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A Woman's Place is Behind the Typewriter

By Kira Kirkendall
March 30, 2019


This piece details the history of literature through a feminist lens that critiques androcentric sentiments that cloud how and who we often give credit to when it comes to shaping the literary world. Here, credit is given to the women who made literature the art it is today while also examining how and why their achievements have been forgotten within a historical and contemporary context.

Writing has always been seen as a very masculine vocation and women, up until recently, were discouraged from writing. Women had to constantly prove their competency in literature in ways that men never did, they were not fighting an easy fight. In fact, many women would write under false names or used their initials because they knew that people were less likely to read a piece if it was written by a woman. To the same effect, when thinking about the greatest writers and poets, the list is typically exclusively men: Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, John Keats, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Plato, Homer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, and many others. All of this would have you believe that men were the great pioneers of literature, but history tells a very different story. None of these men would have been able to create their works if some very talented and strong women had not first paved the way. These women have long been ignored, their massive contributions minimized. They faced incredible adversity and scrutiny and yet they were able to change the world of literature while wearing corsets, skirts, and heels. It is time to illuminate the women that many have chosen to forget. In this essay, I will be arguing that the art of literature was mothered by strong women throughout history in the disciplines of poetry as well as various subcategories and genres of prose.

Poetry is a well-loved form of artistry, its impact can be felt all around the world. As Robin Williams’ character said in the well-loved movie Dead Poets Society, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for” (Weir, 1989). Poetry is seen everywhere in music and on paper, it is one of the most beloved forms of artistry there is. However, poetry, like many art forms, has a very sexist history. English poetry is often attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer, “the father of English poetry” (Why is Geoffrey Chaucer called "The Father of English Poetry", 2009). While his contributions are indeed significant, none of his work would have been possible without a woman named Enheduanna who is widely believed to be the first poet in human history. She was born around 2285 BCE as the daughter of Sargon the Great. In fact, she is “credited with creating the paradigms of poetry, psalms, and prayers used throughout the ancient world which led to the development of the genres recognized in the present day”. Her father entrusted her with great responsibility by making her the high priestess of the most important temple in Sumer. She not only rose to the occasion, but she far exceeded what anyone had thought she could do. She single-handedly “altered the very nature of the Mesopotamian gods and the perception the people had of the divine”. She was also a political force to be reckoned with, she held her own “against an attempted coup by a Sumerian rebel named Lugal-Ane who forced her into exile” (Mark, 2014). Enheduanna was an incredible woman who forged poetry on her own, yet her story is little-known, even among literary scholars. She was one of the greatest literary minds of all time, yet her accomplishments have been overlooked, as many females have been. Women have made and remade the world, but it is only ever the men’s stories that seem to be told. The suppression of female voices is nothing new, history is written by the winners so it should be no surprise that men have failed to acknowledge the incredible women that came before. The fact is, “ Enheduanna’s works are rhetorically complex sophisticated compositions, and they challenge the traditional canon of rhetoric and thereby many of the origins stories and foundational assumptions of the humanities”. Her story is widely ignored in all disciplines except for Assyriology, the study of Mesopotamia. Even then it seems that she is only seen as a footnote or ignored entirely (Binkley and Lipson, pg 49). She gave the world its first poem, but the world did not remember her for doing so, this is a tragedy. Maya Angelou, probably one of the most well-known poets of all time, also was a trailblazer and an innovator. She was the first Female African American director and her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is a hallmark of literature that is still being used in school to demonstrate complex concepts like race, class, and sexual assault. In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton was elected as this country’s 42nd President, and he invited Maya Angelou to recite a poem for his presidential inaugural address. She was the first African American and the first woman to do so (“Maya Angelou”, Poetry Foundation). Another poet who impacted the world and left an incredible legacy was Phillis Wheatley. Phillis was born around the year 1753 in Gambia, Africa. While she spent most of her life as a slave, she began writing poetry at the age of 14 after one of her owner’s had taught her to read and write in English. She is credited as the first African to publish a book of poems in English. She was also a huge supporter of the American Revolution and wrote a letter praising George Washington being appointed general. Her book of poems actually had a forward which was signed by John Hancock as well as other Boston nobles (Michals, 2015). Sadly, her name and legacy have mostly been forgotten and her accomplishments are rarely spoken of. Time and time again, women have made huge breakthroughs within the literary community, but it seems that the focus is on the men riding their coattails and taking credit without acknowledging the women that made it all possible.

