Saturday, November 18, 2006

What's "Women's Lit"?

We have a requirement for lit majors here at NWU for one class on "Women's Literature." Now, when I see that requirement, I think first and foremost of writing by women. Similarly, when I see a requirement for a class on American ethnic lit, I think of writing by people not in the majority ethnic group in the US. (I'm thinking of primary readings here.)

There's a disagreement, however, among some folks here who want to use primary readings by men and talk about the ways they represent women.

At this point, I'm unconvinced, but I'd like to hear from the wisdom of the blogosphere.

Here's my basic thinking: in any course I teach, I'm likely to talk about the ways the text(s) represent women and men (since most of lit is about representing people, right? And no one is a non-gendered person, just as no one lacks race, culture, ethnicity; my courses also talk about representations of whiteness when appropriate). So students in my Shakespeare class, for example, get opportunities to talk about the ways a man (working in a male dominated theatrical tradition) represents male and female experience. Students have far fewer opportunities to talk about the ways women represent male and female experience, and I think that's my goal in voting for a requirement for women's lit.

I find value in Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own that men have been writing about women for a long time as if they own knowledge about women, but women's writing about their own experiences is different.

Yet I'm unwilling to essentialize bodies in terms required by ecriture feminine; I think gender experience is cultural AND physical. Add in complications about anonymous or pseudonymous writers; is George Eliot working culturally as a male on some level that makes her writing inappropriate for a women's lit course? Is anonymous really a woman?

Here's another complication: our film courses on Native American's in Film, or Film and African American Experience use films/texts produced, directed, and acted by mostly whites, and find those texts useful in their analyses.

The question matters because we write course descriptions and decide which course will meet which requirements. Do we write the course description as "writing by women" or as "writing about women"? If I do a course on women in Shakespeare, should it count for the women's lit requirement? (I'd argue no at this point, for the reasons I've stated above.)

What do you think, oh voices of the blogosphere?


  1. This is a very good and important question I think - it's also a challenge when you're dealing with a period of literature where you have lots of "anonymouses (anonymice?)" - it's written in the "voice" of a woman - how do we treat that??

    I teach a course that I specifically describe as "Writing By and For Medieval Women" - we read Margery, Trotula (her own gendered authorial identity is an interesting debate), Marie de France, etc. but we also read Chaucer, the Ancrene Wisse, and some female Saint's Lives as well. The students really enjoy discussing the precisely the questions you've raised in this post - what is "women's lit"? I'm not sure that I have the answer, but I definitely think the question should be discussed more - particularly when it's part of a curriculum requirement!

  2. I largely agree with you, and then I think of Gay/Lesbian lit classes where the focus includes representations of gays/lesbians/queers. I mean, Melville's "Billy Budd" is on the list of Top 100 Gay/Lesbian novels of all time, but no one argues that he's gay. And Little Women is on that list. It's difficult, but that's worthy of discussion.

  3. I would tend to agree with you, Bardiac, that a women's lit requirement should look - mostly , if not only - at writing *by* women. This is because the whole purpose of such interventions in the curriculum seems to me to have been to represent women's writing where it had been silenced, in the past. In a sense, this admits the agency of women who write - which is crucially important in a culture which tends to undermine women's agency. If *all* we ever look at is representations *of* women, we lose the sense of women of producers of culture - and I think that is a really dangerous mistake. I think those "representations of" courses are really crucial - and fun! - but if they are the only way students approach "women and literature", I think they're getting an impoverished sense of literary history - and of historical femininities. And this doesn't have to be an essentializing move, a reification of women - there are lots of moves you could make to, in fact, counter essentialism.

  4. Anonymous10:46 PM

    I would say that a mixture of texts would be the way to go. That is to say, texts that both represent women (although perhaps written by male authors), in conjunction with texts by women. This is the kind of strategy we often find ourselves having to adopt in philosophy, for example when trying to balance rationalism with empiricism. I have used this strategy often and even in difficult circumstances, like a survey course on Chinese philosophy, where the dialectic between Confusions and Taoists sympathisers is highly probloematic. Using a process of 'opposing views', or 'different views' on a similar topic has real pedegological advantages too.

    One of the reason that such a balance is useful is that it is important to keep away from the view that the people of any sub-group of society is always necessarily has a monopoly on the truth, or error. I have co-workers who fall into this trap on a regular basis. If a text is produced by a white male, to these folks it is evil, simpliciter. Any woman/ethnic person/gay person/etc. who takes issues with the claims and insights is necessarily correct, no matter how incoherent the objections. Fortunately, these people hardly ever publish (other than on blogs), so they are not likely to be a problem here, but the issue needs to be considered. It is, I believe, especially ironic hearing a white women from a very middle class background attack a white male on principle, despite the fact that the male came from a background of poverty. Thus, balance should be the goal to strive for.

    Of course, this may present the usual problems of 'round peg, square hole' when it comes to working out what satisfies a 'requirement'. Take the example of a course on some (male) author's depiction of women. This is a tough case. However, if there was an additional step involved -- e.g. "BLAH 2XX will meet this requirement, if the student shows that they have also read...[Add a few salient texts here]", then this might present a solution. Of course, the issue of how this 'showing' might take place, will be as easy, or difficult as your peers will allow. I'd imagine that it would work well at some places, but would be impossible at others (like mine). However, I still advocate 'balance' as being the key principle. But then again, I am a white guy...

    The CP

  5. When I think Women's Lit, I think the voice of feminism, which automatically gives me a sorta queasy feeling. I prefer your definition - women authors writing about women. That's more palatable. For the record, I'm not anti-feminism, and I'd burn my bra in a heartbeat, but I think the word turns a lot of people off.

  6. I'm late to reply, but here's my thought:

    1) A "Women's Lit" requirement does, to me, mean "writing by women." A course that would deal with representations of women in literature would be called just that, and it's not necessarily the "literature of women."

    The other thing I'd say, is that I think part of the problem may be with the requirement itself. In my department, we've just instituted a "diversity" requirement for student, which can include multiculti Amer. Lit classes, classes about lit. and sexuality, postocolonial classess, etc. I'm thinking that this may be a way to get around what seems like a restrictive requirement (to me) but yet to include marginalized voices.

  7. The long march to equality, as enforced upon non-men (and non-whites, and the poor) by a western society dominated by wealthy white men for centuries.

    Step 1. Prejudice.
    Step 2. The fightback.
    Step 3. The Trendy Ghetto.

    We are at step 3, so much so that some academic publishers no longer seem to publish books about any specific type of literature. You get books about women writing it and women reading it, but not books just about anyone writing it or reading it (including, on equal terms, women).

    Hopefully we will one day achieve step 4, equality, when we can go back to having general studies (as well as specific studies), which treat women equally.

    Until then, although the gender specific works are making up for lost time (and are perfectly valid on their own terms, as are any works that exclude chunks of a study to better focus on other chunks), it does feel like we are losing the opportunity to present a holistic picture of literature, having finally crawled out from under all the bizarre restraints of modernism.