Half a Literature

by Jim Farrar (1986)

Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. . . The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.

Jane Austen

In "A Woman's Place" (BBC1) the executive producer was a man, the producer was a man, the cameramen were men, the film editor was a man, the dubbing mixer was a man, the commentary was spoken by a man. . .Oh, God, who is also a man, it makes me tired.

Nancy Banks-Smith, TV review,
Guardian, January 28, 1970

On Saturday mornings I like to get up late and make a pot of coffee, then read, at a leisurely pace, the "Sports" and "Daybreak" sections of The Idaho Statesman. My wife prefers tea and she uses the time to catch up on the previous week's issues of The Christian Science Monitor.

"You know, that's true," she said after she'd opened her paper and had been reading for a few minutes.

I took a sip of coffee and looked up from the sports page. "What's true?" I asked.

"The reason you can't find certain books by women writers is because, when you get right down to it, they really aren't taken as seriously as men. My sister had to dig through every bookstore in Portland just to find copies of Toni Morrison's and Zora Neale Hurston's books."

"That's probably because they're also black," I said half seriously.

Actually, I was more interested in reading about Boise State's new football coach than I was in hearing about how women writers don't get any respect. Sexism is an oft-discussed subject around our house, though my wife, for obvious reasons, feels much stronger about the issue than I do. A professional person caught up in a "good 'ol boy" network, she has to battle it every day.

It was already too late. My wife and I like to share our opinions with each other, sometimes whether the other is interested or not, and I knew I was going to have to listen to her read the article that had provoked her.

It was a book review about two newly published anthologies of Latin American fiction written by women.

Now, let me first say that I collect works by Latin American authors and I enjoy their books as much as I do any English or American author's.

"Look at your own collection," my wife said, "and tell me how many of them were written by women."

She had me there. I didn't even have to look. "Well, one," I said.

"Right. And you told me half the reason you bought it was because you liked Isabelle Allende's eyes."

She wasn't serious, but she'd made her point. I figured my best strategy would be to try to weasel my way out of the conversation. "Well, there really aren't that many women writers in Latin America."

"Not true," she said. And then she ticked off about half a dozen names.

"Let me see that," I said. She gave me the paper and I read the first paragraph. Something clicked; it made me think about the literary anthologies that I was familiar with, and more specifically, anthologies of British Drama. It nudged me toward the conclusion that I'm about to make.

This is how that first paragraph read:

The so-called "boom" of Latin American literature that erupted in the consciousness of North Americans in the second half of the 1960's, and included such authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, excluded female authors. Although many women at that time were writing in Latin America, they remained essentially invisible on the international literary scene. There are many reasons for this invisibility, but one is that very few women authors are included in standard anthologies; another is the limited distribution of books by women authors. In short, women writers are simply not taken as seriously as men writers (Agosin 39).

The emphasis is mine.

This being said, let's cross the Atlantic and go back in time about a hundred and fifty years. It's interesting to note how contemporary Latin American fiction parallels eighteenth century British drama in its general failure to acknowledge the contributions of its female writers. One need only look at any anthology to see this is so. Sixteen out of the eighteen plays that have been read for this course were written by men; in another course that I took last year on contemporary drama the ratio was even worse: only one of the sixteen plays that were studied was written by a woman. I have no documentation on this, but I suspect that there were actually more women writing plays in eighteenth century Britain than can be gleaned from most standard anthologies.

There's an interesting kind of sexism at work here, which is made even more pernicious, I think, because most educators, and certainly most students, have in the past failed to recognize it. There's literature. And then there's "women's literature." It's kind of like a leper colony, a slag-heap for plays that are often described as "lesser works." We'll put the ladies in their own anthology, but we'll study the men in the lit classes, thank you. I don't think it requires much analysis to determine this as much as it does simple observation.

But it's a difficult observation to make, even though its existence is continually staring us in the face. It never occurred to me that there was a disproportionate number of plays written by men on our reading list this semester until I was shown a review of a book anthologizing Latin American women writers. Worse yet, I never stopped to think that women might actually have written plays back in the eighteenth century.

I'm grateful to Fidelis Morgan for compiling the plays in The Female Wits, but in a way it's a shame that such an anthology was necessary in the first place.

So how come these women playwrights aren't taken as seriously as they ought to be, and how come they're not included in standard anthologies? Who's to blame? Society?

I'm afraid that sexism and bigotry will be with us for a very long time to come. Things will undoubtedly get better for women authors, but how much better and how soon is anybody's guess (the American stage, for example, boasts many fine female playwrights, such as Marsha Norman and Beth Henley, and their number is increasing, though it can also be argued that it's only because men who would have otherwise turned to the theater have gone to Hollywood and are now writing for the movies, which at all levels is still dominated by men).

In truth, I think that editors, the people largely responsible for putting together anthologies and who, to a significant degree, shape our literature, ultimately share the guilt, which is what seems so confusing when considering seventeenth and eighteenth century drama in England. Fidelis Morgan says in the preface to The Female Wits that

[i]t is worth noting that, in all of London's theatres during the sixty years from 1920 to 1980 (a time which boasts huge social and political advances for women) fewer plays by women writers have been performed than were played by the two London companies which held the dramatic monopoly from 1660 to 1720 (Morgan xi).

Now this is curious, because it seems to indicate two things. First of all it suggests that, though women have made significant social advances during the twentieth century, somehow their heritage in the theater, as writers, has been lost, or at least its importance has been dismissed. Secondly, and more importantly, I think, it tells us that female playwrights in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were treated with respect by their contemporaries, certainly more so than these very same writers are now.

The evidence seems to bear me out on this. According to Virginia Woolf, Aphra Behn was the first English woman to earn her living by writing, "with all the plebeian virtues of humour, vitality, and courage (Drabble p.82)" And Mary Delariviere Manley succeeded Jonathan Swift as editor of The Examiner (a Tory periodical and frequent critic of Steele and Addison) in 1711. Swift wrote of her, saying that "she has very generous prinicples, for one of her sort; and a great deal of sense and invention (Drabble p.614)" He didn't mention what he meant by "one of her sort."

Similar accounts can be found about other women writers of the era. And though their accolades are many, their plays are very rarely read these days, nor are they performed on a regular basis. They are, in short, passed over, neglected by history simply because they were written by women.

I feel as though this essay has become something of a feminist tract, though that was not my intention when I sat down to write it. My wife always tells people that I am a feminist, which strikes me as being somewhat odd, as being somehow inconsistent with my own self-image. I always think of a feminist as being female.

And I resent the fact that such battle-lines have to be drawn in the first place. I resent even more the jaded thinking, the ignorance and the sexist (or racist, for that matter) attitudes that influence our society's choice of literature, and who and what gets to be included in it. The end result of such tunnel vision is that we create a literature that is, in effect, only half a literature, of which the whole is the loser.

Sources Quoted

Agosin, Marjorie. "Latin America's Modern Women Writers."
Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1986: 39.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion To English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Morgan, Fidelis, ed. The Female Wits. London: Virago Press Ltd., 1981.

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