While poetry is an incredible and widely-known art form, prose is a more general and universal section of the literary arts. Unfortunately, society still views prose as a masculine art. This assumption fails to recognize that women have always been, and always will be, pioneers. Besides, without women, rhetoric would not exist. Sadly, the way that society views prose and novels is still very much as a man’s world. In a list of the top 100 authors of all time, the first 20 consists of 18 men, which figures to 90%. The vast majority of the authors on this list are men (Best 100 Authors). This becomes increasingly disturbing when faced with the knowledge that the first piece of extended prose was written by a woman. I would like to introduce you to Murasaki Shikibu. She was born around the year 978 in Japan. She was well-educated and had learned Chinese, which was, at the time, a male-exclusive field of study in Japan. Her novel, Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is widely regarded as not only the greatest piece of Japanese literature but the world’s first piece of extended prose (“Murasaki Shikibu” 2019). So, before Frodo could take a ring to Mordor, before the old man traveled the sea, before Lucy could venture through a wardrobe, before Alice could travel to Wonderland, before Anna Karenina could fall for Count Vronsky, Murasaki had to write. Without her, none of the most beloved novels would exist. Of course, she is not the only female innovator in the realm of prose. In fact, on a dark, rainy night in 1816, a group of friends proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. One of the individuals in this party was none other than Mary Shelley. It was upon this contest, that Mary Shelley single-handedly created the genre of science fiction with her novel, Frankenstein. She was only 19. It took two years for her to get it published, and, much to her dismay, the only publisher who was interested would only publish the work anonymously. The first example of a science fiction novel was written by a woman and, for that reason, was published anonymously and included a foreword written by her husband, Percy Shelley. Female writers have always had to prove their talent and competence in ways that male writers never had to, they existed in a system that overlooked their accomplishments and often minimized their influence. Another example of a female literary pioneer is Baroness Emma Orczy, a Hungarian-born British writer. She wrote the first story of a masked hero with a secret identity with her great novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. It was originally published as a play in 1903 and then as a novel in 1905 (“Baroness Emma Orczy”, 2018). Catherine Lucille Moore wrote the first example of a space western with Northwest of Earth in 1954 (“C.L. Moore”). These women helped shape the literary world as we know it today, we would not have our favorite novels without the hard work of these courageous women. The fact that most of these women are not often spoken of and their accomplishments are rarely acknowledged is a very telling reflection of the blatant sexism within the literary community.

The previously mentioned women are all very crucial to understanding the history of literature, but it is also important to highlight women of color and women from the LGBTQIA+ community. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was the first novel in English that involved a lesbian relationship, it was banned in Britain. The ban was only lifted after Marguerite died in 1943 (“Radclyffe Hall”, 2018). Anne Lister wrote a diary about her life in the 1840s as a queer woman and her courtships with women. Her diary went on to be later published and is now regarded as one of the greatest works of queer literature of all time (Woods, 2016). A woman who called herself “Lisa Ben” created the first lesbian magazine in the 1940s. The name itself was an anagram for the word lesbian and was created as a sort of nod to those who understood the message. Her real name was Edythe Eyde and she created the magazine Vice Versa. She could not risk printing under fear of being arrested, so she individually typed out several copies of the magazine on her personal typewriter and passed them out at “lesbian hotspots” (Capenter, 2017). The fact that she was courageous enough to create something seeking to connect individuals that society had written off as gender traitor’s and freaks is inspiring. Queerness in fiction has long-been stigmatized, as are queer relationships, but these women did not let the prejudices, which still exist today, limit their narratives. While on the topic of underrepresented and marginalized groups, it seems only appropriate to bring up the incredible women of color who spearheaded their own genres and subgenres. Octavia E. Butler is known as the pioneer of the Afrofuturism genre, which combines African culture with technology and futurism (Tenbarge, 2018). Without Octavia, the story of Black Panther might not exist. Her protagonists could always be identified by their “uniqueness and [they] fought against the tyranny of vampires, aliens, superhumans, and slave masters” (Tenbarge, 2018). With the influence of Mary Shelley, Begum Rokeya was able to pioneer feminist science fiction. Begum had become a face of Muslim Feminism in Bengal and her novella Sultana’s Dream introduced a feminist utopian world ruled by women (Nasir, 2017). A woman is also responsible for the genre of African “lost world” fiction. Pauline Hopkins’s novel Of One Blood is still regarded as a pioneer of African Science Fiction (Shawl, 2018). These women are not exceptions, history shows that the world of literature was made and remade by these incredible women. This list of strong female literary pioneers is in no way comprehensive. There are so many courageous and innovative women that have been pushed aside, their accomplishments seen as “less than” simply because they are women.

