In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bonnie Zimmerman

  • Introduction
  • Journal Articles and Book Chapters in Eliot Studies
  • Journal Articles in Lesbian Studies
  • Co-Authored Essays
  • Chapters in Edited Collections
  • Books
  • Notable Reviews of Bonnie Zimmerman’s Books
  • Bonnie Zimmerman’s Reviews
  • Interviews
  • Critical Studies That Include Interviews with Bonnie Zimmerman as a Source
  • Bibliographies and Archival Collections

Literary and Critical Theory Bonnie Zimmerman
Emma Heaney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0065


Bonnie Zimmerman (b. 1947) is a key figure in the development of the academic fields of women’s studies, lesbian studies, and LGBT studies. She was among the scholars who brought feminist study from the political milieu of women’s liberation into the classroom and the academy in the 1970s and 1980s. Her book The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969 to 1989, for which she won a Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Nonfiction, was crucial in identifying a cohort of post-Stonewall lesbian writing. This group of writers generated more than two hundred books and was aligned with the women’s liberation and the lesbian movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It was Zimmerman’s text that identified writers as diverse as Paula Gunn Allen, Rita Mae Brown, Audre Lorde, and Monique Wittig as part of a bound movement of lesbian writers. Her co-edited collections The New Lesbian Studies: Into the 21st Century, Professions of Desire, and Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature, are among the canonical texts of LGBT literary studies. Zimmerman was trained as a scholar of 19th-century British literature. She received a PhD in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1973, completing a doctoral dissertation of feminist readings of the novels of George Eliot. Her early publication drew on her doctoral work on George Eliot, offering some of the first examples of feminist literary studies. Already in her studies of Eliot, she began to move toward the lesbian studies literary analysis that would be her primary field of research for the rest of her career. During her doctoral studies in Buffalo, she became deeply involved in the political project of women’s liberation, attending meetings of a consciousness-raising group composed of fellow graduate students, which had a markedly Marxist focus. In this time of political awakening, Zimmerman came out as a lesbian. She was alienated by the focus of the English Department, and she focused on her political activities. She created a women’s studies course with some of her feminist colleagues. As a graduate student, she developed the following courses that would form her subsequent scholarship: Introduction to Women’s Studies, Women’s Literature, Women’s Autobiography, and Feminist Theory. In 1978, she was hired as a visiting professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, the first such department to be developed in the United States. Her visiting position led to a tenure-track position, and she remained at the university, transitioning to administrative positions in the late 1990s, until she retired in 2010. She served as chair of Women’s Studies and associate vice president of Faculty Affairs at San Diego State. She was an active member of the Modern Language Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, serving two terms as the president of the latter.

Journal Articles and Book Chapters in Eliot Studies

Bonnie Zimmerman’s early research addressed George Eliot’s fiction and was undertaken as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she completed in 1970 in the Department of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She was among the first doctoral candidates in English to produce a dissertation that had an explicitly feminist theoretical orientation. Her early articles all address the depiction of women and relationships between women: Zimmerman 1977, Zimmerman 1979, Zimmerman 1986, Zimmerman 1993. It is only with Zimmerman 1990 that this focus explicitly addressed lesbian themes, a focus that will occupy Zimmerman for the rest of her career.

  • Zimmerman, Bonnie S. “‘As a Diamond’: George Eliot, Jewelry and the Female Role.” Criticism 19.3 (1977): 212–222.

    This is a feminist analysis of the semiotics of jewelry and jewels in the novels of George Eliot. Zimmerman’s analysis proceeds from Eliot’s citation of the jewel as spiritual emblem in the Gospel of Saint John in the Bible.

  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. “Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood.” ELH 46.3 (1979): 432–451.

    DOI: 10.2307/2872689

    In this essay, Zimmerman proposes that Felix Holt represents George Eliot’s transition to a thorough social analysis of women’s roles. The essay attends to Eliot’s engagement with the sociological and political analysis of women’s changing opportunities in the mid-19th century. It focuses in particular on the depiction of “women’s power” in the context of contemporary debates on women’s work, marriage, motherhood, education and other topics of political reform.

  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. “‘George Eliot and Feminism’ The Case of Daniel Deronda.” In Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World. Edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, 231–237. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

    In this essay, Zimmerman makes the case for Eliot’s political engagement with the conditions of women in Daniel Deronda.

  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. “‘The Dark Eye Beaming’: Female Friendship in George Eliot’s Fictions.” In Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, 126–144. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

    This article attends to the intensity of affection and love expressed in Eliot’s letters to Sara Hennell and then connects those letters to representations of female friendship in Eliot’s novels. Zimmerman observes that, as in Eliot’s own relationships, these fictional friendships support, rather than replace heterosexual relationships. She observed that as desire between women becomes pathologized beginning in the 1860s, Eliot shifts in both life and fiction to a characterization of women’s intense relationships as morbid.

  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. “George Eliot’s Sacred Chest of Language.” In Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure. Edited by Alison Booth, 154–176. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

    This essay traces the image of the sacred chest as a figure for male creative powers in Daniel Deronda. Her feminist analysis focuses on the ways the marriage of Mordecai and Daniel unites feminine sympathy and masculine law, re-envisioning the marriage plot as a public and historical union of a man to his people.

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