Women’s Lit: Lecture One
“The International Olympic Committee announced Wednesday that it would add women’s ski jumping to the program for the Sochi Games in 2014, a victory for athletes who had fought for inclusion for years.”
“The I.O.C. had ruled that women’s ski jumping had too few elite competitors to qualify for the Olympics.”
“In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, the president of the International Ski Federation, told an NPR reporter that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
This is how it works. First, we’re told women can’t do it because they’re just incapable of it – it’s literally impossible.
Then, we’re told, well, maybe you could do it, but it would be wrong to let you.
It would harm women to do it (mentally or physically). You’re too weak to do it (mentally or physically).
Then we’re told, well, maybe SOME of you are capable of doing it – but look! There just aren’t ENOUGH of you doing it. See? Why bother making a special fuss for the few freaks of you who want to do it?
(Why weren’t there hundreds of Olympic-class women skiers in 1998, or 1978, do you suppose? Why weren’t there hundreds of women writing brilliant plays in Shakespearean England?)
Then, once we have fought for the right to do it, we’re told “we let you do it, stop whining now” – though “now” generally equals less funding, less access, less time, inferior tools, and a world which continues to ignore us/take us less seriously (see WNBA, or ANY women’s sport, frankly).
So – Women and Literature.
Virginia Wolfe gave a famous series of lectures in 1929, which were later reworked and published as a book, called A Room of One’s Own, in which she attempted to explain why there have been no women writers. (We’ll be reading bits of it.)
Her basic thesis, though, is that women have never written great works because they have never been educated, they have never been given the time, and they have never been taken seriously. The creation of art, Woolf says, requires those things – knowledge, leisure, respect as an artist.
There are problems with Woolf’s text (she’s way classicist, for one thing), but her basic thesis is valid.
Where are the women artists?
Where are the women cartoonists?
Where are all the women SF writers?
Where are the women fantasy writers? (Oh – wait. BTW, do you know when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Nevill Coghill and the rest of the Inklings were holding their meetings at Oxford, they banned women from their writing group? In fact, one of their favorite activities at their meetings was reading books written by women outloud for fun – mocking women’s writing.)
Where are all the women poets? (Again, this is one that used to be true – it used to be believed that women could not write poetry – and is no longer. But – as with fantasy writing – when men write poetry, it is often [usually, always] taken more seriously than when women write poetry / fantasy.)
Where are all the women bloggers / novelists / screenwriters / directors / essayists….
VIDA: An organization which each year looks at important publications (Nation, Granta, Atlantic Monthly, etc) and counts how many women they publish/review v. how many men they publish review. Spoilers: Each year the news is the same, and extremely depressing.
Starting in 2009, when VIDA first published their counts, the publishing world, and the blogosphere in general, reacted to this news as you would expect – if women did not get published and reviewed in equal numbers with men, obviously the blame for this lay at the feet of women.
(Also in 2009, by the way, a blogstorm was happening in the SF world concerning women, LGBTQ, and people of color not being published and not being written about in anything like a representational number with white cismales. Called Racefail09, it had the same reaction – if gay people, PoC, and women were not getting published in SF/F, or written about properly in SF/F, well, that was their own fault, and not the fault of the editors and publishing houses in the SF/F world.)
Excuses, I mean, reasons that are given for why fewer women get published/reviewed:
(1) Fewer women submit their work
(2) Women don’t write the “right” kind of stories – who wants to read that stuff?
(3) Women give up too easily – they’re quitters. Men stick it out!
(4) Editors are just publishing what’s good. Men are better writers.
On examination, none of these turn out to be valid. (They’re all the same reasons that were given in the RaceFail09 storm too.)
· That is, while fewer women do submit, the quality of work being submitted by women is higher – men tend to be over-confident (due to how they’re nurtured in modern society) and women tend to be under-confident; so men send work out quickly, in early draft stages, and women send it out later, when it’s been polished.
· And “right” kind of stories, obviously, depends on what sort of audience we’re thinking about. Given that most readers turn out to be women (and this holds true for almost all genres of fiction and many genres of non-fiction as well), it turns out to be not the case that women won’t read women’s writing. True, they will also often read most men’s writing -- unlike many men, who refuse to read any women’s writing.
· Number 3, sadly, is valid. Many women, having huge demands on their time from family and their men and their jobs, if they don’t see some success in the publishing world within a reasonable period, will quit trying. This is even more likely to be true if their family, their men, and their jobs do not support them as writers and if the publishing world tells them (as it currently does) that women aren’t worth taking seriously as writers. (Twilight! What crap! Harry Potter! That’s for kids! But Joss Whedon! He’s a GENIUS!)
· Number 4 is one of those points that can’t be argued with in this world. In a hypothetical world, we can argue the crap out of it. Or we can argue by analogy. It used to be said, for instance, that women could not be classical musicians. (We’re still told that they just can’t be composers.) And we knew women couldn’t be classical musicians because look – no women classical musicians! Every time a woman auditioned, pssh! No symphony took her. Because she was crap, obviously, compared to the guys auditioning. Then here’s an odd thing. Let’s try this, one symphony said. Let’s let the musician audition behind a curtain, so the judges can’t see anything about them, not what they look like, or how they dress, or – you know – what gender they are. And when that started happening, oddly enough, we started having classical musicians who were women. Amazing. Same thing with classics journals, btw. Used to be, no articles (or very few) being published in classics journals were by women. Because – you know – women just couldn’t think critically. Or do Latin. Or whatever. Then they went to blind submissions. Now? Very nearly half of all publications in classics are by women. Well, in the publishing world we’re not ready to take such a radical leap, because (here’s news that will shock you) publishers and editors don’t actually go into any edition blind – they actually solicit writers. That is, they often choose who they publish before an anthology or edition is put together, asking writers they know to send work to them. (Two guesses whether they are going to choose writers who are already famous or not. One guess about what sex that writer is most likely to be.) We do have information, however, about what happens when a woman writer chooses a male name and submits work under that – George Eliot did it in the 19th century, Alice Sheldon did it in the 1950s, J.K. Rowling did it in the 1990s, James Chartrand did it on Craigslist. (1) You get published more readily. (2) You make more money (3) You get taken more seriously. (Alice Sheldon (as James Tiptree Jr) won dozens of awards and touched off a firestorm in the SF world when it was revealed (at last) that she was not a reclusive man but a woman scientist. The (male) SF writers who had lauded her work were infuriated.)
This will be a class, not on how evil men are and how they have oppressed women and how much we hates them, precious – but on women’s writing. On women’s literature. How it gets created. How it gets silenced. Why it is important. And why we cannot quit.