It is difficult, to be a woman and to write.
This is something we have been told for years. Really, it is two somethings. 1) It is difficult to be a woman, and 2) it is difficult to write. Both of these, I would suggest, have equal claims to truth. But the problem is in not realizing that a great deal of other things in this world are also difficult. It is difficult to fly an aeroplane. It is difficult to perform surgery. Perhaps it is even difficult to be a man. I would not know; I have never been one. Neither have I flown an aeroplane or performed a surgery.
Perhaps it is not that we forget that these things are difficult. Perhaps it is that they are so difficult we have not achieved them. We are left writing about the difficulties of womanhood and authorship because they are the most grievous difficulties we have yet to experience.
I should be clear now that I am not Virginia Woolf. I am not Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. But these women are as much in my blood and brains sometimes as I am, and whether I want them to be there or not, and whether or not it is a good thing.
I should also be clear with this ‘we’. I am not addressing myself to some imaginary lecture hall at a prestigious women’s college (I am not even sure that there is such thing as a prestigious women’s college any more, if there ever was). I am not addressing an audience composed only of those who identify with the same sex or gender as myself, although as the opening sentence must make clear, I am a woman and I am a writer. By ‘we’, I suppose I address others who have felt at one point or another like myself, alternately indebted to and fettered by a wealth of textual history on the subject of my life, and alternately incapable or unwilling to detach myself from it.
The collective ‘you’ of my audience may be unclear, but only to the extent to which the ‘I’ is similarly uncertain. Who am I? That is a question that I, having grown up with myself for the past twenty years and seven months, cannot answer. I have been there through all of my self-formation but I am not certain of the product. Perhaps ‘I’ depend upon ‘you’ just as much as you depend upon me. Perhaps as a woman, and as a writer, and perhaps even as a woman writer, it is only by writing about women and thinking as a woman about writing that I can discover anything even asymptotically approaching my identity or yours.
As a woman, and as a writer, I feel slightly more qualified than most to adopt such shifting and inaccurate barriers. My father, proud possessor of a Bachelor’s Degree in the esteemed art of Rhetoric, would tell me that this essay is off to a poor start because it fails to define its audience. If he read it not knowing it to be mine, he would speak of the ‘implied author’ and the ‘implied audience’, the speaker always referred to as ‘he’ unless explicitly gendered female, and ‘you’ called ‘the reader’ (not even ‘the readers’ though I would hope for more than one of you), never addressed in a more personal form. This is a problem. The language of literary criticism and rhetorical thought has been invented by men, and although they were writers, they were not writers in the sense that I proclaim ‘I am a writer’: they wrote not primarily of people, but of ideas.
I say again, as a woman and as a writer, I feel I have some claim to inaccuracy. As a woman, and as a writer, boundaries between people seem more fluid and shifting to me than they might to most. Women, we are told, are different from men in that they experience even selfhood and individuality primarily through connections to and associations with others. They (I should perhaps say ‘we’ but would hate to offend a male reader—see, Daddy, I did learn something from your talk of audiences after all) create identity through relationship. We all begin life inside the body of another—crucially, inside the body of a woman—but men, we are told, must develop identity against this figure of the mother, must deny the nine months spent in her womb if they are ever to be men, whereas for women, there is nothing more natural or more right than this primal sense of connectedness, not just to their mothers and their children, but to everyone, who have, after all, shared the same experience of being one part of a larger living whole.
Writers, I would argue—at least the kind of writers I mean when I say ‘writers’—have a similar experience. Male or female, they do not forget the mother’s womb. They may ignore her in their writings, but it is a loud and intentional ignorance. For writers, the tension between individuals has at its root the remembrance of this previous state, in which coexistence was not only possible, but was all, in which sympathy belongs as an attribute of the tabula rasa rather than as a characteristic that must later be learned.
