I really (really) got excited about Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers when it was published last year. We had a (somewhat) heated discussion about the necessity of creating a canon or history of American women's literature, how inclusive should that be, do you make a value judgement about quality, etc., when making a book like A Jury of Her Peers. Showalter had already done the same for British women's literature in A Literature of Their Own (which I haven't read) so I wanted to see how one could trace a thread through history from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.
For the most part, Showalter succeeds in showing how women in American history have built upon their experiences and those of the previous generation to persevere and produce great writing. One thing I really liked was as women's experience and influence became more diverse (different races, immigration, politics, feminism, lesbianism, etc) the groupings became more diverse. The twentieth century chapters were more interesting to me because I knew who all the authors were (regardless of whether I had read any of their work) as opposed to pre-twentieth century authors where I only recognized authors whose work I read previously, i.e. Alcott, Gilman, Stowe, etc. It is also interesting (also quite irritating) to read the responses of male editors and authors to women's writing; it is very demeaning at times and I really have to take my hat off to the many women who wouldn't take "no" for an answer when it would have been fashionable to do so.
I do wish Showalter had included excerpts from authors' work much like a Norton Anthology does. This would have been very helpful when reading about authors whose work has been "lost" so to speak. There are a number of nineteenth century authors profiled - women like Rose Terry Cook or Mary Wilkins Freeman - whose books just aren't readily available anymore whether out of print or available only in academic press. Without the excerpts to compare and contrast those chapters of less well-known names just morph into a litany of female authors whose work is no longer read because they are either less talented, less stubborn, or less lucky than a Louisa May Alcott or Harriet Beecher Stowe.
While I'm talking about Showalter's book I have to put in a plug for the title source: Susan Glaspell's short story A Jury of Her Peers which takes its inspiration from the 1900 Hossack murder trial (Glaspell used the same inspiration for her play Trifles). Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, - just down the road from me (holla!) - and covered the Hossack trial for the Des Moines paper. In the story, Mrs. Wright is arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband with a noose; the men and women of the town look at the Wright's home and come to very different conclusions about what the Wright's home life was like. It's very well-written story and ought to be taught with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.