Victoria Pedraza | 9/1/2023
Last week, the first part of this topic was published. If you missed it, you should read that post first. We'll pick up where we left off.
When a female author manages to surpass the previously mentioned strategies and enter the literary canon, it's important to emphasize that this is seen as an isolated achievement. One book or a handful of poems are allowed to be significant, while the rest of her work, and thus she as an author, is considered insignificant.
Russ explores how women writers have been portrayed as "exceptions," setting them apart from the general literary community. By considering them as unique cases, their impact and importance within the literary tradition have been minimized, perpetuating their marginalization.
It's in this section that I realized how much the literary canon has impacted my literary education. I have read many female authors, but always their major works. Take, for example, Mary Shelley. I have read "Frankenstein" several times, and written essays based on the book, it's one of the great Romantic novels. It is also the only book by Mary Shelley that I have read. She has another one titled "The Last Man," which I have never read. Moreover, according to Russ, it's difficult to even find an edition of this book.
Now, to be fair, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to female authors. For example, I have only read "Moby Dick" by Melville, "The Grapes of Wrath" by Steinbeck, and "The Great Gatsby" by Fitzgerald. But even though I haven't explored these authors' works more thoroughly, it doesn't mean they haven't entered the canon. All three have other popular and widely studied works, something that is not true, for example, for Emily Brontë, whose only novel you can even find in bookstores is "Wuthering Heights."
Here are the extraordinary ones. Those female authors whose contribution to literature is undeniable. Russ quotes Van Gerven: "Since... only contemporary female poets are represented in considerable numbers, it becomes clear that a woman must be extraordinary to stand out in her generation. And a man does not need to be."
This chapter addresses how it has been considered that women writers are "anomalies" within the literary canon, as opposed to the male norm. This perspective has led to their contributions being seen as exceptional rather than being recognized as an integral and valuable part of literature.
Similarly, their influences are denied. Emily Dickinson, for example, is often described as a "recluse," someone who didn't act rationally. A private poet, isolated, even a hermit, whose talent emerged out of nowhere. In reality, she read a lot of Elizabeth Browning, whom she even considered her mentor. No one writes in a vacuum; every author is influenced by others, and when you deny the influences of women writers, you end up denying their ability to influence the world. Browning is important, not only for what she wrote herself but because she influenced one of the most significant figures in American poetry.
Lack of Role Models
In this way, any woman aspiring to be a writer faces massive discouragement. Because all these strategies ultimately have a very significant effect. They deprive young aspiring writers of role models. Russ explores how the lack of influential female literary role models has limited the aspirations and perspectives of new generations of women writers. The absence of figures to look up to has affected their confidence in their own voices and perpetuated the idea that women do not have a significant place in literature.
The vast majority of literature curricula in classes exclude many women (unless it's a gender study class or similar), leaving students without precedents. And when they do have one, there's almost always a "but" behind it. There’s Virginia Woolf, but she was crazy, the Brontë sisters, but all three were spinsters, the same with Austen, Dickinson was antisocial, Mrs. Radcliffe promiscuous, and so on.
And slowly, they instill in the subconscious of female students the idea that women's literature is inferior. So, what's the point if your work is almost certainly going to be second-rate? Russ recounts that at some point someone asked her why she wanted to be a writer when there weren't any great women writers. She replied that she would be the first. This response seems incredibly sad to me. Really? Thousands and thousands of women have faced a myriad of obstacles to writing, and we can't call a single one a Great Female Writer? The ideal response, I believe, would be "I will be the next one."
Faced with these ways of excluding women from the literary canon, how do they react? The answer is complicated. Some admit their supposed inferiority, like Elizabeth Hardwick, who says, "Only capricious, complaining, eccentric people... would say that any literary work written by a woman, no matter how wonderful it is, is on par with the great achievements of men." Some give up, like Rebecca Harding Davis, who disappeared from the literary world to support her husband's career. Or, like Simone Weil, they can consider being a woman an unfortunate fact and minimize it as much as possible.
Another possible reaction is that of Jane Austen. She worked with novels, a genre that was dominated at that time and place by women (few English men would even admit to reading novels). Both she and her literary genre were considered trash, which gave her freedom. She criticized the society she moved in with impunity because her criticism was not seen as such; it was insignificant. Of course, Austen was a very privileged person, relatively speaking. She had a secure income, and her family supported her writing; it was her brother who later ensured that her books were reprinted under her name.
You can also respond with rage. How many times throughout history have women been forced to hide their anger? Even now, if you respond in that way, there will be those who accuse you of being crazy. But rage is the hallmark of women's literature. If you're a woman, you probably know what I'm talking about; it's like boiling lava beneath the earth or a bomb with a kilometer-long fuse. When it explodes, it destroys everything in its path.
"A way of understanding literature that can ignore the private lives of half of the human race is not incomplete - it is distorted from head to toe." Here is an example of the distortion caused by the exclusion of women in the canon: imagine a woman (character) written by a man. She is vain and beautiful, and she has no doubt about it. She looks in the mirror to admire her reflection because she is so beautiful that she can't help it. Now, imagine the same character written by a woman, vain and beautiful. She is the focus of countless insecurities, and she looks in the mirror not to admire her reflection, but to make sure her beauty is still there. She looks and adjusts her blouse, she looks and fixes her hair, she looks and touches up her makeup.
The confident, beautiful woman who has no doubt that she is beautiful abounds in novels written by men, but she is not in real life or in novels written by women. The reality is that with the existing canon, the experience of at least half of humanity is ignored.
Impact and Overcoming
Literary canons have been shaped by the exclusion of women's voices, leading to an incomplete understanding of human experiences. This exclusion reinforces gender stereotypes, limits empathy, and reinforces historical power dynamics between men and women. The marginalization of women's voices perpetuates gender inequality by preventing the transmission of diverse perspectives and ideas.
To overcome this, the best option, I believe, is to reject it altogether. If they won't let us into their canon, we'll create our own. Let's stop trying to prove that the assertion "women can't write" is false, and instead simply write.
The discussion about the suppression of women's writing emphasizes the urgency of correcting historical imbalances and addressing ongoing gender biases. By recognizing and challenging suppression strategies, readers can actively contribute to dismantling these barriers. The call to action is clear: support women writers, engage with their works, and advocate for equal representation in literary spaces. By amplifying women's voices, we contribute to a richer and more inclusive literary landscape and a society that values all perspectives.
"There is much, much more quality literature written by women than anyone imagines."