Arts and Culture

The Woman’s Role in Literature


By Hannah Rogers

Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Goulding. Sound familiar? The stories told by these names are probably streaming back into consciousness. These men are all renowned writers, and pertaining to education specifically; they are essential in teaching developing minds and establishing a high school curriculum. The roots of students’ foundation in English and composition are the stories written by these kings of literature. But one crucial aspect is missing: female authors. The same push to read and teach works written by women seems to be neglected.

It is a commonly held notion that high schools tend to genderize or have a bias toward female literature. But, this phenomenon is often an overlooked factor in designing a curriculum. The education system’s classic foundations of literature are still, to this day, heavily influenced by men. To understand why this is, we first must understand the intersection of women and the world of literature.

The woman’s role has evolved throughout every time period of fictional literature. The books that high schoolers are assigned to read frequently fall into the Shakespearean era and on through the 20th century.

In the Shakespearean era, writers typically took the theme of misogyny and superiority of men within their writing. Equality between the two sexes was not at all present within this era, and is evident from the numerous writings degrading the female gender, like in Twelfth Night. The protagonist,  wise, witty, gender-bending Viola takes the name of Cesario in order to survive in her society. In doing this, she successfully blurs all gender boundaries and symbolizes strength; all until she quits her disguise to marry Duke Orsino, breaking this gender fluidity and becoming vulnerable for a man who is arguably a misogynist.

In the 19th century, specifically the time period of the Roaring Twenties, it is clear in works like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, that women were still in a subservient role despite their desire to break free of various societal restrictions. Many authors made a positive emphasis on female characters in these books, but not many actual stories were written by the woman herself. Enticing, untouchable Daisy Buchanan clings to her husband, Tom for elitist and financial comfort when she is in love with Jay Gatsby. Although she seems carefree about her sexuality, Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises is severely emotionally damaged and constantly exploits Jake’s love for her, making it more evident than ever that a woman constantly needs a man to keep her emotionally afloat.

Most writers of the modernist era were male, whereas females weren’t empowered to write and were infrequently published throughout a majority of the twentieth century. There are some notable exceptions, including spiritual advocate Anne Hutchinson and English writer Virginia Woolf, who once said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she wants to write fiction.” Even going back as far as Greek and Medieval times of Sappho and Hildegard, it is clear that the only women who were publishing works were highly respectable societal figures and activists.

It is probable that teachers don’t tend to assign books written by women because until very recently, there was never a push for women to write, and when they did try to pursue writing and wanted to be published, the most effective way to do it was anonymously or under a pseudonym. J.K. Rowling is a prime example. Even in late twentieth and early twenty-first century literature she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith for years before her cover was blown.

In Albemarle County, very little of the 9-12th grade books in the curriculum are written by female authors. The woman’s place in literature has evolved greatly, and continues to evolve, but it is more clear than ever that students need to be assigned the same amount of literature written by females as that of males, thus leading young women to develop strong independent roles in the world of writing.

Outside the realm of high school education, research has proven that to this day males still dominate the world of literature. The UK Telegraph and London Book Review critique approximately 74% of books written by men; the reviews themselves being written by 78% males. The New York Times Book Review shows an even stronger bias, reviewing authors that are 83% male.

Modern literature is an outlet for women’s rights and will continue to be diffused into traditional curriculums. Female novelists have and will continue to provide today’s young readers with a vast array of perspectives different from male writers. The voice of the strong, independent female minority in literature is unique and is a common theme in many coming of age novels; providing examples for not only the young female reader, but the male reader as well, in critiquing the limitations of our society. The rise of the independent female writer in America has allowed for the advancement of the role of women in literature, thus influencing the high school curriculum and minds of students and breaking down barriers between men and women.

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