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Circumscribing the spirit: Spiritual identity and the autobiographical acts of three American women writers

Melissa Hamilton Hayes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In only the last twenty years has the study of women's autobiographies become a respected and serious topic within academia. Feminist scholars have pioneered work that shows the inherent value of studying not only women's lives, but also how women write about themselves. However, within the study of autobiography, little attention has been paid to the way women construct their spiritual identities in self-writing. As feminist scholar Susan Neunzig Cahill has asserted, religious experiences are “a significant, if equivocal, theme of many women's writers' life histories, influencing their creation of self in relation to the world” (2). Therefore, this dissertation explores the often overlooked genre of the spiritual narrative and explores the way in which three American women writers create a spiritual self-identity in their autobiographical writing. ^ Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O'Connor, and Adrienne Rich are the women represented in this study. Representing different racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds, these women all write in order to examine their lives in relation to spiritual and religious understanding, both in and out of institutional or organized settings. They also push the limits of traditional autobiography—sharing their life stories in the form of letters, essays, and poetry. What is the essential to this study are several particular questions. How do Hurston, O'Connor, and Rich establish a sense of identity in relation to religious institutions or do they choose to work outside of them? How do they choose to represent themselves, their spiritual journeys, and their faith? How do they authorize their spiritual identity? Also key to this investigation is the exploration of what religion and spirituality mean, how they are different or alike and how western culture has defined, masculinized, or essentialized religious experience. In the end, what this dissertation will show is that the exploration and serious study of women's spiritual narratives is not only a valid, but important focus for feminist scholarship. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Biography|Women's Studies|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Hayes, Melissa Hamilton, "Circumscribing the spirit: Spiritual identity and the autobiographical acts of three American women writers" (2003). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3102567.