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.