One of the ways in which feminism has enthusiastically practised sexism is in the denial of the arts of their gender. So that there was a period where it was de rigueur to be contemptuous of knitting, sewing, etc etc etc, arts practised by women, but by definition not art according to men, that gender having defined what art is, and by making it things that aren’t useful, thus having denied the very existence of women as artists. A brilliant move on their part which ‘feminists’ upheld for a long time. I decline to define myself as a feminist, thus escaping the frequently sexist nature of that ism. The logic was that they were denying that there was anything of value in the lives of their downtrodden mothers. Apparently that was a feminist, rather than a sexist, position.
Let’s suppose they have moved on from that fatuous stand. Have they? I hope so!
I’m at a knitting group, talking to a girl whose postgrad work was in the area of the pre-Mothers of the Novel. Before the Novel came into existence and women took it over as one of their artforms, their writing is hard to come by. But it is there. In the sixteenth century educated women in particular wrote letters and one form was particularly poignant. They would write to their children before they went into labour as they were such a good chance to die. Often they would urge their children to accept whatever replacement their husbands made for them, women being domestic labour which needed to be replaced upon its death.
Now women and their babies to be largely survive, but I have noticed on the internet directions to patterns for premature babies (normal baby patterns are too small for them) and patterns for babies that die at birth. How sad is that?
I wonder how many of you who have been so derogatory here of writing that isn't to their taste realise how important women are to the novel. But for reasons which Spender discusses at length men have erased them from the very idea of literature by defining it in a way that excludes female writers and nothing much has changed, I'm surprised to see.
I have gotten involved in attempting to defend writing that isn't considered worthy of giving the time of day to here on goodreads. Dale Spender explains what is going on in an illuminating way.
Quoting my own book which is in my writings should you happen to wish to read more....
If Tompkins’ concern is to question our definition of literature in order to place Franc’s genre in the literary canon, Spender’s is to question our notion of literature in order to place women back into it. It is an eye-opening critique of the literary canon and literary criticism. Like Tompkins, by putting these back into a historical context, she establishes a tradition of female writers whom she judges as ‘good’ dating back to the very beginnings of the novel. It is clear from her work that this form of writing had not fathers, but mothers. Yet since last century these have been expunged from the records. The literary canon has denied their existence and attributed the development of the novel to men. Again it is tempting to quote Spender at length on this matter since it is germane to a consideration of Franc’s genre.
It is a process at work. By making literary criticism transhistorical it has been possible to remove women altogether from literature. By putting it back into history it is not only possible, but essential, to make women an important part of literature. In the 1700s women were the pioneers of the novel. The majority of novels were written by women, it was women who experimented with form and structure. It was the practice for male writers to take female pseudonyms, this practice reversing itself in the mid-nineteenth century.
This is no great surprise when one puts literature back into history and considers the position of women. As Spender puts it:
Of course, one of the reasons that the women novelists were so successful is that their books met the needs of the women readers. Excluded from so many social, politicial and economic activities, often isolated and not infrequently at a loss to know how to lead a meaningful life, many women seized upon women’s novels as an entry to a new dimension of understanding – and living. To represent the woman reader of the late eighteenth century as a bored and listless woman who idled away her time with sentimental novels is to do great disservice to the readers – and the writers. (It is also to reveal how we can be taken in by myths constructed long after the event, and which discredit women.) For so many women, these novels meant access to the world of ideas, to self-analysis and social issues. These novels were women’s intellectual foodstuffs. And women writers not only ‘exploited’ their role as letter writers, when they created the novel; they became the connecting medium for the experience of women.
Ideas, understandings, new realisations and questions spread among women as quickly as the publishers could get them into the hands of women (and men). These ‘women’s novels’ to some extent constituted ‘women’s education’ and were nothing short of subversive in their own context. And it is understandable that this new, exciting literature should have been so often and churlishly condemned by many men. Once the ‘women’s novel’ was so widely available, there is no doubt that women were more difficult to subordinate.
I think this also helps to explain in part why these women novelists have been suppressed.