I suppose it would be foolish to speak for people other than myself (I have done foolish things before, though, so I do not see how this should be any different), but as far as my own experience is concerned, the best of writing is about empathy and connection. The impulse to write is at its root an impulse against entropy, an attempt to order the chaos and allay the coming of the inevitable night. Naturally, the result is a literature that values human connectedness—that believes that such connections are possible, and worthwhile, and good. Another sort of literature exists, I know, but I have never seen utility in it. I go to books for things that the world as experienced through my senses cannot teach me. I have the raw data, but perhaps I go to books for the synthesis. To write, to compose—to draw together disparate elements into a whole—to re-member the singular body of a dispersed humanity—the goals are (perhaps naively) similar.
But this is not what I meant to write about: at least, not quite. I meant to write about why, to me, it seems quite difficult to be a woman and to write. At first the explanation seems simple, even to me: To write is assert the self. To be a woman is to find a way to be ‘self’ and not ‘other’. Here, the struggle begins.
Or does it? I take a step back and examine the pleasing simplicity of the statements I have made, and find them at fault—or if not at fault, then at least representative of the very fault they define. My very idea of woman as ‘other’ has been defined as much by literature on the subject as it has by my own experience. If I had never read a single book—or if I had never read a book after the age of eleven or twelve, post-puberty—it is possible that I should never have seen the kind of prejudice to which my sex is admittedly condemned.
I never disliked being a girl. I disliked the common tropes of girlhood at times—the pink, the frills, the make-up and the fragility—but this was more a dislike for uniformity than a dislike for femininity. I didn’t want to be ‘like everyone else’; I wanted to be different; and if different meant wearing dresses with tennis shoes and playing soccer with the boys for a while, than that is what it meant.
I do not think I encountered that bogey known as ‘feminism’ until the ninth grade, when my first high school English teacher, herself of a decidedly feminist bent, introduced me to a reading list that revolved subtly but surely around the ills of being woman. And still, this is something easier for me to realise in retrospect, after having been inscribed by my culture to expect certain things of that label, than it was for me then. Everyone at the school spoke of how she was such a ‘feminist’, though, and I suppose I believed them, though I was a little saddened by the idea that being a feminist involved so much anger. It was then that I began to wonder if you could be a woman and not be angry. Until then, I had always thought that you could.
Perhaps if I had never entered a writers’ workshop, also, I would be able to write as a woman without finding it difficult. When I wrote only for myself, I wrote as I wrote, whether it was as a woman wrote or not. I didn’t worry about my audience. It seemed strange to me that J. K. Rowling should have to use her initials instead of her first name out of fear that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman. I wondered why someone with a first name as lovely as ‘Joanne’ would hide it with a simple ‘J’. It seemed just as easy to adopt a male perspective as it was to inhabit the female. I wrote men, when I was younger, and still they seem real to me in a way that the men I have written since then do not. Perhaps because I was once told that I could not—perhaps even that I should not, for certainly men did not go about bothering to plumb the inner depths of women (at least not with any success)—and that has lived in my mind ever since. Perhaps this is why I do not write leading men anymore, when I can help it.
I cannot, of course, leave off writing men entirely, just as I cannot leave off reading them. It is strange, to be a woman and a student of English literature. Every day I am impressed by the opinion that there are two different histories of this literature existing side by side without ever seeming to touch. To one belong Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth; to another, Austen and the Brontës and Woolf. I cannot help it that Paradise Lost moves me to awe, that Twelfth Night and Hamlet are my favourite plays. But neither can I help the realization that a semester composed of Milton and the Romantic poets, though it says much to who I am, says little about who I am. To understand myself in relation to the world, I must supplement my reading; I must have Persuasion, I must have Jane Eyre, and most recently, I must have A Room of One’s Own.
Incidentally, I do have a room of my own this year. For the first time in my life, I live as an autonomous member of a social grouping to whom I am in no particular way beholden, and although a knock might come at my door, if I choose I can ignore it, and lock the portal shut. And yet, I find that I do none of my best writing there. To write, I must be out in the world, in a library or a cafe, in some kind of social space where I am surrounded by people even if they are strangers.
