Women’s Writing: Some Issues, Old and New

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women's writing

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women’s writing

Throughout history, women have written. But it has only been at the far end of the twentieth century, the tiniest sliver of a second on the great clock of time, that their writing has been seen to be in any way equivalent to that of men. Oh for sure, there was the occasional ‘miraculeuse’ as the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu termed women like George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir, women who made it through the ranks in a way that looked as if it might be possible for anyone to do so. When of course it wasn’t, and they were startling anomalies. And in the present day, the category of women’s writing, with its subdivisions of chick-lit and mommy-lit and light romance and historical romance, is often considered more frivolous and lightweight than the thriller or science fiction novel. All of which is to say that the literary world has never really been a place that welcomed women in, and it does so with reservations even now.

And yet stories have had a great deal more power over women’s lives than over men’s. As soon as we begin to look into the past, it’s obvious how constrained women have been by the story of the ‘good’ woman, who she is, how she behaves, what she may expect. The stories available to women as guidelines for living have traditionally been few and uncompromising: women were supposed to be quiet, well-behaved, charming, gentle, tender. They were destined to be faithful wives and devoted mothers. The romance was their only socially permitted adventure, and so they had to make the most of it (one of George Sand’s heroines delays her engagement for 8 years, about 250 pages of incident-filled narrative, before succumbing to marriage and motherhood in the final chapter, which Sand recognised would be the end of her freedom and interest to the reader). Those who deviated from these rules were severely punished by ostracism from the community, confinement in mental hospitals, excommunication from the church, public disgrace, scandal and death. All this because of stories handed down from generation to generation! So much constraint, so much restriction, because of this dreadful paucity of narrative possibility.

But still, women wrote. They wrote because writing was compatible with confinement in domesticity. What they wrote, however, was inevitably marked by the differences imposed upon them. They wrote out of a completely different relationship to power than men enjoyed. They wrote out of exclusion from the places in society where decisions were taken. They wrote out of a narrower view of the world and the things people could do in it. And where exceptions arose and amazing women found ways to travel and organise and become pioneers in a field, they deserve our awe and admiration while taking nothing away from the others who did not find those precious loopholes. They were not easy to come by. Today, in many countries across the world, the situation for women is still one of restriction, too often accompanied by suffering and fear. The obstacles may vary, but consistently, across time and space, women have found their conditions of life, the options open to them, to be different to those enjoyed by men. It’s an ongoing reality, and one brought home to us most vividly and powerfully by the stories women get to tell. We need every story, and each one asks us to listen, not to judge.

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

These past few weeks, reading for a whole month of blogging about women’s writing has been quite fascinating. I’ve been almost shocked by the differences between the feminist writing that came out of the 70s and 80s and the genre fiction of today. Whilst the feminists fought for the right to be free of domestic chores, to be less confined by marriage, to have the choice of meaningful work, to bring up children in less constricted environments, the genre fiction of today paints a world in which women have rushed back to the realm of the Stepford wife. A successful marriage, a pretty house, lots of nice material things, these are the hard-won goals. And motherhood remains the country that feminism forgot; it demands the absolute sacrifice of women’s personal needs, desires and activities. I’m not saying this is necessarily wrong or lacking in value – but what does the radical swing in social aspirations mean?

What has remained consistent throughout the recent period of literary history when women have been much more free to write whatever they chose, and to have lives lived according to their own principles, is the difficulty women have with accepting that other women may behave differently. In almost all the fiction and non-fiction I’ve been reading, the conflicts arise because women find it hard to live and let live. The choices and behaviours of others, if they run counter to their own, are too often understood to be offensive, wrong, threatening. This difficulty is very obvious in the reception of women’s writing, too. How often are female characters damned for not being ‘sympathetic’? For not behaving, in other words, the way that the woman reader wants them to? Still there remains the tendency to prescribe female behaviour – and it’s most noticeably done by other women. If the great historical battle of feminism was the right to be something other than a gentle nursemaid and competent housekeeper, why on earth should we spend so much time and energy squabbling over a new definition of how women should be? And worst of all, why should the mirage of ‘strength’ be the quality that dominates these prescriptions? ‘Strength’ if we mean constant energetic, fearless engagement in life, is an unlivable idea. Real strength, achievable and sustainable strength, is about flexibility, gentle discipline, understanding, compassion, and the acceptance of weakness.

