Material Minds and Modern Fiction
"Material Minds and Modern Fiction" examines how modern women writers adapt discourses from experimental psychology in their fiction to confront the politicized issue of psychological sexual difference. Debates regarding the concept of the “gendered brain” were fundamental to the early twentieth-century women’s movement in Great Britain and the United States: defenders of the anti-suffrage and antifeminist position used the supposedly inherent differences between men and women’s brains to justify the denial of rights, whereas equality feminists insisted on the innate sameness of the human mind to bolster their claim to equal sociopolitical access. My dissertation attests that Rebecca West, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf draw on experimental-psychological theory in their literary works in a way that unsettles the premises of this debate, developing literary discourses that acknowledge psychological disparities between men and women without conceding to gender essentialism. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, experimental psychology was a disciplinary approach to psychological study that theorized cognition as a physiological process to be studied using the empiricist methodology of the natural sciences. The material mind—the idea that the human mind is no more or less than the human brain—was a foundational concept in the field. Employing an interdisciplinary method, my dissertation shows that experimental-psychological theory enabled modern women authors to approach the issue of gendered brains from a materialist perspective that maintained the equality-feminist claim to parity. West, Stein, and Woolf draw on diverse strands of experimental-psychological thought to craft distinctive aesthetic strategies that position sexual difference as the product of inequitable environmental exposures or social conditioning rather than an immutable feature of psychic life. My project testifies to the prominence of experimental-psychological theory in the modern era as well as the diversity of psychological schools that fall within its rubric. A recovery project of sorts, my chapters position the theories offered by modern experimental-psychological researchers as inextricably bound to expressions of feminism in modern fiction, serving as adaptable discourses for women writers seeking to use their literary medium to deconstruct the ideology of gender essentialism.