Sexist Spotlight: Women and Literature


It is a fact not always universally acknowledged that women have been historically silenced in all spheres of our society. Excluded from public life, women of Victorian Britain (and prior) were forbidden from education, law, politics, work and even social activities such as drinking. It was a man's world in which women lived secondary to men; a society where marriage served as a fundamental patriarchal institution; when women in the eyes of law simply did not exist.

To have a voice in society is something many people take for granted. To have credibility is something still relatively new for women, although it remains a contentious issue even today. What do we think of women who have something to say? For many feminists today, having a voice on behalf of a movement striving for equality can be met with rape threats, misogyny and many other vicious attempts to silence.

If this is how our voices are met now, what was it like back then? How did women elevate their rising frustrations and desire for equality?

Through literature, is how!

Often under the guise of a pseudonym and at risk of enduring severe societal consequences, many women wrote what would be groundbreaking literature as a way of examining their society and life. The Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell are just a couple of Victorian examples of women whose literature has left an indomitable legacy. Predecessed by the likes of Jane Austen and followed by the likes of Virginia Woolf, some of the world's most notable literature has been the work of women. These women elevated strong, intelligent female characters and allowed them to be the forefront of their lives all the while making a shrewd living from such unlikely literary endeavours themselves. Literature produced throughout the centuries has been integral to shifting cultural perspectives and examining the ever present oppressive systems of sex, class and race in action. Never has activism been more prominent, resourceful and subversive than that of those women writing literature.

Historically, it is true that a male-female example of equal success cannot always be matched in a general sense (although there are certainly exceptions). For example, most inventors were indeed men. This is to be expected considering the educational, political and social exclusion of women from the public spheres of society.

But what of literary women? Whose opportunity, or lackof, in the form of education, privilege or otherwise led them to prevail? Is it because Charlotte Bronte masked her name as Currer Bell that her second publication Jane Eyre hailed such unprecedented success? This success itself is a testament to the intellectual equality of men and women which has long been undermined. Fast forward one hundred years and this attitude to downplay feminine power has led the likes of authors such as Joanne Rowling to initialise her name to appeal to a wider reader audience for her fantastical and supernaturally popular Harry Potter series.

From Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to Margaret Atwood, we now have access to an international literary catalogue which continues to examine women living in this world and others. And yet the literary world remains deeply sexist with the advent and denouncement of 'chick lit', the domination of literary prizes awarded to men and ever present view that male-perspective books are read by all, while female-perspective books are only read by women. Let us remember history - the literary women whose name may have been anonymous or true - whose novels have been loved and touched so many throughout the centuries. Women of literature, then and now, should be celebrated for their adacious voices which have catapulted the female experience - and ultimately the human one - to new heights for all to see.


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