When asked to recall the greatest writers who ever lived, who do you think of? Shakespeare? Orwell? Tolstoy? Male writers have dominated book lists and Booker Prize nominations and indeed classrooms (for every Harper Lee there is a Steinbeck, a Golding, a Dickens etc) for a very long time. In 2015 when Tramp Press asked authors submitting manuscripts to name the writers who inspire them, only 22% were female. If our classrooms are dominated by male writers, then it is likely that people will gravitate towards male writers as readers later in life. This leads to ideas of a female inferiority when it comes to writing. An idea that is as old as, if not exactly time, then certainly the last four thousand years or so. Recently, a book store in Cleveland, USA turned around the books written by male authors so that only female authored books had their spines showing in honour of International Women's Day on March 8th. The results were startling. Startling, but should we be surprised given the scale of our unconscious bias against female writing, which leads publishers to dismiss women's manuscripts without even reading them?
Then we come to another problem. Namely that the vast bulk of male produced fiction is about men and men’s lives. Without strong female role models in literature and popular culture in general, we struggle to provide our girls with the confidence in their abilities that they so desperately need. We also struggle to engender empathy for girls and women in our boys. For example, let’s not forget that the only woman in ‘Of Mice and Men’, one of the most ubiquitous books to be studied at GCSE: does not have a name of her own, meets a violent death, and is considered a ‘tramp’- thereby bringing it on herself. Considering the endemic and pernicious scale of male violence and sexual violence towards girls and women all over the world, this is not something we can afford to ignore.
But ignoring women is one of the things humans do best. Did you know that the first named author in all of recorded history was a woman? The Sumerian poet Enheduanna’s work was produced during her lifetime between 2285-2250 BCE, just a little before the institutions of patriarchy were written into law and the movement and lives of women became restricted in all spheres. Prior to this deliberate dismantling of the rights and powers of women, it was not an aberration to see women holding high positions in earlier societies. This idea that our highly unequal society is just the way it is and always has been, (and thus by extension we should accept the status quo as the ‘natural’ order), is completely false. In fact, this deliberate restriction placed on women about four thousand years ago, is responsible for all of the imbalances and inequalities women are faced with today. Why have we never heard of Enheduanna? Probably for the same reason most people have not heard of Aphra Behn, who broke cultural barriers to become the most popular playwright of her day in the late 17th Century and is now buried, not in Poet’s Corner, but a more obscure corner of Westminster Abbey. We just don’t study women. Not in English and not in history.
It is worth noting that in spite of incredible odds at times, women’s writing has overcome huge obstacles of systemic oppression. Some of our most celebrated works of fiction have come from the minds and pens of women. Jane Austen, The Brontё sisters, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, JK Rowling. But how many more women’s voices have we lost to obscurity thanks to patriarchal institutionalised bias? While the male voice is ascribed the term ‘genius’ often and with ease, the female voice is rarely recognised as such. When you have a member of the European Parliament suggesting that women should be paid less because we are less intelligent in our supposedly enlightened 2017, we know we still have a long, long way to go.
In recognition of this bias against women, the history of great literature is littered with examples of women changing their names in order to be taken more seriously as authors. Even JK Rowling who made Harry Potter the main male protagonist - even though without the brilliant Hermione’s intervention, he would not have made it alive past the first book - obscured her own femininity by adopting the gender neutral initials JK over her first name Joanne so that young male readers would not be put off. Famously, the Brontё sisters submitted their manuscripts under male pseudonyms to great critical acclaim and success, with publishers assuming that Wuthering Heights in particular, with its visceral darkness and passionate tone, could only have been written by a man. Only once success was achieved and they no longer ran the risk of being passed over for their sex did they reveal their real identities. The idea of male and female writing being easily distinguishable from one another is an idea that persists today, though with little credible evidence to back it up. And women know from long experience, once ‘difference’ is established, it is a very short step to ‘worse’.
If we look back at relatively recent history, for example, as recent as a hundred years ago, women were assumed to have an inferior writing style to men. One such example comes from the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who argued in 1922 that women were unable to innovate with language, and less able to martial complex thoughts into sentences with multiple clauses. He also noted that:
‘Women much more often than men break off without finishing their sentences because they start talking without having thought out what they are going to say.’
As well as being an example of overt sexism, it clearly did not occur to Jespersen that the reason for this might not have been women’s ‘natural’ intellectual inferiority, but a lack of confidence in their own views. No doubt they were as accustomed as we are today to men interrupting our thoughts and speech, or not listening at all. Compound that with the inequalities in access to education one hundred years ago, and we have a far more plausible explanation for Jespersen’s anecdotal ‘evidence’.
We might think that this is all part of ancient history, and that things have moved on so much further since the Brontёs took their precautionary move. Perhaps JK Rowling was being a little over-cautious? But, as in all things, unconscious bias otherwise known as internalised patriarchy, is still very much alive and well. If we look at the case of the author Catherine Nichols, while looking for a literary agent, she submitted an identical manuscript under both her own and a male pseudonym ‘George’. It seems that unconscious stereotypes about the key differences between male and female writing were present even in the descriptions of her words as ‘lyrical’ under her own name and the more masculine and robust ‘well-constructed’ under her male alter-ego. Indeed, such was the extent of this bias, ‘George’ received seventeen expressions of interest to Catherine’s two, prompting Nichols to note that he was ‘eight and a half times more successful than me at writing the same book’.
If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, perhaps this is why women’s writing remains a subversive act in some ways. If words have a power by themselves, then the ability to wield them competently and with influence provides women with that power – a power so often denied in other spheres. Our classrooms and our libraries and cinemas and televisions are full of tales of male achievement, daring, dominance and success, whereas there are relatively few stories of women fulfilling the same roles. This is not simply a reflection of the ‘natural’ way of things, but a deliberate construct borne out of centuries and centuries of spurious notions of gender difference, and the hierarchical nature that exists to make girls and women second class to boys and men. It is something that needs to be challenged by all people every single day of our lives so that we might see some lasting and significant push towards equality. Only through diversity and equality will we achieve our greatest potential as human beings and meet the very great challenges we face as a species.
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