AFTER INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: PROGRAMMING WOMEN WRITERS IN OUR SYLLABI

Once more we have ‘celebrated’ on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and like last year (see my post) I only feel irritation. A main downside of ageing is that one accumulates a memory of past events long enough to understand that although many things change at the speed of light, others seem to take for ever. One of these is achieving gender equality (actually, dismantling patriarchy should be the real target).

What I am specially resenting today is the hypocrisy and the cant: you no longer hear anyone in the media openly declaring that women are inferior and should be discriminated on the basis of our possessing a vagina but it seems to me that the misogynists excluded from public view for reasons of political correctness are doing their best to do their job–you see plenty of them lurking, by the way, in the readers’ comments sections of online newspapers or behind the masks of the many trolls aggressively policing women in the social networks. Even in courts of justice and I do not mean male judges. At a time when Spain already has more female than male judges, which should call for celebration, we have female judges harassing abuse victims with questions that come straight of pure sexism. I am simply appalled that the question ‘did you try hard enough to close your legs?’ addressed to a rape victim has been heard on a Spanish court and from a woman’s lips in 2016.

I’ll try to avoid the rant that I published here one year ago and strike a more positive note. I’ll start by recommending 25 excellent science-fiction short stories by women that I have chosen for my elective course. This is part of a project to produce with my students a guide to reading short stories (which will also include 25 tales by men). Here they are (enjoy!); all authors are US-born, unless specified:

Bear, Elizabeth. “Tideline” (2007).
Brackett, Leigh. “No Man’s Land in Space” (1941).
Cadigan, Pat. “Is There Life After Rehab?” (2005).
Cherry, C.J. “Cassandra” (1978).
Due, Tananarive. “Patient Zero” (2010).
Ermshwiller, Carol. “Creature” (2002).
Fowler, Karen Joy. “Standing Room Only” (1997).
Goldstein, Lisa. “The Narcissus Plague” (1995).
Goonan, Kathleen Ann. “A Short History of the Twentieth Century” (2014).
Griffith, Nicola. “It Takes Two” (2010). British author (naturalized US citizen)
Gunn, Eileen. “Coming to Terms” (2004).
Hoffman, Nina Kiriki. “Futures in the Memory Market” (2010).
Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Easthound” (2013). Canadian author.
Johnson, Kij. “26 Monkeys also the Abyss” (2008).
Jones, Gwyneth. “The Tomb Wife” (2008). British author.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Evil Robot Monkey” (2012).
Kress, Nancy. “Out of all them Bright Stars” (1985).
Lee, Yoon Ha. “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” (2011).
McCaffrey, Anne. “The Ship Who Sang” (1961)
Moore, C.L. “Shambleau” (1948).
Norton, André. “All Cats Are Grey” (1953).
Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed” (1972).
Tiptree jr., James. “The Women the Men Don’t See” (1972).
Wilhelm, Kate. “Mrs. Bagley Goes to Mars” (1978).
Willis, Connie. “Daisy in the Sun” (1982).

Next, I’ll refer to my title. An implicit rule in my Department is that syllabi must be balanced and contain an equal representation of men and women. This is not always easy to accomplish, not because women have not produced excellent work but because much of that work is not as canonical as that of men. I have been reading with my class a very good piece by Adam Roberts (in The Science Fiction Handbook edited by Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis) on how canons are formed. In it he explains that Dale Spender changed back in 1986 the conditions for the upkeep of the canon for the English novel by claiming with her book Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Novelists Before Jane Austen not only that at least 100 women novelists had been so far ignored but that they were good. The 18th century canon has, therefore, expanded to include many more women and it is quite possible to teach a course including a mixed selection of men and women. Whoever does this is, in practice, altering the old-fashioned canon for good if only for the benefit of a handful of students. Roberts presents the gender-inclusive transformation of the canon as a solid, generally accepted process and simply dismisses as ‘not-the-done-thing’ all-male reading lists in any university course. (He should have visited my Department last semester…).

