Women in Literature – Or Are They?

I just completed my last year-and-a-half of schooling. At thirty-nine I have finally attained the degree I set out to get when I was nineteen, although back then I had visions of politics, social reform, and changing the world. Naturally I traded in all of those dreams to hitch myself to a man (she hangs her head in shame).

But five years after the un-hitching from that man, I am finding my way back to the path again, the path I should have been on. But it does not revolve around politics, social reform, or changing the world. It revolves around literature.

Literature? Wait just a second. Literature absolutely does have to do with politics, social reform, and changing the world. It also has a little bit to do with history, psychology, culture, and religion. Literature is all-encompassing.

Though I went through nearly twenty months of literature classes, it was not until a couple of weeks ago – during my very last term – I realized something. Though in retrospect, perhaps the knowledge was simmering just somewhere between the sub-conscious and conscious, that place where nagging itches fester and just-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue words mockingly dance. I realized sexism was still very much alive and well.

Ok, so I knew that sexism was actively engaged within our society. You just need to look at the magazines in the checkout line or watch any number of television shows to realize that fact. But in literature? Literature is highly esteemed. It is an intelligent, multi-faceted branch of the arts. And it’s the twenty-first century for God’s sake! We gots the right to vote!!

But like every one else I simply read my Eliot, Yeats, Blake, Hughes, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Maugham, Banks, Becket, Bartheleme, Boyle, Ford, O’Brien, Yarbrough, Frost, Sandburg, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Mckay, O’Niel, Cummings, Cullen, Wright, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Alexie, Percy, Saunders, Whitman, Harte, London, Crane, Woodsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Greene, and Lawrence. That is a total of 41 male authors in case you’re wondering.

Intermixed among those brilliant, masculine, literary giants I was given access to a few female authors: Willa Cather, Virginia Wolf, Mary Hood, ZZ Packer, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gertrude Stein, Susan Glaspell, Marianne Moore, Caryl Churchill, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zitkala Sa, Elizabeth Bishop, Harper Lee, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen for a total of 19.

Forty one male authors to nineteen female authors when the typical class is nearly two-thirds female. Hmm…

I suppose the inciting incident, the thing that drew that nagging and irritating feeling out from beneath the two layers of my consciousness was the Trump video released in which he made some pretty gross remarks.

When I heard about the tape I was not fazed. I mean really, I’ve had plenty of experience with men to know that kind of mentality is not a rarity. I’m not saying all men are the same and that all men have that Trump mentality, but I think he is in plenty of bad company.

So it was as this “scandal” was unfolding that I had to read Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things They Carried.” It was a good story, really. A clever enough idea I thought until that one passage.

He remembered kissing her good night at the dorm door. Right then, he should have done something brave. He should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should’ve risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should’ve done.

Naturally, being the opinionated woman that I am, I began a discussion which involved me, the very male professor, and a bunch of crickets. His first argument was there was a difference between the protagonist of the story fantasizing about a woman as is typical of a straight young male and the comments of an actual seventy-year-old presidential candidate.

Right, of course. His argument sounded reasonable enough only…only Tim O’Brien, the creator of the protagonist, was not nineteen. He was an intelligent, grown man. He was the author of the words, not a nineteen-year-old character. Secondly, comparing forcibly tying a woman to a bed to an act of bravery is outrageous and in my mind does not sound so far from grabbing a woman by her nether regions. Third, why is age even an excuse for that type of thought? Enough with the “boys will be boys” mentality.

The Professor then replied that more female authors need to be introduced into the cannon. Right, of course. His argument, once again, sounded reasonable enough only…in the required text there are twenty female authors. Twenty and only two were used. The women are there; they’re just being dismissed.

I can understand in some weird way why women are so underrepresented. It’s par for the course. It’s what we know. It’s what we expect. But what was even more disturbing than that was the fact that I almost missed it. I almost went along with what’s par for the course even though it is harmful for me as a reader, a writer, and a woman.

Yes, women are still highly under represented. Women are still highly objectified and turned into one-dimensional beings. But I have hope. I do. Because there are women out there, lots of women, who are not going to go along anymore, who expect more than what is expected. There are women that will represent with the power of their words.

It’s inevitable.

 

 

 

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