In 1974 Adrienne Rich won the American National Book Award for Poetry. She refused the prize (a sum of money) for herself, but accepted it on behalf of all women. In a statement co-written with two other women nominees, she explains why:
‘We ... accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women ... We symbolically join here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us to be used as best we can for women ... We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women ... the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet: the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.’
Implicit in Rich’s words is the conviction that literature - writing as a form of artistic expression - should be accessible to everyone, that we should all be able to participate equally in what Virginia Woolf has called ‘the greatest rapture known to me.’ In practice this is not the case. Circumstances have combined to make writing a disproproportionately male* preserve, which all but a few token women (such as Rich rightly sees herself) have been excluded.
Only one out of four or five books published is by a woman, and this figure has hardly changed at all in the course of the past century. But even amongst published works women’s writing is consistently devalued and under-exposed in relation to men’s. In Tillie Olsen’s survey of 223 American colleges for her book ‘Silences’ she found that undergraduate literature courses focus on one female writer for every seventeen male writers. And in anthologies, on average, only one out of every eleven contributors is a woman.
These figures confuse two different stories. The first is the straightforward tale of publishers’ and reviewers’ prejudice against women’s writing. The second is another story altogether - that of the more intractable and pernicious discrimination that pervades women’s whole lives and prevents them from putting pen to paper in the first place.
An adolescent girl who writes is rarely actively discouraged - more probably she will be humoured and indulged. Closeting herself in her room writing, when everyone else is out or watching TV is part of an introspective phase she’ll soon grow out of. It’s a relatively harmless hobby - cheap, feminine - and it keeps her out of trouble until she settles down to a career or gets married.
Writing is one thing, but if she actually wants to become a writer that’s a different proposition altogether. Her parents may point out that there’s no money in writing - a valid enough point. But their argument is likely to continue along the lines that women in particular can’t make a living out of writing because they don’t have the kind of experience it takes. And anyway, they’ll say, women in the past have only turned to writing because they have been too unattractive to marry. Denied the natural fulfillment of marriage and motherhood, they have all been desperately unhappy, and as writers, they have almost all been at the bottom of the league. So if you’re attractive enough not to have to, why bother trying?
This kind of discouragement inevitably sows the seeds of self-doubt in any young woman. To make matters worse school literature courses concentrate on male writers, including a few token women, but ignoring the female literary tradition - the whole body of women’s writing with its own internal consistency and evolution through time. If young women were exposed to this they would have a context in which to validate their own writing; they would have models for style and content and the indisputable evidence that women can, and have in the past, become writers of repute.
But even for women who do have the courage and conviction to persevere at this stage there are other more powerful prohibitions that come into play in adulthood. In the last century almost all the women writers of achievement - Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Christine Rosetti - were unmarried; and all those who did marry did so late. Very few had children. A tiny minority had more than one child - and almost all of these had domestic help. The same pattern continues in the present century.
This evidence has consistently been misinterpreted to read, either; women resort to writing because they’re unattractive (frgid, infertile etc); or, that women don’t need to write because childbearing fulfills their creative urges. Turn the folklore on it’s head and the truth behind the statistics emerges: married women don’t write because the demands of wifehood and motherhood sap them totally of the time, energy and imagination necessary to do so.
If you look at the diaries of any writer, male or female, it’s clear that what thwarts their work the most is the impossibility of devoting themselves to it totally, in terms of time and concentration. It’s not just hours at the typewriter that count - it’s the space to feel and reflect, to concentrate and channel energy. For men it’s usually the need to earn money that relegates writing to part-time status. For women it can be this as well (more than fifty per cent of women work outside the home) - but it’s also the result of the permanent distraction and dissipation of ego that’s part of being a wife and mother.
The implication is that women have to make a choice whether to remain childless, or to throw up the possibility of developing their talent to its full capacity. Male writers don’t have to make this choice. In fact marriage has the opposite effect on a man’s writing. It liberates him from the humdrum tasks of daily existence, so he can devote all his time and energy to writing. There is an immense weight of exploitation behind the familiar dedication: ‘To my wife, without whom…’
Admittedly things are beginning to change, but history leaves a legacy of social conditioning. Sensitivity and compassion have become so deeply engrained in our expectations of what it means to be female, that it’s difficult for a woman to selfishly guard the time and energy she needs for writing without feeling she’s failed - not only as wife and mother, but as woman. Virginia Woolf refers to this ‘infinitely-caring’ side of women’s characters as the Angel: ‘It was she who used to come between me and my paper who bothered me and so tormented me that at last I killed her.’ She made the sacrifice - and it was a sacrifice. Most women - not just in the family, but socially, and at work - are still living other people’s lives, still the ‘emotional core’, infinitely sensitive to the needs and moods of others, enabling their husbands and children and colleagues and friends to succeed. And always (particularly if they are writers) at the expense of their work.
