RESEARCHING WOMEN’S WRITING: WHEN WILL INTEGRATION HAPPEN?

Last week I gave a lecture in Bilbao within a cycle devoted to publicising women’s work as scientists. My lecture was called “Women Scientists that Tell Stories: New Humanist SF Written by Women” which sounds worse in English than it does in Spanish (“Científicas que narran historias: Nueva ciencia ficción humanista escrita por mujeres”). You can see it on YouTube (https://youtu.be/fZTZqG0lI-k), and I hope you enjoy it!

Then two days later, I gave another talk, this time for the SF Catalan convention, or CatCon 2, on robosexuality as an emerging identity in real life and also about its representation in fiction (with a focus on ‘male’ robots). In the Bilbao lecture I spoke about Vandana Singh, Nieves Delgado and Carme Torras, whereas in the CatCon lecture I spoke again about Delgado and another woman author, Montserrat Segura, but also about a man: Isaac Asimov.

The strategies are, as you can see, quite different: a) publicising women’s work, b) discussing a topic in relation to both women’s and men’s writing. This has set me thinking hard about which of these two strategies is better and I must declare that I cannot solve this riddle: I prefer mixing authors in the discussion of a specific topic but I realise that we still need to make women much more visible. I wonder, however, why it is taking so long and whether we have collectively taken, as feminists, the right path. I’m afraid we have not.

I have been pondering this matter for a long time (you may check, for instance, “Hacia una nueva utopía en los Estudios de Género: El ‘problema’ del feminismo (en la ciencia ficción)”, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/176095) but still feel stuck in the same dilemma. As a feminist woman, I feel that I do women writers a disservice by asking for an end to the separate study of their work. And so, for the same reason, because I’m a feminist woman, I take up all the chances that come my way to explain why women should be better valued and discussed separately to increase their visibility. I do not particularly enjoy discussing feminism and femininity so often but if you’re a woman this is what you’re invited to do. I recently heard SF author Becky Chambers say that she’s happy discussing gender but she’d rather discuss spaceships and I sympathise, particularly because men are hardly ever invited to discuss gender and often monopolize the public discourse on spaceships (if you know what I mean).

Although the feminist approach to studying women’s writing had been used long before, among others by Virginia Woolf, for convenience’s sake I’ll date the academic project of tracing back the presence of female authors in the History of Literature to Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1978). That project is already forty years old, then, with all the controversies it has generated but also with all the colossal tasks so far carried out.

We have now a variety of resources cataloguing practically all the writing women have produced from the dawn of times, perhaps only missing sixth- or seventh-tier authors. The effort to make their works available continues and will continue for decades. Let me suppose, again for convenience’s sake, that it might take forty more years to fulfil the feminist utopia of bringing all neglected women back from the sexist past and into the limelight of a post-patriarchal future. Then what? Do we still continue writing monographs with the words ‘women’ or ‘female’ in the title? Or do we stop and start full integration?

I complained, perhaps too loudly, in the question time following a lecture on 18th century women’s writing that the problem with the separatist strategy is that a) we don’t have titles that refer specifically to men’s writing, b) feminism has failed in its attempt to make the study of women’s writing compulsory for male researchers. We may continue publishing volumes called Women’s Poetry of the 18th Century, for instance, but this is self-defeating, for we don’t have the equivalent Men’s Poetry of the 18th Century. Instead, a book called Poetry of the 18th Century written by a man is likely to be mostly about the male poets, though academic fashion, political correctness and perhaps the work of a female editor might result in the still token presence of a handful of women.

We should rewrite all the textbooks, then, for this is where the foundation for real change lies, and not only in the separatist line of feminist research. I must acknowledge, though, that when integration is fully achieved in an introduction, this produces a funny feeling. Perhaps a specialist in neuro-science should explain this to me but it seems that once you pass the early stage as an undergrad when you learn the basics of the literary canon it is really hard to change your own vision.

Of course, this is enlarged as you learn more names and read more women writers. Yet, if you’re asked about the main authors of a given period, your reply is likely to result in a string of male names. You need to stop and think, ‘oh, yes, and then there were all those women’. The names of Austen, the Brontës, (George) Eliot or Virginia Woolf do come to mind because they have been canonical for a long time. But, it is still easier to recall Anthony Trollope than Fanny Trollope, or Wilkie Collins rather than Margaret Oliphant. See what I mean? This is why, I insist, integration must happen at textbook level. The way I see it, that should be the focus of the feminist project.

Or, perhaps, I have all along misunderstood what academic feminism is about and integration is not at all its end. Yesterday I was interviewed by a fourth-year student of journalism and she told me that many young women involved in the current feminist movement in Spain do use feminism in the radical sense of reinforcing women’s superiority over men. As I explained to her, that is precisely the reason why I tend to call myself these days anti-patriarchal rather than feminist (my feminism aims at achieving equality, not exchanging one type of inequality for another). But I digress. There is then the likelihood that part of the women involved in feminist academia are actively working in favour of gender separatism–and, yes, I’m sounding this silly and naïve on purpose, to make this choice sound the more suspect.

And, then, we have the men in Literary Studies, some truly pro-feminist and anti-patriarchal, some rabidly misogynistic and the rest carefully navigating the waters of, as mentioned, political correctness. One strategy is the one followed by Peter Boxall in a recent lecture I attended and in which he managed not to discuss identity at all, as if that was not necessary. He is one of the researchers constantly producing surveys and introductions which is why I was so aghast at the neutral tone of his lecture (which dealt with men and women writers, that’s a comfort at least).

I simply don’t see men like Boxall, or similar academic male luminaries, facing the issue of how to write specifically about men writers, for they needn’t do that. We, women, being still subordinated in patriarchal society must consider how/why we write but men can still afford the luxury of not looking into their own masculinity and how they’re positioned in relation to patriarchy, and I mean both writers and academics. I feel deeply annoyed right now thinking of this… Women like me, interested in dismantling patriarchy, are the ones, then, writing about male writers as men, which is, if you think about it, quite strange since we lack the experience of being men.

I wish we lived in post-patriarchal, post-gender times and could get over the onerous task of having to take positions that are so hard to defend. Then we could talk about spaceships–though dear Becky Chambers forgets that this is also a heavily-gendered issue. Every time I see a phallic rocket taking off, I wonder what dictates the shape: pure physics or gender issues? In contrast, in Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood, or Xenogenesis Trilogy, the alien Oankali spaceship is an organic, fully sentient being, which often feels as a gigantic womb. You see where I’m going with this…

I cannot write here ‘in conclusion’, for I don’t know that I have reached any conclusion. I’ll continue accepting invitations to discuss feminism and women’s writing, as I work on gender integration as a teacher and a researcher. As a feminist, then, I’ll antagonize both my radical women feminist colleagues and also the recalcitrant patriarchs who think, for whatever reasons, that being a feminist entitles you to receiving constant support from the Government (does it??). I’m already working on a book about men’s writing within the context of patriarchy, so I cannot say that will be my next step. If anyone’s listening, please write inclusive introductions for, I’m fully convinced, that’s the only way to change the way we learn the canon.

And if you’re a woman fully committed to working only on women’s writing and for a female audience, well, I’m happy if you’re happy but do consider how/why male researchers can still afford to ignore your work, and simply not discuss identity in its most basic sense.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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