Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf published one of her famous works, A Room of One’s Own. It is precisely this room that she defines as a crucial step for a woman to become a writer. The room has a double, symbolic meaning – it gives the woman some time for herself and her thoughts but also represents her freedom to possess a property, which wasn’t ( and still isn’t) a reality for women in the past.
In the last century, a lot has changed regarding women’s rights, especially in the Western part of the world, where women who aspire to become writers mostly have their space from which they create new worlds and share them with their loyal readership. However, during my bachelor studies in languages and literature, I have noticed that the books in our curriculum were mostly written by male writers. During my three years at the Faculty of Arts, the total number of books written by female writers on our reading list was five. Shockingly low number for the Faculty attended mostly by female students. The situation is not much better in Serbia where Isidora Sekulić is the only female author for the course of Serbian modern literature.
I have recently read a book dealing with this problem – why do women’s voices in literature remain silent even after acquiring a room of one’s own? The title of the book is How to suppress women’s writing, by Joanna Russ, who uses her sarcastic but pungent tone to enlist 11 ways female authors have been ignored, judged or belittled throughout history. The book is not available in Serbian, but I strongly recommend it to all of you who speak English.
It all starts with formal prohibitions that limited women’s possibility of even getting paper and pen or any other means of writing, up until the informal prohibitions such as socially inflicting the way of life for women that wouldn’t allow her to engage in intellectual activities. If somehow some women do manage to avoid the roles of a good mother, devoted wife and respectable lady, then the next step is to simply deny the fact that a woman wrote a book. For a long time, it was believed that Frankenstein, a book that gave birth to modern science-fiction, was written by Percy Shelley, husband of its real author Mary Shelley, only due to the fact that he wrote a preface for the book and also because the critics from the time couldn’t imagine a woman was able to write such masterpiece.
There are also other mechanisms of patriarchal defense: one can always label women as immoral if they are engaged in artistic activities or regard male experience more important than that of a woman. As Russ herself mentions in her book if a man describes anger, he simply shows revolutionary emotions, whereas a woman is frustrated and hysterical. Falsely categorizing women is yet another mechanism: that is how Marie Curie was known as "laboratory assistant of her husband Pierre", while English poetess Elizabeth Barret Browning was defined as "wife of a famous poet Robert Browning", automatically isolating her work to Sonnets from the Portuguese she wrote to her husband.
Elizabeth is not the only one whose work faced isolation. Many women writers were faced (and still are) with the literary community defining their works as worthy, but isolated and sole successful cases. That is how the only noteworthy novel of Charlotte Brontë became Jane Eyre, Silvia Plath became reduced to her poetry with elements indicating her mental condition, and Amy Lowell limited to her work portraying her as an old spinster.
Some examples of Russ will make you laugh, others will sadden you or awake feelings of powerlessness and anger. And that’s a good thing. The feeling will allow us to question ourselves and the prejudice we had towards literature created by women and show us that we are ready to stop the long tradition of discrimination against women writers. Let the reading of this book on this very 8th of March be your small change that will make the female written word equal to male literature. Happy international women’s day!