Publishers and reviewers most commonly take issue with women’s writing on the grounds that the subject matter is unexciting because women’s experience is so limited. Norman Mailer has this to say: ‘I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale ... I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of women are always fey, old hat, quaintsy ... tiny, dykily psychotic frigid, whimsy, or else bright and still-born.’ And so on. Anthony Burgess, prominent author and critic sums it up: ‘I can get no pleasure from serious reading that lacks a strong male thrust.’
It’s true that women’s experience of the world has been severely restricted in relation to men’s. Even now there are any number of things that women feel ashamed, embarrassed or frightened about doing-- going out alone at night, travelling, exposing themselves to chance encounters with strangers - all traditionally the stuff of men’s writing. And, yes, women writers have always regretted and resented the limitations this has imposed on their work.
In the past many have circumvented the issue, either by writing children’s stories or romance, (staying in the literary ghettoes) or by trying to write as men do. This has meant not writing directly about life as they experience it, but about life as men experience it, as it’s represented in the literature, So all the time they’re operating on a level of abstraction. They’re not simply looking inside themselves (or looking at life around them) thinking and feeling and transposing the result onto paper. They are not simply writing - they are translating.
But now more and more women are beginning to write honestly about their own experiences - about what it means to be a woman, about how the world appears through a woman’s eyes. They are writing openly about their own bodies, about menstruation and menopause, childbirth and motherhood, sex and love, their anxiety about the way they look and dress. They are writing (often angrily) about their oppression, about the mundane drudgery that crowds so much of their time and thought. And women are writing about men - not as they have traditionally been portrayed in men’s (and some women’s) literature - but as women actually see them.
The publishers response has been rejection slips. This kind of writing, they say, is confessional’ - meaning, of course, that the experiences described are not only trivial and embarrassing, but that they don’t constitute Art, Literature.
Another typical ground for publishers rejection of women’s writing is that the style is wrong, or ‘anomalous’. Contemporary women’s poetry for example is too simple. If it is instantaneously accessible and doesn’t have to be decoded it can’t be Poetry. And in prose there is a tendency for women to write short pieces that are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, often in the form of diaries, letters or internal dialogue. But the publishers say that there isn’t a market (there isn’t even a word) for this kind of writing - it isn’t a short-story because it doesn’t have a plot, and it isn’t even strictly speaking fiction, being autobiographical. And because it doesn’t fit into any of the existing categories it isn’t therefore Art, Literature.
This brings us to the question of who defines what is literature. And at the moment it’s undeniably white, middle class men.
They dominate the publishing industry, their voices shout the loudest from the ranks of critics and reviewers, they create the market which in turn feeds back its requirements and perpetuates the system. But what we write and the way we write it (our style) is inevitably contingent on the lives we lead. There should be no question of women being told their experiences (interests, values) don’t constitute literature and men’s do - experiences are different, not intrinsically better or worse, all more or less aesthetic. Ideally there should be as many different standards of aesthetics, literatures, as there are minority groups. The reason there aren’t has to do with power and economics. Our perception of literature relies only tangentially on the criterion of talent.
Since Rich refused her prize and the ‘terms of patriarchal competition’ on which it was based, much has been done to reclaim women’s right to speak and to make their voices heard in literature. Steps have been taken to consolidate the female literary tradition - to piece together the tatters of a history of silencing and fragmentation. Women are holding their own separatist writing groups; courses are being run in Women’s Studies and Women in Literature; Virago is publishing volumes of women’s writing from the past that was either never published or has long been out of print. And one of the results is that it will be impossible to reject women’s writing on the grounds of ‘anomalousness’. All writing has its precursors and influences. Of course women’s writing appears anomalous to publishers trying to place it in a tradition to which it has never belonged.
But the most significant advance is the growing number of feminist presses - meaning that women now have some control over literature as a commercial enterprise. And, not surprisingly, they have found a huge market waiting to be tapped - a huge number of people are, in fact, interested in what it’s like to be a woman. In June last year the first International Feminist Book Fair was held in London. 200 publishers of feminist books from 18 different countries discussed and sold their books. WH Smith - Britain’s biggest highstreet bookseller - promoted feminist books in branches throughout the country. Feminist writing is now big business. At the Frankfurt Book Fair it was reportedly ‘floppy discs and feminism’ that stole the show.
But what if - I’m sorry, but what if - the general interest in feminist writing is a passing phase only, a fashion? Feminist presses are still the ghettos of publishing. Mainstream publishers are able to offer considerable enticement to the best women writers to sign up with them. And what if the waning fashion combined with the creaming off of their best talent forces the feminist presses out of business? What if they’re bought out, subsumed in mainstream publishing? Already Virago has been seduced by the Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape group. And Pandora started out under the wing of Routledge and Kegan Paul. In the short term this means better prospects and terms for women writers. But what about the long term? Will women lose control?
This article draws much of its evidence from Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing
Monica Connell is an anthropologist currently writing a series ofshort stories on herfleldwork in Nepal.