How to Suppress Women's Writing
Text by: Ingvill Kjærstein // Illustration: Lucia Cantu
Published. 12 November 2019
She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed... She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family, other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it... (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever...”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci-fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning, Branwell Brontë, her own “masculine side.”) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it, but...
This quote is from the cover of the 1983 essay collection How To Suppress Women’s Writing, a modern classic in feminist literary theory. In this book, American academic and sci-fi writer Joanna Russ outlines the different ways in which women’s writing has been undermined and ignored throughout history. Though the book was published more than 30 years ago, many of the points still ring true today. In the book, Russ describes various tools of suppression such as prohibition, bad faith, denial of agency, pollution of agency, false categorizing, isolation and anomalousness. To show an example of how these tools work, let’s take a look at the last tool, anomalousness. This is commonly used when creating a literary canon. Often it’s enough to glance at a university syllabus or table of contents in a literary anthology to spot the issue. The ratio of male and female writers is often highly imbalanced, often with only a few or even just one female writer included. In the Western literary canon, the authors in question will often be Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. By singling out a few or one woman writer among a bunch of male writers, it makes these women seem exceptional compared to other women. Sexists may even say they “surpass their gender”, almost as if they were men, because a female writer’s genius can’t be explained any other way. Consequently, it sends the message that women can’t write as well as men.
The fact that women writers have been excluded from the canon for centuries is not a particularly controversial opinion nowadays. Many feminist literary scholars are trying to rectify the past by shining a light on women writers who have been forgotten by history. In the UK there is even a publisher, Persephone Books, dedicated to publishing neglected 20th century women writers. Feminist literary scholars have also taken on the task of uncovering the forgotten history of women writers. Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter was one of the first to do so with the book A Literature of Their Own (1977), which studies the history of British women writers. Another example of such an endeavor is The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, also considered a modern classic in the field of feminist literary theory. However, one major issue with this tradition is the centering of white women writers. By trying to give space to women writers in the canon, many feminist scholars have only focused on white women writers. After all, Russ’ tools of suppression don’t only work on women writers. Most, if not all of them, can also be used against other marginalized groups. It is therefore important to be aware of what is meant by ‘woman’ – in many cases what is actually meant is white woman. During my literature studies, I took classes with only male writers on the syllabus, but also so-called ‘women’s literature’ classes with only white women on the syllabus. It’s important to keep in mind that by including some, others will be excluded. Some think there shouldn’t be a literary canon at all. After all, if nobody is mentioned, nobody is forgotten.
Though women writers are met with much less sexism today compared to 50 years ago, there are still ways in which women writers face more scrutiny than their male counterparts. Since last year, there is an ongoing debate in Norway about a current literary trend dubbed “the postnatal wave” (“barselbølgen”). It describes literature about pregnancy, birth, child-rearing and of course – the big question of whether or not to have children. The discussion started when one literary critic described this trend as navel-gazing and questioned the need for so many of books about this topic. It shows that when women write about experiences that are typically seen as “female” (though men also have children!), they are deemed self-absorbed. On the other hand, the necessity of fiction about men’s experiences is rarely questioned. If there can be room for ten books about a man’s midlife crisis, there should also be room for ten books about the life-altering experience of giving birth.