But back to the subject of men, and women who write about them. To write is to assert power—we have touched upon this already—to assert the great ‘I am’ in the face of the universe’s ultimate ‘thou shalt not persist’—and to write a man, if one is a woman, means something. Doesn’t it?
Perhaps it is simply that to be a woman, and to write, means something. I have yet to meet a male writer as concerned with the impact of his sex and upbringing upon his writing as I am preoccupied with the impact of mine. A man can write what he chooses: the field is there, ploughed for him by previous generations. A woman does not have the same advantage. The field is smaller, rougher, the soil not as rich. But God help the woman who ventures across the fence and attempts to impinge upon male territory! Better to have stayed on her side and fought tooth and nail for the little she can produce on her own than to be accused of dependence upon a heritage that fundamentally does not claim her as its descendent.
And none of this is right, either—the metaphor is wrong—there are not two fields, there is one field, and we work side by side; the great female writers learned all their tricks from men at first; the great genius of Austen is in adapting what men had done to what women might learn to do, not in doing something that never existed before. We none of us create out of nothing (although we are still somehow so convinced that God is a man).
I would not be writing this here and now, in a university library, to whose collections I have full access, were it not for the small volume of A Room of One’s Own (borrowed without hassle from this same library) sitting completed inside my purse. I have not been created out of nothing. I was allowed to continue reading after puberty, and this has been my blessing and my curse; I have seen what men and women have to say on both the subject of being a woman, and of writing, and I am no longer certain if I can create any idea of my own. I am left scraping together the sentences of others that appeal to me the most, and hoping that my agency in collecting these fragments is enough to assert myself as author.
I was not angry before Jane Eyre. I could not write this without A Room of One’s Own. But neither do I feel comfortable calling myself a ‘feminist’. The term immediately alienates all men (who seem to have an irrational anger against their not being allowed to be ‘masculinists’) and two-thirds of the female population: both those who think that I am too radical in my tastes and assertions, and those who think I have not gone far enough.
To the men, I have the least to say. They cannot understand my experiences, nor can I understand theirs, in the way that I would wish to. Writing is the thing that is most likely to bring us together, what with its draw toward unity and sympathy, but even writing cannot accomplish everything, and to put such a burden upon literature would be to see it falter and shake under the strain. So for men I will simply say that I will read any two works of literature by any male authors that you like, if you will in turn agree to read Jane Eyre and A Room of One’s Own, and then talk with me about them afterwards. I will drop my defensiveness if you will drop yours.
To the women, I have more to say, but more reticence to say it. There is always the desire to shy away from criticism levelled at one’s own sex. If we are the ‘other’ at least we are all ‘others’ together, and the true battle, we are led to believe, ought to be against the ‘selves’ of this world who have kept us down. It is not our place to divide and fight each other. To this criticism I say only that I do not intend to fight. I only intend to speak—something I think we can all agree upon as perhaps more dangerous, but ultimately more necessary. So I will speak: but since I am a woman, and a writer, it seems necessary that I enlist the aid of another woman and writer.
When I try to explain what I mean if I say ‘I am a feminist’ I turn most frequently to Jane Eyre, which I read for the first time when I was on the edge of being able to call myself a woman. Before, the term had seemed to imply a kind of grown-up-ness that I was certain I did not possess; but after hearing Jane at eighteen, not so distantly removed from myself at seventeen, assert her sex in a way I had not known possible, I found myself more and more capable of saying, ‘I am a woman’, and believing it. For me, the fiction that is womanhood is intricately connected to the fiction that is Jane Eyre. At times Jane owns nothing but her own ‘I’—but what else do women ever possess? For women, the first person is revolutionary. In this light, even ‘Reader, I married him’ becomes radical.
