Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge -- Part Two: Our Tiny Footprint

I am not about to launch into an essay on the many-thousand-year history of patriarchal societies, the conspicuous glossing over of women's work in texbooks and lectures, the permanent sex/class-divides caused (in part) by the rise of agriculture; all these things are beyond the scope of a fifteen paragraph blog entry, beyond the scope of even a fat bestseller or a doctoral dissertation. My thoughts on female reguritation of the history of man-centered knowledge will have to confine themselves to specific, direct reactions to my most recent reading.

I turn again to Virginia Woolf for help in discussing the diminutiveness of the female footprint in literature. Mrs. Woolf had her own room, you know, and from the privacy of that room she put semi-feminist thoughts into our heads.

Listen. (I'm already imitating at least two men.)

Virginia starts by looking for the beginning -- When did we start to know anything about women that wasn't written by a man? She finds nothing on the shelves until the turn of the 18th Century: "...what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century."

Note: Virginia is perhaps overlooking a few women, but we can forgive her. Sappho? Most of what we know of her is legendary. And Virginia, an Englishwoman, would probably not have been familiar with American Puritan women's writings from the 17th century. The 15th century's Book of Margery Kempe was not discovered until 1934, and Margery was illiterate anyway. The 12th century's Marie de France wrote Lanval and other chivalric smut that might not have much bearing on the direction of women in literature -- though I'm sure there are scholars of Marie that disagree.

So the writing women of circa 1700 have left us only a few quires, written in the privacy of a well-furnished chamber befitting their high-birth. Childless, they conceived and bore poetry instead, often with the praise and approval of a paid tutor. And then they hid these inky children away among their books, for fear of ridicule.

These women were burdened by their gift, and as Virginia observes, their verses nearly always belied their distress. They felt opression from the "opposing faction," yet they did not as yet feel any sense of entitlement to a life without that opression.

A survey of books by men from the same era (listed in Chapter 2) produces scores of treatises on the inferiority and awfulness of women (Small size of brain of . . . Mental, moral, and physical inferiority of . . . Vanity of . . . Weaker moral sense than . . .) And there are some positive sounding titles that certainly did nothing to advance the status of women (Worshipped as Goddesses by . . . Attractiveness of . . . Love of children of . . .)

If these writer-women were reading (and they certainly were), what effect did that kind of library have on them? Here's one: Anything serious written by a woman was usually accompanied with her own apology. From a political activist woman to a politician: "...and I perfectly agree with you that no woman has any business to meddle with that or any other serious business, farther than giving her opinion (if she is ask'd)."

I think men had written themselves into a corner by this point. By not letting women (or giving them the opportunity to) write their own history, men had left themselves in the dark about women. They wrote and wrote, but in truth they were frightened, mystified, confused. For some the writing was just a way to make sense of it all. For other it was no doubt a means to keep stalling those women by putting them in their place with books. If the men stopped writing and the women caught up, it might blow the cover off thousands of years of hard work.

And so closed the 18th Century, with little more to show for our efforts than a few thousand men's books translated by women for money, a few hundred sophomoric essays on Shakespeare, and a few dozen novels that would not survive a generation, that would certainly never see a classroom or be enveloped by the sturdy cover of a textbook anthology. Yet Virginia grants us: "The extreme activity of the mind which showed itself in the late eighteenth century among women . . . was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing." Not exactly a cultural revolution, but it's something.

So for the next hundred years, as the novel took hold, opportunistic women writers crammed their verses and stories into that "novel" package, adopted pen names, and found a place on the bookseller's shelf. Jane Austen, The Brontes, George Eliot: the shining examples of 19th Century literature that we get in the classroom. By no means is this a list cut short by stingy male professors. These few women are not the only women who wrote, but the only ones who met with such conditions that they could express any kind of genius onto the page. They were the only well-to-do childless women who controlled their anger and also happened to be writers.

It would be many years more before co-ed universities and birth control could give us a few more inches of intellectual and temporal freedom. "Chloe watched Olivia put a jar on a shelf and say how it was time to go home to her children. "

It must affect a young writer to look back at these few hundred years and earlier (and later) and watch women struggle to put the pen to the page, and then go to pieces when they get the opportunity. The embarrassed 17th century poets, the angry Bronte sister (Charlotte had her rants here and there), the chick lit. It is hard not to be inspired by any woman writer who shows genius, but it is also hard to trace a path around her footsteps that avoids those pitfalls of anger and resentment.

