Women in Literature

Last month was Women’s History Month. I am a woman, so I wanted to give some thought to the status of women in literature. And their struggles.

In the past, a female author faced serious obstacles. Women’s rights were practically non-existent in the 18th-19th century, the time of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. A woman belonged to her husband, and so did her property or inheritance, as well as their children.

Back then, it was generally frowned upon that women wrote books. Jane Austen published anonymously, under the name “A Lady.” The Brontë Sisters—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—wrote under their masculine pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Charlotte Brontë explained this as follows:

“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice…” (from Wikipedia)

Taking a male pen name was not unusual. Mary Anne Evans published under George Elliot, because she wanted to be taken seriously. George Sand, was in fact Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Louisa May Alcott from Little Women wrote under A. M. Barnard.

Times do change, albeit slowly. Women voting rights here in the U.S were only granted in 1920. And what about that gender pay gap…?

There are still plenty of places around the world where women’s voices are repressed and should be heard. At least, here in the western world, the situation for women has improved over time. Nonetheless, when taking a closer look at how women authors here are appreciated, we are still not equal to men.

For instance, when it comes to big awards, women are lagging—for some awards more than others. The Pulitzer prize in Fiction was awarded to six women in the last twenty years. The Nobel Prize in Literature in the same time frame yields the same number. That’s only 30%. More interestingly even, as Nicola Griffith pointed out, of the women who won the Pulitzer Prize from 2000-2014, three had written a book from a predominantly male character’s perspective. As did the male writers who won the Pulitzer in the same period. And none of the books had a predominantly female perspective.

J.K. Rowling was told by her publisher to use her initials instead of her name, because it would do better with the boys, since Harry Potter is—well—a boy. It would be interesting to see if the Harry Potter series did less well with girls; I for one doubt it.

In 2015, Catherine Nichols, an American author, sent out six queries for her new novel under a male name; the result was five answers within 24 hours: three requests for the manuscript and two rejections. The previous fifty queries she had sent out under her real name, had received only two requests for the manuscript. She increased her queries under the male name to fifty, and the manuscript was requested seventeen times. Now, this may not be a completely valid scientific experiment, since she probably sent her queries to different agents, but taken together with the above, it’s not exactly encouraging either. Her male counterpart was received better, even though the book was the same.

I wonder though, if all this has less to do with the quality of writing or more with the persistent, though silent, perception within our culture—still—that men write better. Or for that matter, that a book written from a male perspective sells better—to both men and women. I caught myself in the library the other day, picking out books for my kids, actually debating whether the book I was holding would be too girly for my son, the main character in the book being a girl. But, and this is the crux, would I have asked myself that question if I’d picked out a book for my daughter and the main character was a boy? I doubt it. Now, I try to raise my children without gender bias, so why would I make that distinction?

Maybe it would be good for men to immerse themselves more in the female world, and read books from a female perspective. We, as women, seem to have no problem with reading books from theirs.

Next time I go to the library, I’ll keep that one in mind.

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