Sandra M. Gilbert was born Sandra Mortola in New York City, where she was raised by her parents, Angela (Caruso) Mortola and Alexis Joseph Mortola. She married Elliot Lewis Gilbert on December 1, 1957, and both went on to distinguished careers as English professors and scholars. The couple had three children: Katherine, Roger, and Susanna. Gilbert graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Cornell University in 1957. She earned an M.A. from New York University in 1961 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968. Universities at which she has taught include Stanford, Princeton, Indiana, and the University of California at Davis (UC Davis).
Gilbert is a proponent of feminist literary criticism. This diverse school of criticism is characterized by a number of goals, including recovering forgotten or lost works of literature by women, analyzing female characters, and examining literature written by women for common threads and connections, while considering each author’s social, political, and economic situation. Gilbert was a major force in bringing feminist literary criticism to the forefront of the American academic community during the 1970’s.
Gilbert is perhaps best known for her collaborations with fellow professor Susan Gubar, whom she met at Indiana University, where they taught a course in 1974 on female literary tradition. Their first collaboration was a highly influential book of essays titled The Madwoman in the Attic. This collection was hailed as a groundbreaking study of female literary tradition in the nineteenth century, as seen through the lens of feminism. It opens with a detailed critique of male-centered and misogynistic theories of poetic creation. The central image of this group of essays is Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, who attacks her brother, attempts to stab and burn her husband, and ultimately burns down the house that has served as her prison. The authors argue that even Brontë and other nineteenth century writers who were overtly concerned with women’s rights were frustrated by women’s status in society and so created images in their poetry and fiction of rage and violence directed at patriarchal institutions. Gilbert and Gubar’s book was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize and for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Although influential, the book was also quite controversial and provoked significant criticism from more traditional scholars.
Gilbert and Gubar edited several feminist literary projects, including Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Like the Madwoman in the Attic, these texts are informed by the philosophy of feminism. In the Norton anthology, for example, Gilbert and Gubar treat texts by well-known writers as well as those of lesser-known women. The editors also include rare works by authors such as Jane Austen and George Eliot. The book is divided into six eras, each with an introduction giving historic and thematic backgrounds for the works included in that section. Biographical information on the anthologized writers is included as well.
Gilbert and Gubar also collaborated on a three-part series under the collective title No Man’s Land. Together, the volumes The War of the Words, Sexchanges, and Letters from the Front constitute a literary and historical study of twentieth century women writers and an ambitious consideration of the landmarks in twentieth century literature by women. They further collaborated on Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama. This book is a quixotic mélange of dramatic and critical text, a mystery of sorts that aims toward a consideration of gender in theatrical works. With Diana O’Hehir, Gilbert and Gubar edited a volume of poems titled Mothersongs, which includes poems by both men and women on pregnancy, birth, child rearing, and loss.
Also a well-known and widely respected poet, Gilbert has published individual poems in many American magazines, including The New Yorker, The Nation, and Poetry. She has published several volumes of poetry, including Kissing the Bread, which was the 2000 winner of the American Book Award. The form of Gilbert’s poetry is primarily free verse, and it is notable for its attention to formal elements. Her subject matter is frequently drawn from everyday experience, including various losses that she has suffered.
After the unexpected death of her husband, Elliot, in 1991, following routine surgery for prostate cancer, Gilbert researched and wrote a prose memoir, Wrongful Death, that indicted the medical community at the UC Davis Medical Center. Ironically, both she and her husband were employed by UC Davis at the time of the surgery. After some litigation, the university settled Gilbert’s claim for malpractice. The book contains substantial research on the phenomenon of medical malpractice as well as the details of the Gilbert family’s tragedy. At the time of Elliot’s death, he and Gilbert had been married for more than thirty-three years. Gilbert also published a volume of verse in memory of her late husband, Ghost Volcano, in 1995. In 2001, Gilbert’s mother died at the age of ninety-seven; this loss prompted the development of a long poem, “Belongings,” which appeared in the May, 2002, issue of Poetry.
Gilbert is a longtime member of the Modern Language Association and served as the organization’s president in 1996. Among her many awards for writing are the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Italian American Foundation and an American Book Award. She has been a corecipient of the International Poetry Forum’s Charity Randall Award. She has also been the recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller fellowships, and she has been awarded residencies at the Yaddo and MacDowell artists’ colonies. She was named as a “woman of the year” by Ms. magazine in 1986 and as one of USA Today’s “people who made a difference” in 1985.