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Figuring Modesty in Feminist Discourse Across the Americas, 1633-1700.

Figuring Modesty in Feminist Discourse Across the Americas, 1633-1700. By Tamara Harvey. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. x + 163 pp. $99.95.

The title of this book initially seems paradoxical, as the terms "modesty" and "feminist discourse" may initially appear to be at odds, charges of immodesty or unchastity being one of the most familiar tactics used to silence and invalidate female public expression. Tamara Harvey quickly complicates ibis assumption, however, by reminding us that two different Latin terms underlie the concept of modesty: pudor, the typical modesty of women, connected to notions of weakness, limitation, and the need for feminine concealment, and modestus, defined as "to 'keep due measure,'" a term generally associated with men but not intrinsically gendered (1). Harvey contends that the four women she studies--Anne Bradstreet and Anne Hutchinson in New England, Sor Juana fries de la Cruz in Mexico, and Marie de l'Incarnation in Quebec--deploy this second concept of modesty in their writings and use it both to engage a wide range of discourses familiar to the authors and to challenge the misogynist claims within them. To do so, they stress a particular idea of the body, which Harvey designates as "feminist functionalism": Bodies are seen as necessary or effective in various ways, rather than as symbolically important (3). This "functionalism" provides a subtle but profound conceptual shift: A symbolic view of the body underlies patriarchal ideas of the female body as flawed, a "deprived [form] of male perfection " and hence becomes the basis for what Alice Jardine calls gynesis, a tactic through which, in the seventeenth-century colonial context, "female otherness is used to constitute male subjectivity and privilege, define the intersection between theology and social order, and shape transatlantic politics" (3, 5). By contrast, a functionalist understanding of the body allows these women to critique gynesis and the arguments for female subordination founded upon it. Moreover, functionalism allows women to challenge body/spirit dualism and to cultivate ideas of "discipline, practice, and embodied efforts that are always conditioned by the limits of human perception in a fallen world"--in other words, to embrace a modest and ultimately community-centered vision of knowledge and action (2).

The women whose lives and works are explored in Figuring Modesty fall into two pairs, although this design becomes fully explicit only in the conclusion. Anne Bradstreet and Sor Juana, the first two figures studied, are poets; the second pair, Anne Hutchinson and Marie de l'Incarnation, are religious activists, a distinction Harvey argues is more useful than the contrast between Puritan goodwives and Catholic nuns. Harvey's examination in the first two chapters is focused on scrupulous close readings of signal works--Bradstreet's quaternions and Sor Juana's Primero Sueno--in the context of the medical and religious discourses with which these philosophical poems are engaged. Harvey claims that the most interesting "feminist gestures" of these writers "are evident not in their language or tactics of individual self-empowerment but in their engagement of new ideas in ways that both refuse and render irrational gynetic tropes" (142).

The texts examined in the latter two chapters are more wide ranging, as the debates the women are engaged in are situated in the historical contexts of the Antinomian Controversy and the Ursuline apostolate. These women are "concerned with ways of knowing God's will situated within community." For "both, this is manifested as a concern for how the body testifies to God's will in its functions and not as a sign to be read from the outside" (143). This connection between functionalism and community is among the book's most intriguing dimensions. It connects to another underlying contention--that even feminist scholars' accounts of these women do not do them justice because they regard them as isolated from intellectual traditions or implicitly individualist in their motivations.

This overview of the study's key ideas does not capture its scholarly texture, as it is impossible to do justice in a short review to Harvey's detailed explorations of texts that were originally written in three languages. Although not lengthy, the book draws on a striking range of historical knowledge and demonstrates Harvey's mastery of the diverse discourses the authors engaged, including medicine and humoral theory, Puritan theology, and the generic traditions of the Neoplatonic dream poem and Ursuline memoir. Yet despite the range of its sources, the book remains tightly focused on its core argument. While it is intriguing to observe Harvey tease out the workings of functionalism in texts that rarely invoke the topic explicitly, the book is not likely to satisfy readers who want either more general readings of these figures or a sustained treatment of the issues at stake in a comparativist approach to early modern women writers. However, for those seeking new, deeply historicized ways of conceptualizing the strategies of early modern feminism and of reading representations of the body, Figuring Modesty is a significant and revealing work.

Reviewed by Anne G. Myles, University of Northern Iowa
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Author:Myles, Anne G.
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:816
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