The real challenge, however, does not lie just in finding a new balance in our classroom for the canon of the past but applying new strategies to the formation of the canon of the future. And this is done mainly in contemporary fiction courses.

This is why I want to praise here what a colleague in my Department has done for, precisely, our course on current British fiction. This teacher has selected six novels by six women novelists: Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely beside Ourselves (2013), Poppy Adams’ The Behaviour of Moths (2008), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine (2010), Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (2014), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007). The course objectives are, as described in the official syllabus, “to come to a fuller understanding of particular aspects of post-modern Britain (…) attempting to comprehend those concerns and leitmotifs that may be generally applicable in these novels to the culture as a whole, with the aim of attaining a closer conception of the cultural parameters currently at work in contemporary British society.” Now, here is the best thing: my colleague is a man, David Owen.

And, yes, I’m extra happy that the course objectives do not refer at all to gender for this means that for David the writers chosen are, above all, high-quality writers and not principally women writers. When David confirmed this approach to me I joked whether the problem is that male British novelists are not up to the task of producing good fiction and he said that certainly the diverse new currents started back in the 1980s by Martin Amis and company have run their courses and now, I paraphrase, the novelists offering the more interesting proposals are women.

If one of my women colleagues had produced a similar syllabus I’m sure this would have been read as yet another feminist attempt as displacing the men, mere ‘women’s literature for women’. The idea of a woman teaching a reading list composed only of women writers faces inevitably this problem. This is why we need the men as allies, for with this list David is sending students the message that a) men do read and enjoy fiction written by women, b) men can certainly value women’s work above the fiction men are currently writing and c) it is about time that the inclusion of women writers in any syllabus stops being an act of feminist defiance to become the most habitual thing in the world… So, please, let’s have more men teaching work written by women because they are good writers.

I asked nonetheless one of my women colleagues whether David’s list is not a bit too much, an excessive reversal of the too often habitual exclusion of women. This colleague told that me she personally prefers mixing her writers (remember I am not mentioning other identities markers like race, ethnicity, etc) but she welcomed the idea of teaching only women. After all, she said, we have had only-men Literature courses for too long. And been told, besides, that the only principle of selection was their high quality, not, as it was always the case, their gender.

I am also particularly happy that there is no international writing women’s day, for this means that women writers have no specific grievances to vent regarding their profession (or am I wrong and women writers are also paid less for their work than their male peers?). I am myself privileged in relation to most women in my country, the sixth one in Europe in the black list of nations where women are exploited for basic gender reasons (women are paid 20% less here than their male peers). This does not mean I forget the simple fact that women are still woefully under-represented in the ranks of the Spanish full professors (15% to 53% of female students).

I’ll end as I started by wondering in irritation who International Women’s Day addresses. The media were full yesterday of items celebrating women’s achievements but also of many reports on the appalling conditions which women endure all over the world. We women already know about all these achievements and horrors and, seemingly, so do the anti-patriarchal men. The others, the patriarchal bastards that keep us tied to their sexism and misogyny were, I’m sure, mocking all the protests while enjoying the snug positions of power they occupy.

The European Commissioner responsible for gender equality, Vera Jurova, has declared that the European Union might reach equality in rights for all persons in 70 years. Two more generations?? I should say we have a serious problem if this is the best the EU can offer… Now think of the rest of the world. (And include more women in your Literature syllabi!!)

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4 thoughts on “AFTER INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: PROGRAMMING WOMEN WRITERS IN OUR SYLLABI

  1. I enjoyed this post, and I must add that I am taking David’s course. I think it was quite a surprise for us students when he said that all the authors were women. We didn’t even realise about that before he told us. He didn’t treat this as an extraordinary fact, and neither did us. In that aspect, I must say that it was a very nice moment, because David and we students regarded it as normal and not as a forced attempt on his part. We are focusing on the concept of identity in his course, and all the novels treat it from a different approach. I don’t like to think that there can be misogynists in class, but as far as the course has arrived, the discussions in class do not focus at all on the gender of the author or the protagonists (all women, at least in the two novels we have analyzed). I’m looking forward to work on the rest of the novels.

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