Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

What Is Women’s Literature?

with 3 comments

When I retired more than a decade ago, courses like “Modern Literature by Women” were common in college curricula. At a glance, the addition of such courses seems harmless enough. One may think that they somehow compensate for past injustices against women. “Why not?” one may ask, “Don’t women deserve it like equal pay for equal work?” But when considered more carefully, this kind of division of literature into categories based on the sex of the author has troubling aspects.   Does it have a pedagogic purpose or just a socio-political intent? 

It seems that the two possible reasons for having courses dedicated to the study of literature exclusively by women are (1) to somehow “get even” for past injustices or (2) to deny the possibility of empathy between men and women.

In his essay “What is Art?” Tolstoy explains the reason for creating art: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling–this is the activity of art.”

The study of art, such as a college course on literature, is a means to help the artist transmit that feeling. In short, we study literature to gain insight into the lives of people whose outward and inward experiences are different from our own.

On the face of it, the motive of “getting even” does nothing to promote that purpose. I heard on public radio a recorded musical performance by a group calling itself the “Gay Men’s Chorus,” and I wondered how the sound of a gay men’s chorus could differ from the sound of an ordinary men’s chorus. Of course, there was no difference. The reason for giving the chorus that name had little to do with music; its purpose was to promote a social-political agenda. In the same way, a course in literature by women writers for the purpose of “getting even” exists primarily to make a political point, not to improve understanding.

The other possible justification is more disturbing because it postulates a hormone-induced gulf that forever denies significant communication between men and women. If that kind of barrier does exist, communication through art of the kind Tolstoy describes is impossible. But those who believe in that barrier between men and women, typically express it this way: “How could you possibly understand since you are not a woman?” If the theory is correct, women cannot understand men either.

One consequence of the theory of the gulf is that it suggests that men are better suited for certain roles in society and women are better suited for others–an idea that has become repugnant to many people in recent years. There is a contradiction in arguing that women should be allowed to hold what were traditionally men’s jobs (like soldiering) and, at the same time, arguing that women writers and men writers are fundamentally different in their sensibilities.  

Do we really want to exaggerate and celebrate all the real and imagined differences between men and women?  Another troubling consequence of the theory of the gulf arises in a consideration of the teaching of the literature itself. If women’s literature is essentially different in this way, (1) a male teacher cannot adequately teach poetry by Emily Dickinson. Nor can a female instructor teach Shakespeare. In such a case, (2) a male student cannot hope to grasp the full significance of a text written by a female author, and his taking the course is an act of futility. In such a case, (3) a male author’s creation of a female character in his fiction is necessarily a distortion, and so is a female author’s creation of a male character.

It is important to remember that fiction and poetry and drama always include elements that are not directly experienced by the author. On the face of it, the idea that authors must have direct knowledge of the things they write about is false. If it were true, Dostoevsky could not have written Crime and Punishment without being himself a murderer since the story is narrated by a murderer. And nobody but a Moor who had married a Caucasian woman and who had killed her under the influence of jealousy could have written Othello.

Clearly, if literature is worthy of study as a college course, the creators of that art must be assumed to have empathy that allows them to provide insights that are not strictly personal. If literature has value, it is the universal meaning which is accessible to readers who are not merely clones of the author. In acknowledging that women were historically deprived of opportunities to participate in the development of all facets of our culture, why should we now compound past error by putting women–as writers–in a league of their own?


Written by polemicscat

August 18, 2008 at 9:17 pm

3 Responses

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  1. What about a third option? A women’s literature class can also be a discovery of what being a woman means to an artist, at any given time period. It can actually bring about and face the very debat you seem to be trying to bring about in this article – are men and women instrumentally different? If not, why ave they written differently, in the past? Do they write differently now? What woudl Shakespeare, say have written, if he were a woman? I don’t see a women’s lit class any differently than, say, a British Lit class. Is the existence of a British lit class indicative of some irreconcilable difference between Brits and Americans?

    Jason Gignac

    August 19, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  2. Jason, Thanks for your comment. You raise interesting and valid questions, I think.
    The themes of discussion you suggest could be an approach to pursue in a course designed for the purpose of investigating those questions. But I wonder, couldn’t such an approach be used in traditional courses in which the works of both male and female authors are studied? In fact, in such a course, I would be inclined to study paired author—one male and the other female—as a way of considering how men and women write differently about what otherwise appear to be similar subjects or central conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. Maybe you have other thoughts about that.
    In any case, thank you for a very stimulating look at the questions raised.


    August 19, 2008 at 10:50 pm

  3. Sorry, I didn’t address your last question about the difference between British and American writers that cause them to be put in different courses. The differences between British and American authors can be ascribed to their experiences in different cultural settings, not to inherent or innate differences between them as people. I would suggest the example of Joseph Conrad. He learned English as a second language, absorbed British culture, and wrote novels in his adopted language. He is considered a British writer. T. S. Eliot is claimed by both America and Britain (He appears in both British and American anthologies of literature) because he was born in the U. S. but ultimately became a British subject. All this is to show that these are cultural differences and are unlike the differences between men and women (to the extent that there are differences between men and women).

    I think we group British writers in British anthologies and in college courses as an acknowledgement of cultural differences and as a convenient way of ordering information for educational purposes.


    August 19, 2008 at 11:48 pm

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