by Catherine Partin
Does writing have a gender, and if so, how can we account for the historical differences in literary output between men and women? Is there such a thing as masculine or feminine writing? What is the difference, if there is one, and why have women been excluded from this form of cultural production? Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, examines the history of women in literature and attempts to explain how and why women have been largely left out of the canon of Western literature. Woolf argues that women writers are limited not by biological or intellectual capacities, but by societal barriers that have, for centuries, designated women as the second sex and deprived them of the range of liberties and experiences available to their male counterparts. A Room of One’s Own identifies the history of women’s oppression, issues of economic privilege or poverty, and men’s interest in maintaining their cultural and literary authority as the determining forces upon which hinge women’s ability to write. Although Woolf emphasizes the material independence that women have been denied, and upon which rests the intellectual freedom necessary for the production of great literature, as the primary reason for women’s exclusion from cultural production, many societal and psychological obstacles remain, even in the wake of the women’s movement. Women’s writing continues to reflect the lingering effects of misogynistic cultural memes that have deprived women of a feminine literary tradition comparable to the Western canon of literature produced largely by men. The woman writer’s creative identity and ways of expression are formed by her experience in a male-dominated society. Because of the hindrances women have faced, women’s writing is necessarily marked by the challenges with which its authors have been forced to contend, and by patriarchal systems that have historically failed to allow for feminine modes of creation.
As the primary basis of differentiation between the sexes, the biological traits that distinguish male from female have historically been cited as signs of women’s inferiority. The innate fragility attributed to the female sex, based on generalizations about women’s physical strength but extending to morality and intellect as well, has been used as an excuse for benevolent sexism and for the continued subjugation of women. An ideal world, according to Woolf, would be one in which women were permitted the same opportunities as men. “[I]n a hundred years…they will take part in all the exertions and activities that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shop-woman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts when women were the protected sex will have disappeared…” (Woolf 40) The excuse of physical weakness has been used to dictate women’s work and recreation, and to deny women entry to the masculine realms of labor, politics, and education. It has also played a role in preventing women from partaking in the variety of experiences available to men through work, travel, reproductive freedom, and personal autonomy. Woolf notes that the works authored by women such as Colette, Jane Austen, and George Eliot “…were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman” (69). To the detriment of women’s writing, societal disapproval of women’s attempts at those masculine endeavors deemed inappropriately strenuous for the female constitution or intellect has kept women safely ensconced in the domestic sphere, where they would be expected to fulfill a maternal role, to the renunciation of any potential career. After questioning the failure of her generation’s predecessors to provide their daughters with the educational institutions and funds for scholarship, Woolf’s narrator concludes, “[T]o endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children – no human being could stand it”; she later notes that none of the successful female novelists she admires were mothers (22, 65). Yet aside from reproductive realities and the domestic duties associated with motherhood, women’s bodies have always been belittled as inherently flawed. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, describes the ways in which physical features and functions exclusive to the female body are identified not only as variations from, but signs of inferiority to, a norm characterized by masculinity:
“Woman has ovaries, a uterus; there we have the particular circumstances that imprison her in her subjectivity; one often says that she thinks with her glands. In his grandiosity man forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones, and testicles. He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world which he believes that he apprehends objectively, while he considers the woman’s body to be weighed down by everything specific to it: an obstacle, a prison.” (Beauvoir 5)
Where women differ from men, they are considered intrinsically flawed, the perceived shortcomings of the female body projected still further to the mind or immaterial self. Women’s bodies are seen as a barrier between the self and an objective reality that only men can perceive. Beauvoir cites saints and philosophers whose theories were nonetheless tainted by misogyny: “’The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ Aristotle said. ‘We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And Saint Thomas in his turn decreed that woman was an ‘incomplete man’” (Beauvoir 5). Women are measured by male standards and, like the Manx cat of Woolf’s essay, found lacking in some respect that has been taken as the defining characteristic of the species. This absence of masculine traits has been used as justification for women’s categorization as the weaker sex not only physically but intellectually and morally as well, and for their subsequent exclusion from the realm of creative pursuits dominated by men.