But surely this goes a long way to explaining how come women survived – were complicit with – those endless centuries of history in which only a few stories were available for women’s lives. If there were one great overriding narrative, one way to be, women could measure themselves against it and feel secure, even superior to other women who did not match up so well. But that is to understand the meanness of women to one another as pure aggression, and I don’t believe that’s so. I think it’s actually about the unplumbed depths of women’s insecurity. When women fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s because the other’s difference awakens their insecurity. And by some twist of psychology, personal insecurity can easily become something that has to be avenged. If we could somehow alter this kink of mentality, if we could give women, not a vitamin pill, but a confidence pill, the unalloyed permission to be who they were without the constant fear of critical undermining by others, wouldn’t that make the world a better place? Forget the pill, we could do it if we somehow managed to make women better readers of one another. If they stopped looking for similarity and found in difference some interest, curiosity, learning. When women’s writing erupted into a glorious profusion of different, new, unheard voices back in the 70s, the sisterhood welcomed them all. We lost something vital when we believed we’d reached equality and started bickering over what it should look like.

people call me a feminist

Isn’t now the perfect moment to understand that each woman is her own story? And that the story is there to be listened to attentively for the pleasure of solidarity and curiosity, not judged for the pleasure of finding it wanting, or the fear that it might reflect badly on our own?


24 thoughts on “Women’s Writing: Some Issues, Old and New

  1. Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! Especially about our need to find joy not danger in our differences. That’s why I started the Global Women of Color blog.

  2. Yes, yes a thousand times yes! Wonderfully put and a very important message to all of us. If perhaps we could transfer some of MANkind’s overbearing sense of right and security and confidence in themselves and their decisions and mores to balance out the real (and imaginied) lack in many women (certainly of my acquaintance sadly) I think we would all benefit greatly. Hope I can make some small contribution to your month.

    • Dark Puss, you are the proverbial icing on the cake! I’m into the Elif Shafak now and will be writing to you tonight or first thing tomorrow. And I love your comment – I completely agree that an evening up of gender difference, essentially each gender learning from the other, would be such a sensible and effective way forward.

  3. We are doing that. You’re just getting a sample of the writing out there, so your perspective is going to be skewed. Not that I disagree with your main point, it’s just that better writing from stronger women is out there. They aren’t b**chy, or “gentle,” and they aren’t vaginavaginavagina all the time. Seriously-it’s just a body part not the Higgs Boson.

    Women are under this misconception (thanks to feminism, which I think does more damage than good) that they have to celebrate their sex, and shove it down everyone’s throat to progress their gender. Yet that’s exactly what they chastise men for doing.

    Female infighting is the same as male; we just war differently. Given time, and enough leadership, we’ll be launching tomahawks as diplomacy as well. Humans are all the same-self-centered, and a bit stupid, especially if you put insecurity in the mix. I like that you focused on that.

    But insecurity is not a female problem, or even more prominent in women vs. men (as much as the neo-feministas would like you to think, so they can justify blaming everyone else but themselves). it is what separates us from the ‘animals.’ We like self-pity and we let it fuel our decisions, and our movements, and especially our literature. What better way to shirk responsibility than to write?

    And the women who write about home and family and having a strong man to lean on? Go ahead! Write about your Prince Charmings and white, picket fences if that what you want. You aren’t alone. While you’re doing that, there are women in other walks of life writing about dogs, and power tools, and life without kids, and about having lots and lots of indiscriminate sex-with everyone.

    Some women just write about flowers, science, addiction, and recipes without any reference to gender at all.

    I think you’ve found a pattern in your book bag, but don’t worry, women are not now, nor have they ever been one-dimensional.

    Publishers on the other hand…

  4. What a great post — and one that came at the perfect moment for me. I’ve just finished reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which is about (among other things) the boxing-in of women’s lives by society and also by their own choices; and I’m coming to the end of The Madwoman in the Attic as well. Your post made me think that maybe one of the reasons women can be very gender-policing of each other and the stories other women tell is the whole “anxiety of authorship” idea — that we do not, in the first place, feel fully confident that we have the right to tell our own stories, and we feel anxious that there’s only room for one story about women and that the story that triumphs will be written by some woman we don’t like and don’t agree with.

    (Maybe? Or I don’t know.)

  5. This is really to the point: “…the difficulty women have with accepting that other women may behave differently…”
    I just read Maggie Nelson saying:
    (…) for women—not exclusively, but perhaps especially—setting boundaries around what one can and cannot give to others has always been a difficult point, a subject of much internal consternation. I have become an avid reader in the occasionally linked spheres of Buddhism and feminism, and one subject that appears often in this overlap is how women need to be especially cautious in avoiding “idiot generosity,” i.e. giving that which will make you resentful or depleted, while also pursuing the kind of radical generosity that Buddhism encourages. But this generosity has to be commensurate with your capacities—you can’t just become a doormat, which doesn’t help anyone. But nor does being paranoid about becoming one. It’s a bit of a pickle.

  6. Great post. Very refreshing to read your thoughts on the importance of difference and the realisation that everyone (men and women) are their own stories. One of the benefits of reading your blog is that I am more aware of reading women authors as well as men (and getting an interesting balance in my reading generally).

  7. Wonderful post Litlove. I look forward to your month long investigative results!

    Can I play devil’s advocate for a moment and say men have been terribly constrained by stories too? The ideal man is just as made up and limiting as the ideal woman but because men have held the power for so long those who don’t conform get a bit of wiggle room within reason.

