Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Women Writers

In European civilisations women have been widely excluded from education and reduced to objects of lust or politics for centuries. On the pretext of protecting their family members of the softer sex fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, and sons decided about their lives: where they resided, who was their company, whom they married... and what was good for them to know. In those days it was most women’s fate to bear children or rather a male heir for their husbands and to die young. The only alternative was taking the veil. 

It can hardly be surprising that for a very long time the best educated women could be found in nunneries and that until the age of the Enlightenment most women writers were nuns like Hildegard von Bingen or Teresa of Ávila. Outside the convents women who knew how to read were suspect, even more so women who took the liberty to write something other than simply letters, poems and prayers. At best they were ridiculed, at worst they were demonised by their contemporaries. Serious writing was regarded as men’s business.

Late in the eighteenth century things started to change. The works of Fanny Burney (1752-1840) and Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) sold exceedingly well and were much praised. Jane Austen (1775–1817) was one of the first women writers entering the scene of world literature. Mary Shelley (1797–1851), the Brontë sisters (Charlotte 1816-1855; Emily 1818-1848; Anne 1820-1849) and Marian Evans using the male pen name George Eliot (1819–1880) got a chance to publish their works and received considerable acclaim from readers. And yet, their obvious success must not blind us to the fact that they all had to overcome huge obstacles on their way.

Since the eighteenth century many women writers have followed their example and sought a place in literature, but those who succeeded are much fewer in number than could be expected. Even after two hundred years women writers have a difficult lot. It keeps being a big challenge to make ourselves heard in a world penetrated by male values and standards considered superior to those of women for so long a time. Often our work is marginalised or belittled as typically female and therefore not worthwhile the attention of erudite readers.

In fact women writers have to fight against an invisible and very powerful opponent: the ‘sugar-and-spice’ image of female writings. Home, love and everyday life make up much of what women wrote about, especially in the beginning. How could it be differently? Most writers choose topics that they are familiar with... and with good reason! Since women were long refused a life of their own outside their home, they were drawn to create an alternative - better - reality in their imagination, in other words to dream.

The world has changed, the life of women has changed in many respects. Their writing has, too. There still are many women trying to escape from their uniform and unhappy lives as mothers, wives, unrewarded housekeepers, underpaid and underestimated employees etc. through literature which may account for the sentimental turn of even modern novels produced by women (and/or for women). But there are others as well whose work is much deeper and yet remains unnoticed - just because the writer is a woman.

For further reading on the topic I recommend an interesting article about literary sexism by Jane Sullivan that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 Janary 2012: A woman's place.


  1. The article and your post make some very good points about the pervasive sexism that still exists and is particularly prominent in Australia at the moment, at least it is becoming rather overtly obvious at the moment both in the specific case of the Miles Franklin award and in the way our female prime minister is treated. Regardless of political views I think most people have to acknowledge the abuse she has been subjected to goes beyond what is normal in the political arena and a man would not be subject to the same.
    Despite the entrenched misogyny of Australian culture, Australia has produced some very vigorous opposition and analysis, Germaine Greer for starters but other writers as well. Miriam Dixson a historian wrote a rather good account of how women themselves have internalised our intrinsically misogynous culture and continue to perpetrate the destructive thinking that originates with our particular historical circumstance. Feminism is still very much an issue in many areas but literature is very definitely one.

    1. In Austria literary sexism hasn't been much of a topic and I must admit that until I read the article of Jane Sullivan I didn't give it much thought really. The article, however, made me realise that my shelves are crammed with the works of above all male novelists and just some books of women writers in between. Subconsciously I've been pretty biased myself and from now on I'll take more care choosing books.


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