Women’s rejection from male educational and artistic institutions has led to the lack of a substantial feminine literary tradition. Woolf argues that the one of the greatest difficulties the early women writers faced, beyond practical and material hardships, was that of being compelled to adapt to forms and literary standards tailored to men’s creative strengths. Describing the style and structure men’s writing took with the development of the novel, Woolf writes, “A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (76). Woolf also speculates that the popularity of the novel as the genre of choice among nineteenth-century women writers was rooted in convenience and practicality rather than authors’ creative inclinations. Women took to novels because they could suffer the frequent interruptions and obligations that divided women’s attentions, they required less concentration to write than poetry, and as the act of writing became possible for women of less privileged classes than ever before, they could easily fetch an income (Woolf 65-67). Despite this increased literary production, the growing body of feminine literature still failed to express women’s creative capacities. Instead, it continued to reflect external restrictions encroaching upon the creative process.
The disparities between women and men in their encounters of the world mean that creativity must be expressed differently between the sexes: women cannot write like men because their experiences are uniquely feminine. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf lauds the novelists Jane Austen and Emily Bronte for refusing to emulate a masculine style of writing and instead finding their own ways of writing about the truth, believing that “literature arises when a human being tries to attend to reality with as much integrity and truthfulness as she can muster, and then tries to communicate that vision to others” (Moi 268). Reality, however, has traditionally been defined by men, who perceive their view of reality as the true and objective one while women must relate to the world subjectively (Beauvoir 5). The argument that gender should be irrelevant forces women writers to renounce their subjectivity and “to masquerade as some kind of generic universal human being, in ways that devalue their actual experiences as embodied human beings in the world,” but to write intentionally as a woman, Woolf believes, presents and even greater risk because it means sacrificing the integrity of the work (Moi 265). Only when women can write as men have written for centuries, unconscious of the hardships and disadvantages unfairly inflicted upon their sex, will women’s writing be recognized for its own merits and not because its authors are female. The fatal flaw that Woolf finds in many novels by women is what she describes as a sense of bitterness and a hint at the desire for self-expression that women have not been permitted to openly articulate. Women’s attempts to defend or compensate for their gender have shaped women’s writing in ways that lead Woolf to declare, “[I]t is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex…It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman” (103). Nelly Richard writes in Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s) that both masculine and feminine forces “…act together in every process of creative subject formation: it is the dominance of one force over the other that polarizes writing” (21). This idea bolsters Woolf’s argument that the essence of creativity itself is not gendered, and echoes her assertion that both masculine and feminine qualities can and should be found at work together in good writing, for, “It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine…” (97). Only the androgynous mind is capable of producing truly great works of literature, unaffected by the societal constraints associated with an author’s identification as masculine or feminine.
The labeling of literature in such binary terms can be useful in a historical context, but as Woolf argues, writers must surpass cultural ideas about gender if they are to write with integrity to their vision; such binary oppositions as male and female “are more than theoretically interesting examples of human cognition, for the processes of defining by negation are sometimes used to justify the political and economic practices of exclusion” (Penticoff, Brodkey 229). Fixating on the sex of women writers only serves to underscore gender divisions still fraught with tension. Unless women are allowed to write unimpeded by and unconscious of their sex, they cannot achieve the creative successes that their male counterparts have been free to attain. Though Woolf occupies herself with questions about women’s writing and its place in literature, her ultimate hope is for a future in which it will be possible to transcend the patriarchal mentality that has imposed such damaging limitations on writers, both masculine and feminine, and their creativity.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde, Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 5-14. Print.
Moi, Toril. “I am not a woman writer.” Feminist Theory 9.3 (2008): 259-271. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Penticoff, Richard, and Linda Brodkey. “Writing About Difference: ‘Hard Cases’ for Cultural Studies.” Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only. Ed. Linda Brodkey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 229. Print.
Richard, Nelly. Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s). USA: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. USA: Harcourt, 2005. Print.