Lesson 11: Writing to Live
As writers, women have always had to submit themselves and their writing to the scrutiny of male eyes. Indeed, many women writers have
feared men's response to the content and form of their writing. For centuries, women were denied an education that would allow them to
write, and when they did they had to submit their work to the approval of men in order to have it published. (Gerda Lerner. The Creation of
Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
In the course of writing, women writers have often adopted pseudonyms to express their passions that included female characters who stood
outside of traditional roles. Women have had to disguise their passions as piety and their rebellion as obedience, according Carolyn Heilbrun.
In the MiddleAges, those women who wished to write about great passions had to do so not using human relationships but the relationship
between the mystic and her god (or in Christianity the relationship was that of the mystic and Jesus). Examples of religious writing include
those written by the mystics Marjorie Kemp and Julian of Norwich, both from the Middle Ages. Marjorie Kemp is credited with the writing
of the first of the first English autobiography. (Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing A Woman's Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988).
As always, there are exceptions with women writing exactly what they wanted. I am reminded of Sor Juana de la Cruz.As a child, she had
access to amazing libraries in the homes of wealthy Mexicans during the 18th century. Denied a formal education, she taught herself
theology, literature, poetry, and architecture design. Knowing she had two choices in life -- either to marry and never study, or to enter the
church as a nun and have access to books, she chose the latter. In this capacity, she could learn, but more than this, she could write.And write
she did! Her subject matter often included riveting poetry criticising women's subordinate status. Her sonnets confessed her great love for
other women. But it was her theology that caused her the greatest repercussions when she contested the theological treatises of her Mexican
Eventually even Sor Juana de la Cruz was silenced and forced to give up her books. She spent the final years of her short life aiding the poor.
(Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The Answer/La Respuesta: Including a Selection of Poems. Critical Edition and Translation by ElectaArenal an
Amanda Powell. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994).
For women writers, the pressure has been to what extent could they extend the boundaries of acceptable speech as Virginia Woolf noted in
her bookARoom of One's Own. Or take the example of the poet Sylvia Plath, who in her poem "Daddy" examines her relationship with her
father with language that explodes the traditional sanctity of parent/child imagery. For examples of her writing visit the library.
Most certainly we have all had moments when we have feared speaking up. But privilege by virtue of one's gender, one's race and /or one's
position in society (i.e. a university professor, a boss) tends to designate a greater or lesser right to speak. The more privilege one holds in
society, the greater the likelihood that one will be taken seriously as both a speaker and writer. Privilege is very interesting not only in terms
of actual authority but the ability of a privileged individual to choose when he or she might extend sympathy to others with lesser privilege,
or choose to listen, or to act in response to the ideas of others. Those with greater privilege suffer no consequences if they ignore the concerns
The most critical feature of privilege is assuming that one's experience is the norm. Therefore the person of privilege can make decisions for
others or impose actions, policies, or structures or particular systems assuming that he or she knows best for others without listening to
alternative positions. This authority amounts to "This is what I do and I've been successful so therefore it will work for you if you do as I say
and if you fail it is because you did something wrong."
With privilege, the individual claims agency to act in the world.As in the case of a poor single mother, not everyone has privilege or the
same amount of agency. Her voice will not carry the same authority as another who is more economically and socially established.
Privilege is all about choosing whom you wish to listen to and when while censuring the voices of others. Who gets read, and who gets to be
included in the canon of great writers, depends largely on who is making those kinds of decisions which is why women's voices have long
been discounted. Women have been told in Western culture that they are the mothers of the nation without having the political power or
influence to decide laws, policies or institutions. Women have been told that as potential mothers or wives there was no value in attending
university. Women have received the message in countless ways in their intimate or in their work relationships, that their contributions are
not as valuable as their husbands, or their bosses, or their male colleagues.
Women have been dismissed as "great" writers.As long as women wrote according to the rules of males and fulfilled male expectations on
content they could write in what was seen as "hobby" for women but certainly not a serious career. When we consider great western
literature, which authors do we include in this canon? It is unlikely many people of colour and certainly not many women will make the list.
