“Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It
“From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
—William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
Direct and ever the academic, she glosses over the minor details of her early years and the inspiration that led her to the present, fast-forwarding right to memories of her undergrad education, which lay the foundation for a lifetime of research.
“You know,” she muses, “at this point, when I was in college, there really were no courses dealing with literature by women, and the same was true when I was in graduate school.”
But female writers and feminist literature are only part of Novy’s academic focus—Shakespeare is her true forté.
“I really found Shakespeare interesting to a large extent because there were such interesting, complex female characters in his plays, and that’s something that I related to.”
During her years of teaching, Novy developed courses based on women and Shakespeare at both graduate and undergraduate levels, and was one of the first to write and publish feminist criticism of Shakespeare, beginning in the late 1970s.
Novy’s career at the University of Pittsburgh began in 1971.
At the time, she says, it was exciting to be in on the beginning of feminist Shakespeare criticism.
“It was partly because there were others who were starting in the field at the same time. It was great to go to a convention and meet people who were working on the same kind of thing. We read each other’s papers. And I was able to say to my students, ‘We’re going to talk about aspects of Shakespeare that you won’t find in published criticism.’”
Thinking back to my own education on the Bard, I realized that we never delved too far into the criticism. There were only readings, rereadings, and (interesting, to say the least) film adaptations directed by Zeffirelli and Polanski.
Around the same time she was doing feminist Shakespearean studies, Novy got involved in the beginnings of Pitt’s Women’s Studies Program, now the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. After earning tenure in 1977, she was on the steering committee of the program. While in this position, she developed courses on women writers including the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Later on, in the early 1990s, she became director of the program and ran the search that brought Kathleen Blee (current Distinguished Professor of Sociology and associate dean of graduate studies and research for the Dietrich School) to the University to be its next director.
As Women’s Studies director, Novy became part of Pitt’s Diversity Working Group.
“In women’s studies, we’d been talking about the fact that some universities had set up seminars to help faculty who wanted to integrate more about gender, race, and diversity issues into their courses,” she says. “So I did some research into what was going on at other universities.”
The Pitt administration approved the proposal that Novy developed collaboratively with others, and Novy, Ogle Duff, Audrey Murrell, and Jean Carr co-taught the first two diversity seminars in 1995 and 1996. For two weeks in May, faculty members would spend time discussing diversity and working through readings on gender and race issues in the disciplines, as well as learning how to make teaching and learning more inclusive. What started with 15 participants in 1995 continued every May until 2014, when the administration decided to sponsor a series of shorter workshops instead.
In the two-week seminar, Novy says, “People were talking about things that were shaking up their worldview, sometimes in really personal ways, and so the idea that you could have this supportive community that was talking about the same things and reading them together had a big impact. It’s one of the things I feel I can take credit for.”
That diversity program was yet another tie to Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare has characters that are outsiders in various ways,” she notes. Novy’s most recent book, Shakespeare and Outsiders (Oxford University Press, 2013) analyzes their relative position, allowing readers to better understand the dynamics and concepts behind Shakespeare’s plays and the social values they portray. “There are really so many different kinds of outsiders. I mean, in Othello, Desdemona could be considered an outsider as well as Othello, and then there’s Iago.
“There are a lot of different historical developments that have happened in recent years that have come to the critical store of ideas about Shakespeare,” she continues. “So I found when I was writing I could go away from it, come back, and have to revise it because something new would be published.”
Another major point of interest for Novy has been the representation of the family in Shakespeare, particularly in regard to adoption. Novy herself was adopted and found identification in several Shakespeare plays featuring adopted characters.
“Eventually I decided I would write about adoption in literature. Literature presents repeated plots that you could talk about as myths about adoption. Most of the time, it seemed like it would be represented that the adopted family was the real family and that was very clear, or that the birth family was clearly the real family. I really wanted to present the idea that the situation varies with the individual and the situation’s really more complex. It’s about having two families.”
In recent years, Novy has been pleased with recent writings that have better displayed this complex situation. When she began researching and writing on the topic in the 1990s, she used the Modern Language Association newsletter to send notices about convention sessions she wanted to propose dealing with the representation of adoption in literature. People would respond and attend, often having a lot to contribute. Gradually, this group expanded and formed an interdisciplinary organization, now called the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture; it is planning its sixth conference, to be held in Minneapolis in October. Novy and her colleagues hosted their first conference for the organization in 2005 at the University of Tampa. Present were scholars in the fields of history, psychology, philosophy, communications, law, sociology, and literature, as well as filmmakers, activists, and creative writers.
“It was interesting to see people approaching it from different angles,” she says. “This was the first conference that dealt with adoption in the humanities. The idea that you could have a conference with all these people from different positions learning from each other is something that doesn’t happen as often as it should.”
A second conference was held in Pittsburgh in 2007, which added anthropology to the disciplines represented. From there, Novy wanted to continue the trend here by hosing speakers and films related to adoption around the city’s college campuses. This eventually evolved into the Pittsburgh Consortium for Adoption Studies.
Novy gestures to several posters on the wall left over from past consortium events and rattles off a list of past participants: Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay and Pitt MFA alumna Jennifer Kwon Dobbs among them. Novy’s final event for the consortium, in March of this year, was a discussion by Linda Seligman, author of Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption across Race, Class, and Nation (Stanford UP, 2013), highlighting the ways identity, nation, and race are discussed in adoptive families.
More recently, Novy has been putting work into a new book on Shakespeare and feminist theory. Using The Merchant of Venice as an example, Novy mentions the character of Portia, who puts on a temporary disguise to work as a lawyer to save her husband’s friend.
“From one feminist standpoint, Portia exemplifies a feminist view that women’s job opportunities have been too limited, and she shows the possibility of women entering into spheres that weren’t open to them. From another feminist view, she manages to choose her own husband despite the fact that her father has set up a test. She manages to figure out how to get around the test by giving Bassanio a hint. So if you take the idea of choosing your own spouse as a feminist ideal, then this is something that she exemplifies. From another standpoint, there are some more recent views that when Shakespeare’s comedies end with marriage this is actually limiting for the female character.” Her deadline for getting a draft to her publisher is January 2017.
This semester, Novy has been spending much of her time teaching a new course, Changing Families in Literature, which focuses on recent literature, mostly memoirs, involving families that are different from the norm, whether it be in facets of adoption or of sexuality and gender.
“This is certainly one of the reasons I like literature,” she elaborates. “It’s this very old-fashioned view that you get an understanding of different kinds of people by reading.”
As I leave, Novy remains behind, in the office she will soon pack up. But it’s evident from our conversation that her impact here at the University will be felt for many years to come.
Erika Fleegle is a graduating senior majoring in Communication with a minor in Slovak Studies and a certificate in Public and Professional Writing. She is currently the associate editor for The Fifth Floor. In July, Erika will attend the University of Denver's Summer Publishing Institute to pursue a graduate certificate in Publishing.