Written by: Samantha Bolf
America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
In 1983, Joanna Russ published a book through the University of Texas press titled “How to Suppress Women’s Writing.” The cover is reminiscent of old-school horror film posters: red text that grows larger and larger, detailing in fragments the theories and suspicions that have always accompanied works written by women, building a sense of impending doom within the reader.
At the top, the red writing states simply, “She didn’t write it.” In parentheses, and smaller black text, examples of excuses used to belittle women’s works are scattered around the splashes of red. One in particular references a frequent criticism of women writers: “She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art.”
In 2016, students majoring in English Literature at the University of Texas must complete a “diverse perspectives” course to fulfill the required Area G. The titles of a majority of course requirements tend to specify time period and genre and little else: for example, a course on the “British Novel in the 19th century.” However, Area G has proven itself the exception to this rule. Examples of titles in the master list for the 2014-2016 Undergraduate Catalogue include “Language and Gender,” or “Literature, Culture, and Gender,” and a healthy dose of classes dedicated to minority authors.
When the majority of texts on the syllabus are written by the white male victors- not just once, but over and over again- it is not only a way of silencing women’s influence on literature throughout history, but an active attempt to silence aspiring female writers in the present.
In contrast, of the possible English courses that can be taken to fulfill the single- or dual- author seminar requirement, 28 are solely focused on or include male authors. Patricia Brace described this way of structuring courses as having a kind of “’ghetto effect,’ in which writings by women appear optional, ancillary, and ultimately expendable.” When the majority of texts on the syllabus are written by the white male victors- not just once, but over and over again- it is not only a way of silencing women’s influence on literature throughout history, but an active attempt to silence aspiring female writers in the present. Playwright Alison Croggon called the effect a “continually amplifying feedback loop,” one that “begins at birth, is very difficult to track and even more difficult to combat.”
In a recent interview with Professor Carol MacKay, she discussed the “need to go beyond developing female author courses and include more women (as appropriate) in other period and genre study courses.” Though she has “witnessed the growth in interest in feminist and LGBTQ theory” during her career, “as well as the introduction of more female authors on the course syllabi, including single/dual author courses,” the ways in which universities can confront the systemic bias against women in academia are always evolving.
For example, Dr. MacKay mentioned the unavoidable hurdle in teaching “earlier periods” of literature, in which “women either were not published or did not have the opportunity to write in the first place.” She suggested possible supplemental materials such as “manuscripts and other archival records that might reflect [women’s] voices” could be utilized in addressing time periods wherein women’s literary works were often ignored and may now be lost.
If to write fiction is, as Cathy Davidson claimed, “to author both a book and a vision of the world,” then women have always had to fight tooth and nail to speak and write in a world that prefers their silence.
Further diversification of the female writers that are being taught is of utmost importance as well. Interest in the token female authors – such as the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath – is “substantial,” said MacKay, and has “led to honors theses and dissertation projects.” However, the inclusion of more obscure female authors can be just as much of an inspiration. Dr. MacKay noted that, “… in particular, students in my various autobiography classes have become intrigued by the vignette writing style of Sandra Cisneros and the mytho-poetic style of Maxine Hong Kingston.” Though these authors may not be considered as prominent as Woolf or Plath, teaching them is clearly beneficial- to aspiring female writers and students in general. “Many of the students have adapted their techniques to their own personal writing,” said MacKay.
If to write fiction is, as Cathy Davidson claimed, “to author both a book and a vision of the world,” then women have always had to fight tooth and nail to speak and write in a world that prefers their silence. In this context, the university’s practice of labeling the majority of courses with a focus on women’s literature as “diverse” courses sends a loud message to female students without saying anything at all.