At A Level I studied a whole module which was described as ‘Women in Literature’. Progressive, right? It didn’t seem to occur to my teachers that studying two white women – Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf – didn’t particularly give a very broad account of the female experience in literature. This was one of the main issues I had with it. But the other fundamental thing I was opposed to was studying an author simply because of their gender.
In departments across the country there seems to be a tick box that gets checked every time a female or POC author gets studied. Male, white authors, however, are chosen on merit alone. We don’t study Shakespeare because he was a man (which is debatable) but because of his command of the stage. We don’t study Wordsworth for his gender, but instead for his poetry.
But when I studied Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, gender was the primary focus. This is Virginia Woolf for Christ’s sake! The mother of modernism. And yet all we remain focused on is her gender, how her gender is presented in her characters, until the whole thing is stripped of its mastery and ingenuity.
It is important to acknowledge that texts written by women can be extraordinary from certain time periods and that should be celebrated but that should not be merit alone to study their texts. Not all female writers are good, in the same way that not all male writers are either!
I often find when studying texts by POC the educational narrative also becomes dominated so much by their race that their talent becomes submerged by discussions of their authorship. By reading these texts so superficially we do a disservice to the writers themselves who have constructed them with literary merit in mind.
People do not write purely to show that they can. They write for their works to be studied in nuanced, close analysis that is almost entirely separate from their identity.
I just wish that when I study a text the preface does not need to be ‘look, we’re studying a woman this week!’. Because the implication there was that if she were not a woman this text would not be analysed. Even if that is not what they mean explicitly, the fact that their gender or race comes before all else as a factor in studying it is quite frankly disrespectful to the writer themselves.
Woah, woah, woah. So are you saying women shouldn’t be studied at all?
But that kind of question proves my point. These women are being studied because they are women. Instead of being studied as writers.
Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf deserve more than to just be female writers. They deserve to be innovative writers, writers who were trailblazers in form, writers who create their own genres and ideas.
It’s my belief that the author stands behind the text, not in front of it.
Women – especially those writing in certain time periods – come across so much adversity in the process of publishing their works. It is important for that to be acknowledged when we read them. But that alone should not be the reason to read them.
We must diversify our curriculums, but we must also do it in a way that is not so obviously a tick-box activity.