Given this, it is scarcely a surprise that literature written by women is bound to moralise, judge, comment – not merely to observe, but to attempt to change the course of history. One way or another those without power, those who are not in a privileged position, will not only want to, but need to, do this. It is equally unsurprising that it is men historically who perceive literature as something that watches. There is nothing much for them to want to change.
At the same time, however, it is men who are the judges of literary worth at every step. Spender quotes Woolf on the consequences of this:
When a woman comes to write a novel, she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values – to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important. And, for that, of course, she will be criticised; for the critic of the opposite sex will be genuinely puzzled and surprised by an attempt to alter the current scale of values, and will see in it not merely a difference of view, but a view that is weak or trivial, or sentimental, because it differs from his own.
It is not only how the female writer may wish to look at the world that causes these difficulties. It is also what they look at:
...with the first step of the first professional woman writer into the world of women, we encounter the dilemma that has confronted women writers ever since. If they choose to explore their own experience of the world, if they elect to concentrate on the world as it is viewed by women, they are....by definition producing substandard work. This has nothing to do with the quality of their writing – or the quality of the world they choose to depict – but is a value judgment, pure and simple, about their limited, inferior, and insignificant subject matter.
Because, as so many women have written, the sanctioned business of woman’s life has for so long been to ensure a livelihood by obtaining a man, women have had ‘career’ aspirations and strategies which have relied heavily on the management of human relationships. Of course, this is by no means the only reason that women have been concerned with exploring, understanding and utilising relationship.... But let a woman writer concern herself with ‘relationships’, particularly relationships between the sexes, and she brands herself as the writer of that inferior class of novels – romantic fiction. Immediately her work is classified as outside the bounds of literary consideration.
The term ‘romantic fiction’ is used in much the same way to designate the printed word of women as ‘gossip’ is used to designate the spoken word of women. It is an all-encompassing (and derogatory) term which places women’s words beyond serious consideration. Neither ‘romantic fiction’ nor ‘gossip’ warrant analysis. Their inferior status is based not on an analysis but quite the reverse: such labels preclude analysis.....
There is no equivalent ‘catch-all’ for men’s writing, no male equivalent to romantic fiction (or gossip) which automatically renders certain concerns of men as beneath consideration....it is not that men do not gossip – or portray their sex in postures of gender-excess – but that when they do it, they call it by a different name: they call it something grander and more prestigious.
This double standard is not new. From the advent of the first woman novelist we have a value system which automatically places women’s concerns, and the literature which reflects them, in a subordinate position and generally beneath notice. Women’s lives and experiences are held to be less important and less significant than men’s, and women’s literature which gives them expression can be excluded from the literary tradition by virtue of its association with women, and without regard to its literary merit. This practice persists to the present day where the genre ‘romantic fiction’ is held in considerable contempt, and as this genre has never been the subject of serious or systematic analysis within the literary tradition, the evaluation is not based on the writing.
In part at least, argues Spender, because women, as a consequence of lack of access to it otherwise, needed substance from the novel, it is during this early period of the novel in which women writers dominated, that
...the transition from the more sensational to the more moral and reflective novels [took place]. Under the influence of women readers and women writers, the novel began to assume the dimensions of a commentary on the human condition.
She stresses that these female writers were at the time so successful both in terms of popularity and criticism that it was the male writers who competed with them, rather than vice-versa. Their audience was by no means limited to females. They were not perceived as ‘women writing for women’ even though their concern and perspective was often that of women.
This, again, is scarcely surprising if the human condition, relationships between humans and between humans and the world in which they live, is presumed to be the purpose of literature. The process of the removal of women from the literary canon no matter how they were perceived by their contemporary audience—a process by no means limited to these first women writers—is all the more fascinating to consider. In short what appears to be happening is that their subject matter is the ‘proper’ matter of literature and yet it is seen as something different when women write of it. They are writing of one thing and yet by virtue of nothing more than their gender—a point with which it is difficult to disagree when one reads Spender’s analysis— it becomes something else.