So we turn to men, to be sure we're getting "pure" inspiration, unmitigated by resentment. Although no writer has an ego small enough to allow him or her to write without worrying about what their reader will think of them, men perhaps have an advantage. As even Virginia tells us, the shelves of women's books are sparsely populated so we must turn to Thackeray, Coleridge, woman-hating Milton, woman-fearing Browning, and for the ultimate "genius whole and entire," Shakespeare. I too have always preferred to read men's writing.

The layers of ambivalence here, the flip-flopping from being inspired by women of genius to being disgusted with their attitudes, from being disgusted with men's misogyny to being floored by their (superior?) genius, are sure to cause confusion and distress in a woman writer. We are to live by the example of how men write, but not to imitate their style of writing. We must write like women, but not let ourselves feel like women. What a mess!

To say something positive: in the few hundred years we've been allowed writing, we've done a fairly good job of knocking down walls, and some women have walked right through them intact (though they were wearing fake moustaches).

This is an abrupt ending, but I don't want to get started on contemporary women's literature. (Gag.) See. I'm part of the problem.


  1. Well, I've finally managed to get a somewhat stable connection. So, hopefully, I can comment.

    I was so excited when I saw this posting. The second part of a three part discussion on one of my favorite topics written by one of my favorite writers ;-D

    It's funny you mention Virginia Woolf early on. Your post on her made me long for her work and so I bought "A Room of One's Own" yesterday while shopping. I don't know why I hadn't done it sooner. This discussion actually brings her work to mind. Where she still around today, I'm sure this would be something she would write about quite frequently.

    Woolf did seem to overlook Sappho, but that is still quite a low number. It really is unbelievable how women's voices managed to be shut out for so long. I'm sure women were telling stories, but perhaps most of them weren't written down (as in the case of Native Americans).

    Your description of women circo 1700 brought Emily Dickinson to mind. She's my absolute favorite poet and when I learned that she barely saw any of her work published, I was absolutely astounded.

    I shudder to think of a time when women had to apologize for voicing a thought. It doesn't surprise me at all that women thought of themselves as lesser. When that's all you hear all your life, what are you supposed to think?

    I think anytime someone's voice is censored we lose a little something. Gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, beliefs, we should embrace the differences of each instead of trying to suppress them. I want to read a wide variety of voices, not just the same thing over and over and over again.

    I love your comment on Woolf's quote. No, it wasn't exactly the cultural revolution but at least it was some kind of progress.

    Jane Austen, I've got a real love-hate relationship with her work. I love the way she writes, but sometimes I feel as though I'm reading the same plot again and again with just a few things shifted around. Of course, I've yet to find a way to voice this opinion in a way where I don't come off sounding just completely unread.

    Reading about Charlotte Bronte's rants made me laugh. It made me think of my own tirades. I wouldn't say I'm so much angry or resentful as I am bitter.

    That word: chick lit. Oh I hate that word. It brings to mind those awful pink-drenched movies where some blonde learns there's more to life then boys. Ick.

    Writers can be egotistical, I'll give you that. However, I'm not sure that their worrying about what the reader will think of them is entirely accurate. At least not today and not for writers trying to get a foot in the door. I think what they're more worried about is what the publisher will buy. Most people don't understand that publishers aren't looking for new, they're looking for guarantee. So if you write something that'll turn a lot of people off, chances are that you're going to have a hell of a tougher time getting something in print. That's why most writers sell-out the Dan Brown. That is to say they write just about anything that will please the publishers (ex. self-help books, dieting books, cookbooks, paperback thrillers, etc.).

    Shakeseare is still my favorite writer and as I'm thinking back on the books I've read, there are many more written by men then by women. Though, the first actual novel I ever read on my own (way back in the first grade) was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

    It does seem like a mess. How to be inspired by male writers but still write like a woman. We have to find some way to transcend gender without actually denying it. What a task.

    Contemporary women's literature. I read a great article once about whether or not it's necessary to have any kind of "chick lit". Why do we have to separate writing by gender. Why can't it just be literature? Of course, I'm not sure if the article writer was really taking the definition of chick lit into account, which more falls under the category of either pulp or popular fiction in my humble opinion.

    Well, I'm looking forward to the conclusion of this thrilling triptych of posts :-D


  2. I think I might be experiencing the opposite problem as those poor unfortunate long ago women (Brontes and Austen = love)in that I am trying to write a book for a genre historically ruled by men, and I don't WANT people to know I'm a woman. Does this make me dishonest? A traitor? Anti-feminist? Or am I just being realistic in thinking that people would be much more likely to buy my book if they thought it was written by a man? Am I afraid that people who see a western with a woman's name on the cover will automatically think "Oh, sleazy romance novel" since that and the 'thriller' industry seems to be where we find most female fiction writers these days. Hmm. Only time will tell, I suppose.


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