Women writers have long been uncomfortable in writing a new kind of female character (or female/male relationship) into their stories
fearing the criticism of men.And yet, men have been writing about women forever, it seems. The female "types" though have been narrow,
confined too often to the evil temptress or the self-sacrificing good woman. The temptress threatens the security of not only the male but
often times of a state. The good woman, on the other hand, encompasses all the virtues that keep her securely, unthreatening to the balance of
social power in the family as wife and mother.
In the video Killing Us Softly 3, Jean Kilbourne talks about how ads set up expectations for relationships. Certainly literature has had and
perhaps continues to have the same impact.
Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic, once noted that the stories about women end at marriage as though their life objective has
been reached. Stories that end with the marriage of a couple emphasize that there is nothing more of further importance in women's lives to
follow this "final" achievement. When in actual fact, women do continue to live and struggle and achieve. The genre of films now euphemistically labelled "chick flicks" all end with the female character finding her guy who has rescued her from an existence of despair or
at the very least a life of dissatisfaction. The genre implies that women's only real occupation is to find "true love". These films impact on the
real lives of girls and women. They tell young women what they should expect and where they should direct their passions.And chick flicks
can have the effect of reminding older women how their lives have failed to live up to romantic expectations.
Carolyn Heilbrun, Virginia Woolf and others have often asked: where are the other stories of women and why are we not attracted to them?
Really, when we refer to feminine and masculine identities and behaviours, we begin to see how identities become "scripted". Women are
expected to hold certain behaviours, cross their legs, be emotional, love romance but not sex and men have their own host of expected
behaviours as well. Our ideas about appropriate behaviours become our scripts for knowing how to do our own gender in our culture. We
have looked at advertising, at the government, medicine, violence, the workplace and in all these areas, we see how gender is used to keep
the definition of particular roles in place. Perhaps, films like Cinderella or Sleepless in Seattle with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, function to
sustain our very narrow ideas about sex roles in romantic relationships. Without being aware of it, we use the "scripts" provided to us through
our interfacing with culture and through the observation of others, to learn how to do a version of male identity or female identity that fits
with the group we most desire to model.
Girls are taught in countless ways to expect a romantic figure to rescue them from their own lives. This heroic figure will protect her
financially and emotionally from a difficult world. Scripts aid people in the interpretation of life events. For example, I have often heard
people accuse a woman of being "bitter or a gold digger" in the event of a divorce. Such responses are standard practise that are hinged on
stereotypes and do little to discover the real complexity of the relationship as it gets dismantled. Scripts reinforce the status quo keeping all
the "normative" practises according to gender and power firmly intact. The real challenge we have as individuals is to recognize when we are
using a script.
What we need to recognize is that there is no objective voice or tone that is exempt of some degree of bias. We carry into our written and
spoken language all our interpretations and biases concerning the world in which we live. Novel and university textbooks all contain similar
selective and interpretative qualities. Consider the article by Emily Martin in your course package -- her critique demonstrates how language
in medical/research/science carries a bias about masculine and feminine bodies.
The scripts women have had available to them (remember how religions often set expectations for women, families, cultures, politicians,
employers) are generally not very adventuresome or liberating not only in how women approach their place in the world but what they set as
expectations for themselves privately.
I was speaking to a woman recently who sits on a committee that in part runs programs for single mothers on social assistance. Most of the
committee members are men with extraordinarily good intentions but little insight into gender relations. This woman described the countless
ways in which her voice and the voices of other women on the committee are dismissed. The men routinely fail "to hear" or validate the
importance of women's contributions. She has come to recognize how the women will be applauded for their "enthusiasm", their "passion"
but their ideas or even analysis of the situations are not adopted as policy or in the development of actions by the committee. Her experience
is not uncommon. It takes a tremendous amount of courage when working in a mixed gender situation to speak "otherwise". Raising ideas
that go against the responses of the majority can be very risky or at the very least frustrating. Earlier in this course, we noted that the Toronto
suffragist movement in the 19th century, recognized how men's voices tended to over ride the voices of women and therefore, made the
decision to maintain a women's only group. Patricia Hill Collins, in her work on race, has noted the "white noise" of a white, patriarchal
society that silences/discounts the voices of people of colour.
Women who dare to speak against the grain are thinking critically about the scripts of mother, wife, employee, and good girl and at the ways
in which prevailing knowledges justify inequalities in their public and private interfacing with one another and with institutions. So,