It should also be pointed out that the problem of the suppression of female voices is still present in the contemporary world. D.G. Meyers quotes Ruth Franklin, a female literary critic in America, in his article “Statistics Prove the Bias against Women in Literature”: “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications and ‘not coincidentally’ women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s” (Myers, 2012). It is unsurprising that male literary reviewers review work written by men more than women. One can theorize the reasons, but Ruth claims that the problem is that women authors are not published as much as male authors. History has shown this, Mary Shelley had to publish her work anonymously and George Eliot wrote under a male name. The problem is that female authors are all lumped into the “women’s fiction” title, which inherently segregates them from male authors and a wider pool of readers (Myers, 2012). This blatant sexism is indicative of a culture which reflects these ideas. The fact that women are not being published at the rate of men has been excused with the idea that men read more than women, but that assertion is, not surprisingly, incorrect. In the UK in 2014, women were responsible for buying two-thirds of the books sold and 50% of women in the UK consider themselves avid readers compared to only 26% of men (Dempster, 2016). At writer’s festivals, the audiences consist of mostly women. In fact, according to Melborne’s Writer Festivals’ data, 70% of their ticket holders are women. The facts do not lie, a large portion of readership comes from women yet female authors are not published as often as men. The discrepancy between female published authors and female readers is massive and, at the root of all this, is blatant sexism that women have been battling for centuries. Judith Scholes, who was in charge of the 2015 count on gender representation for the Canadian Women in Literary Arts organization stated that “we have an idea that men writing about factual information is going to be more valid or more legitimate than a woman's take”. Women are more likely to be published if they are writing about traditionally feminine topics, which means that women are less likely to be published if they are writing non-fiction (Hu, 2017). This way of thinking discourages women from exploring different genres, which, in itself, is a huge disservice to the massive female readership. Agatha Christie wrote about grizzly murders and is one of the best-selling novelists of all time, Jane Austen wrote about women with strong opinions and intricate internal lives and remains a staple in any literary collection, Alice Walker broke barriers with her unflinching explorations of misogyny, racism, and violence, Dorothy Woolfolk became the first female comic book writer while scripting various strips for Wonder Woman, and Mary Wollstonecraft laid the foundation for the feminist movement and is still regarded as one the pioneers of feminism. These women faced the same backward-thinking gender bias that contemporary women writers are still grappling with. Progress has been made, of course, but there is still a long way to go before gender equality is achieved in the literary community.