    As for women keeping women down, it is a very sad truth. Part of it I think has to do with women as a group being subordinate for so very long. It produces a sort of slave mentality which makes some women feel like they have to police other women’s behavior in order to save the whole group from punishment. Rather twisted but reasonable.

  8. I also think that accepting differnces isn’t something only women struggle with but I feel that there is a huge divide between women with children and women withouth, while men with children don’t judge other men without or vice versa quite the same way.
    At least I’ve never heard it. I think it’s sad.

  9. If this is happening in the Western society, the ‘free world’, I can’t imagine the plight of women in the rest of the globe. However, I think Stefanie has a point too. And I feel that no matter who we are, male or female, we’re fitted into pigeon holes of social norms and expectations that have been rooted for centuries. And just recently, I came across an article citing the women representation in the film industry has decreased significantly. How about this for 21C. female movie critics: only 18% of total in the popular conglomerate ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ movie review site, down from 30% just six years ago. What can I say…

  10. Pingback: 7 Types of Stories They Don’t Want to Write~by WrongLoser | The Write Stuff

  11. I agree with your post entirely litlove, and I found the comments here so thought-provoking.

    Insecurity is spot on. I do believe we’re still in a very transitional place, and that encourages uncertainty. We’re still getting used to all these possibilities. And the question of children is so fraught.

    Of course men have their insecurities and their boxes too. But they don’t seem to channel them into the backbiting over difference that women do. I wonder if women are just, on the whole, more intensely interested in other people’s lives in a way that men are not? That’s a very big generalisation… I think that the big male crisis is on the horizon though, and I hope that we women will be supportive of them.

  12. Interesting post, I look forward to following the month ahead. On ‘in-fighting’ or the struggle for a commonly acceptable identity, I think this is an issue for a lot of minority/oppressed/under-represented groups. For a male author, criticism can be levelled at him directly, but with those from a minority background the whole group somehow has a vested interest in the perception that that author projects about the group as a whole. So, for feminists/women who didn’t agree with Simone De Beauvoir’s politics, that becomes a bigger issue because the rest of the world intuits and generalises something about feminists from her example. In the same way, when you see an extremist cleric on the television, it does harm to the religion to which they purport to belong, and so on. We do the same about men/the over-represented, but I think there is less of a clamour from within the in-group to vilify projections they do not agree with as there are so many alternative opinions available and valued, that no one voice and define a group.

    As a second point, when literature becomes a form of politics, which it inevitably does, I think there is a problem of representation across the board. Writers, generally, are a particular sort: not everyone can interpret the world in which we exist in a way that is engaging and readable. Not everyone is lucky enough to receive the education that allows one to write, or has the financial stability to attempt to do so. For that reason, huge swathes of opinion are lost before one even starts to consider the various social oppressions that govern what we read. The working or lower classes have shared a similar history in literature as women, and there are plenty of other groups that struggle to have their voices heard. Thank goodness that women are gaining parity with their male counterparts in some parts – one hopes that they enrich our literature and perhaps champion causes which are not as far progressed as their own.

  13. Hi Litlove, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say in this post, and it is very close to what I’m exploring in the book I am oh so slowly pulling together. Judgement and critique in the service of insecurity are like stilettos. I ask myself so often how women can be so judgemental of each other and not realize what they are doing. And now I observe it in the girls in my daughter’s class, and how it is gradually infecting my own child, so that she feels spotty, ugly, fat, stupid, when she is none of those things. I have defined ‘insecurity’ for her, and am teaching her how to identify it (in herself and others), and what to say in response to the needles and barbs of other insecure girls. I don’t know if it’s enough, I’m frightened for her, but I will not be a part of the bitching trade I can already see 10-year-old girls going in for, by saying nothing to my own child. Yet throughout her life, I also fear I have myself been hard on her…. and so it goes on.

  14. Interesting and sad.

    I was a teenager (thank heaven) in Toronto in the mid-1970s and it was a time of great excitement about feminism that shaped me and made me excited to become a journalist. My first book examined the role of guns in American women’s lives and I was curious to hear many different stories, both from women who enjoy gun use and those traumatized by gun violence. I like examining women’s lives and telling their stories, whatever they may be — and, yes, the less conventional they are, the more they interest me.

    Some of the best part of my research was reading Glenda Riley’s terrific western women’s history, and learning more about the women who helped to settle the U.S., including female homesteaders alone.

    There are many powerful narratives out there for the telling — we need curious/powerful writers to find and share them.

  15. I like that listening but not judging bit! Another excellent and perceptive post and a nice introduction to your reading of women’s writing (which I am coming at backwards I see). I do think women can be unnecessarily harsh towards other women and it is a pity since we should be in solidarity with each other! Isn’t it funny that women buy the most books, we’re the largest reading audience yet are still sidelined so often. I wonder if you will compare (more) women’s writings from the 70s to that which is being written today?

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