My WomanTheory Story: Sarah Burton on Aphra Behn and Bridget Fowler

Choosing who to write about for my WomanTheory story is remarkably hard. Having studied theory across a number of disciplines and been taught and mentored by an array of amazing feminist scholars there are so many women theorists to whom I’m indebted. My intellectual path has been strongly influenced by writers such as Donna Haraway, Bev Skeggs, Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Yvette Taylor, and Raewyn Connell. But for my WomanTheory story I want not to be oriented only to the intellectual aspects of my becoming as an academic or writer, but to consider the personal as well.

ImageThe first in my WomanTheory story is not a theorist, but a seventeenth century playwright. Aphra Behn was the first woman who made it unquestionably obvious to me that a woman could not only be successful on the same stage as men, but could do so through writing and creating. In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf wrote that,

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was. — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Behn was the first woman (in Britain) to earn her living by publishing her writing. I first encountered her during my A Level English Literature course and again as an undergraduate. Behn’s unapologetic stance regarding sexism, misogyny and the rights of women bolstered my burgeoning feminism and taught me that I, too, need never apologize for my womanhood. Moreover, her ability to earn a living as a writer confirmed to me early on that using my brains and my words would get me far in life.

My second WomanTheory choice is Bridget Fowler. I stumbled upon Fowler’s work when I was becoming interested in Pierre Bourdieu.Image Among the swathes of men all seemingly trying to out-do each other with increasingly dense interpretations of Bourdieu’s work was a woman whose writing cut through all of the hyperbole. In particular her book Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations (1997), taught me that theory doesn’t have to be difficult to be worthwhile – nor does it need to disavow the arts in order to be valid. As with Behn, I’m also inspired by Fowler’s professional success; her work gives me hope that it is possible to be a woman, and an academic, and a mother, and a social theorist all at once. I’m especially lucky that in recent years I’ve studied at Fowler’s institution and been privileged to engage in discussions of my research with her. I probably cite Haraway, Skeggs et al more than either Bridget or Aphra but really when it comes to who keeps me going on the dark nights mired in ‘boy theory’, it’s the women who shaped me emotionally as a writer and theorist that I turn to.


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