the Female Voice

Annie Brackemyre, journalism, religious studies, political science

Written for Rel-R300: Nuns & Guns: Gender, Authority, Resistance, Fantasy

Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velazquez

Until recently in scholarship, authors such as Saint Teresa and their respective autobiographies have often been left as ephemera in the dust bin of history. Scholars tacitly agreed to leave these female voices out of comprehensive studies of autobiography, in keeping with the tradition of the authors’ contemporary peers. Stanton’s 1983 essay/chapter “Autogynography: Are the subjects different?” challenges the choice of academics to exclude the female narrative, through dairies, memoirs, autobiographies, and confessions. While Stanton is left to speculate why women were left out of these comprehensive studies, she successfully argues for the adoption of a new term, “autogynography.” The proposed genre brings together female autobiographies that were previously ignored and points to why the female voice was indeed such a prominent influencer of the autobiographical genre broadly.

Stanton touches on issues such as: the lack of study of the female autobiography, the impact of the female autobiography on the start of the genre, the difficulty of defining the genre, the impact of “texture” or fiction in the genre, the differences and similarities between the male and female autobiography, the discovery of the female identity through the autobiography, and the importance of the autograph. She buttresses these arguments beneath her thesis: The female genre of autobiography is distinct from the male autobiography and female self-narrations necessitate evaluation through a different lens than the male counterpart. For Stanton, this can be achieved through the adoption of “autogynography.”

Stanton reprimands scholars of the genre for leaving out the female subject, considering her too “frigidly sentimental” or “dishonest and libertine.” (Stanton 133) Stanton acknowledges the essential difference between the male and female autobiography. But instead of casting the female voice aside, like the contemporaries of the female authors or Stanton’s colleagues, she advocates for a new genre altogether for the consideration of women. Stanton works to validate the female experiences and psyche by differentiating the genres. Stanton’s recognition of diaries, memoirs, confessions, and all other autobiographies broadly validates what was often the only vocal platform of female voices from centuries past.

Stanton develops her claims first through a content analysis of over ten studies of the autobiographical genre. (Stanton 131) A first glance at the volumes of autobiographical analyses would point to the lack of women in the genre. However, Stanton goes beyond this “ghostly absence” (Stanton 132) to understand why scholars chose to leave out the female narrative. Stanton turns to descriptors and reviews of male and the sparse female narratives she can find. She works to prove that the female voice was not absent but that scholars valued what they saw as “crafted and aesthetic” in the male voice (Stanton  132) over what was deemed, “only [records of] the concerns of the private self” (Stanton 132) in the female voice. Through an analysis of these reviews and past studies on the genre, Stanton concludes that the female autobiography was categorically devalued and ascribed a negative connotation while the male narrative garnered the opposite reputation.

Stanton then turned to a deeper study of history, outside of the previously compiled studies on autobiography to unearth the true role that the female voice played in shaping the genre. Stanton shows that not only were women writing, despite the lack of space in studies of the genre, but the female voice crafted the first autobiographies in places such as Spain. Through a comprehensive content analysis of literature on the genre and unearthing a new historical narrative of the female voice, Stanton is able to show how women were deceptively left out of the genre. This underlays her foundational point: The absence of study of the female narrative is not an accurate portrayal of the prevalence or the power of the female autobiography.

Stanton’s goal is not only to point out the mistake of past scholars in leaving women out, she takes a step further to acknowledge the differences in the female and male narratives and call for a new understanding of the female autobiography altogether. It is not enough to simply study the female autobiography in greater depth. Rather, Stanton calls to build the genre of the female autobiography through writing and interpretation. She does this by coining the term “autogynography.” (Stanton 132) After grappling with the difficulties of defining just autobiography, Stanton embraces the “texture” of female narratives— the implicit fictiveness in any autobiography—as well as the duality and contradictions in the female autobiography. (Stanton 138) However, unlike her male colleagues, Stanton does not “devalue [female] writing” (Stanton 132) through this differentiation.

Stanton’s uses the new term, autogynography, to create a space for understanding how women themselves found their distinct voices and used their narratives for discovery and power. Although her distinction may at first appear essentializing, she wants to separate the two genders to both create a space of understanding around how the female autobiography could function with this duality, and show how women used the power of the pen to transcend the small boxes in which their male counterparts attempted to force female sentiments and aspirations inside.

Stanton’s distinction between the female and male autobiographical experience is exemplified in Saint Teresa’s confession. Stanton claims: “The female ‘I’ was thus not simply a texture woven of various selves; its threads, its life-lines, came from and extended to others.” (Stanton 140) This is illustrated in the case of Saint Teresa who gained her power through fame under the advisement of the man encouraging her confession. (Teresa 21) In fact, Saint Teresa’s ‘autobiography’ is actually a confession. This underscores Stanton’s point that women were limited in their means of expression unless bestowed the power through their male relations. Saint Teresa begins her confession with the sadness that she wished she had been able to say more but that her male confessor constrained the scope of her confession:

Having been commanded and left at full liberty to describe my way of prayer and the favours which the Lord has granted me, I wish that I had been allowed to describe also, clearly and in full detail, my grave sins and the wickedness of my life. This would have been a great comfort to me, but I may not do so. In fact, I have been put under severe restrictions in the matter. (Teresa 21)

Saint Teresa’s restrictions also echo Stanton’s reference to Beatrice Webb’s “The Partnership” which she says begins with a chapter titled “The Other” (Stanton 140). Like Webb’s chapter title referencing her status through her male relations, Saint Teresa similarly begins her confession through an immediate acknowledgement of someone else’s position of power in her life: that of a male priest. This is a different kind of power derivation than the typical woman would have garnered from her male relations—she would be more likely to identify herself in relation to her father or husband. But Saint Teresa’s power, and therefore at least some part of her identity, came only after the male endowed her with power. In contrast, this bestowal of power and authority is not present at the beginning for the Catalina de Erauso, the transvestite ‘lieutenant nun.’ Drawing on Stanton’s characterization of female-male power through relationality, Stanton might explain the difference in power dynamics for lieutenant nun from Saint Teresa because Catalina dressed and asserted herself as a man from the beginning of her adventures around the world until the end of her life. In this way, she enjoyed experiences and freedom not afforded to her traditionally conceived female peers. However, she is unable to escape the female relational power dynamic completely. It is only when Catalina is caught as a transvestite and confessing to a male priest, when he, Catalina, revels himself as a she, that the priest asks her to give an account of her life.

Despite objections to the term autogynography, such as that it further essentializes men and women as different, implying a hierarchy, the differences between the sexes that autogynography points out do not enforce this power dynamic. Rather, they equip the reader with an appropriate lens to understand the female position and understand how the tool of the autobiography created a space for women to transcend the traditional patriarchal power structure and limitations on their identity. Saint Teresa exemplifies this as she used her confession to subtly chastise those in power unwilling to reform.

Separating autogynography from autobiography does not itself essentialize women. Rather, the use of the new genre compels readers of past and future female autobiographies to consider not only the content of the female voice; but also why she chose, if she had a choice, the medium of the autobiography, how she arrived at that voice, and why she is writing at all. In this way, the adoption of autogynography is not a compelling way to simply and categorically differentiate the sexes but emphasizes that thoughts and writings of marginalized women are valid even in the absence of a male dominated power structure.

By separating the sexes with the term autogynography, Stanton fights against a female identity defined through male relations. Autogynography as a genre stands alone. It validates the female experience in its own right. In this way, separating the sexes does not necessitate a hierarchy but rather validates two separate experiences—of both the subjects and, perhaps equally important, differentiating the study of the male and female autobiography as a genre.


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