The suppression of female voices is reflective of a sexist culture. This way of thinking is not inherent, it is learned. American high schools have required readings for their English classes and they mainly comprise of male-authored plays and novels. This is not a new phenomenon, the books do not accurately represent the children reading them. In recent years, it has gotten better. There is now talk that 40% of required reading lists should come from women authors; however, that is still a goal we have yet to reach. In a list comprised of the books that most high schools require their students to read in their English classes, only 11 were written by women, out of fifty total books and plays. That figures to 22%, less than one fourth. Only 3 of the 11 were women of color which figures to 6% of the total fifty (Wiginton, 2018). Certainly, we are not anywhere near forty percent. Personally, at the high school I attended, we were required to read 26 books total in the honors and AP course track, only six of which were created and written by women, less than 24%. According to an even-larger list from the literary platform Goodreads, only 85 of 350 books required for classes were written by women, less than a quarter. Only 12 of the 350 were authored by women of color, which figures to only 3.4%. Janet Fitch, the author of the best-selling novel White Oleander, once said that, “women writers specifically are the ultimate outsiders” (“Women Writer Quotes”). We are repeatedly showing our children multiple Shakespeare plays, but we fail to show our young girls many female writers and female-centered narratives. Despite any progress made over the last hundred years, sexism in the literary community is still very present and is still being taught in American high schools. The narrative of literature consisting of men is not only historically inaccurate, but it reinforces a culture of sexism and misogyny.

Literature is one of the most widespread and appreciated art forms ever and its history has been misinterpreted for years. The greatest male authors of all time owe their success and their opportunities to the women who came before them, the women who made and remade the craft that Dickens, Tolstoy, and Salinger made their names in. Without these incredible women, Dante never would have disclosed what he knew about an inferno, a group of boys would never have shared a conch shell on a deserted island, Gulliver never would have gone on his travels, Gatsby would never have seen the green light, Ray Bradbury never would have told us what temperature paper burns at, and 1984 would have been an unimportant year. The stories that men, women, and children love would not exist if some incredible women hadn’t paved the way for these men to write such beloved stories. Women’s contributions to the world have long been pushed aside and ignored, which only highlights the blatant sexism present in most history books. It is important to pay tribute to the ones that came before so that we can continue to move forward. The world is made and remade by those crazy enough to dream, and these women did just that. There are plenty of incredible women in the history of literature. Virginia Woolf was a pioneer of feminist literature and had a hand in reinventing literature of the 20th century with her experimental writing. Harper Lee illustrated prejudice in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is regarded as one of the best novels of all time. Agatha Christie paved the way for female writers to explore and write in unexpected genres with her best-selling crime novels. Harriet Beecher Stowe sparked passion against slavery with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which played an important role in the development of the Civil War. Sylvia Plath illustrated her struggles with mental health in her heartbreaking poetry. Margaret Atwood demonstrated an imagined future where women’s rights were obsolete and showed us all how important the fight for female reproductive rights really is. Judy Blume addressed taboos like menstruation and birth control in her young adult books (20 Most Influential Women Authors of All Time, 2013). Jane Austen fails the reverse Bechdel test, she never wrote a scene without a woman present. J.K. Rowling is one of the best selling authors of all time and her beloved magical universe has an entire park dedicated to it at Universal Resort in Florida. Beverly Cleary introduced us to Ramona, a spunky young girl trying to figure out the world around her. George Eliot wrote one of the greatest works of literature, Middlemarch, under a man’s name. Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous poets of all time, writing nearly 1800 poems in her life (Parker, 2018). These are only a glimpse of the incredible women who shaped the literary arts. These women are the pioneers of literature, they are innovators, creators, and, above all, incredible story-tellers. They faced constant scrutiny and unfair treatment, but they paved the way for their male counterparts and, like Ginger Rogers danced with Fred Astaire, they did it backwards and in high heels. They refused to submit to the world’s idea of who they were and what they should want, like any great writer, they realized that they could write their own story. Their contributions have long been ignored because of the sexism that still exists in the literary world, but they should be remembered for the work they did. You can still feel the effects of their contributions, despite them being rarely recognized. Their influence is in those famous male authors. You can see glimpses of them in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the drama of William Shakespeare, in the gut-wrenching poems of Langston Hughes, in the words of Walt Whitman, in the prose of Franz Kafka, in the symbols of Ernest Hemingway, in the language of Edgar Allan Poe, in the world-building of Tolkien, and in the satire of Joseph Heller. We have done a huge disservice to these women by forgetting them, but they are still giving us gifts of language, of prose, and of poetry through the famous male authors chasing their coattails.

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Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in each article is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the PUGS editors, Gender Studies program, or UNC. Therefore, PUGS e-zine carries no responsibility for the opinion expressed thereon.