Feminists like my first high school English teacher might take offense at this reading. The woman of their generation, they would tell me, fought so that the women of my generation would not have to define themselves in terms of men, so that our stories would not have to end with marriage, our adventures confined to the short time we spend in this world unattached to men. They would talk of how my reading of Jane Eyre leaves out Bertha Mason, the ultimate ‘other’, and sanctifies her mistreatment at the hands of the masculine establishment. They would tell me Charlotte Brontë was no feminist, just another angry woman searching desperately for a happy ending in a world in which the only happy ending for a woman is to be unfettered by emotional attachment and dependence upon others.
Women of other generations, my own included, who have never spoken to me, but whose voices I hear in whispered asides, whose opinions I feel in sideways glances, and whose opinion I know exists, although I have taken great pains to keep from hearing it voiced, lest I should condemn my entire sex forever, have conceivably had an opposite reaction. For them, the suggestion of Jane’s outspokenness becomes something like a mutiny. Bertha is a figure who deserves to die, condemned by suggestions of transgressive sexuality and cultural otherness. There is nothing wrong with Jane’s happy ending. They do not think it an injustice for Jane Eyre to become Jane Rochester and therefore give up half of herself. Besides, that was the past, they say, and things have changed. That is the worst part of it: the idea that the past does not inform the present, that Austen and Brontë and Woolf merely wrote stories for their times instead of for all times. To say such a thing of Shakespeare would be considered insulting; but in regards to female writing, it goes dangerously without saying that women need to be read in terms of their cultural context (a context not so surprisingly composed by men).
I stand in the middle of all of these voices, hear them echoing around me, and wonder what is left for me to call my own. I cannot write a romance without feeling the weight of generations of women saying, ‘We spent our lives writing through romances so that you, our daughter, could pick a new form that would once and for all prove us on par with men—that would provide the justification we have always yearned for—that we are not Other’. I cannot write of ‘the reader’ or ‘the speaker’ without wanting to say ‘her’ instead of ‘his’, just once, just to trip someone up. I cannot think of becoming a university professor without wondering if the men in my courses will respect me as I deserve; I cannot help thinking that even if I gain this respect, it will be because I am very good, and that many women as good as the men who become my colleagues will be denied this same respect because of their gender. I cannot love Milton without feeling an apprehension at the fact that Paradise Lost is largely a world of men without women.
But I cannot say that I will spend the rest of my career reading primarily female authors, engaging with female concerns, and analysing with an unintentionally but decidedly female (if not feminist) bent, without feeling like half a person, someone incomplete. I cannot spend my life thinking that the world is about women versus men. It would be too easy, I think, on some days, to do just that. But I can also never do what is easy.
Forgive me, feminists, for the following clause, but I want to fall in love. I understand the love that exists between women—the friendship that nothing can touch—but I want to love men as well as women. I want to be married, and to be happy, although I do not necessarily consider one as a prerequisite for the other. Nonetheless, I want commitment. I want my own triumphant declaration: ‘Reader, I married him’.
Ultimately, I do not want to be alone. I would be a poor writer if I were. Love is a symptom of being in the world, I think; and as I cannot write without being in the world, so I cannot write without loving.
I cannot write without the voices of those I have read, men and women alike, clamouring to be reborn through my voice. I cannot be a woman writer without a deep knowledge of what my sex has written before, and what our writing has the power to become—I cannot suppress the reality of past injustice—but I can write a future in which my daughters, both biological and intellectual, will have more freedom, and will not feel as though they are being subversive when they assert the truth that ‘women feel as men do’. I can write a future in which my sons, without receiving any scorn from their sex, can assert the same.
A new feminism is starting, at least in me. I learned this when I tried to read The Madwoman in the Attic and had to put it down, lest I allow the views of others to tarnish the male authors I love and slant the writings of female authors to new purpose. I mentioned this to my seminar tutor, and her response seems like the wisest thing I have ever heard on this subject: ‘Things were worse then, and they had cause to be angry. Things are better now because of it. I don’t know if they meant to do this, but it feels as though they took that anger upon themselves so that their daughters wouldn’t have to.’
It is difficult to be a woman, and to write. But it is becoming easier, and the more I do it—and the more people do it with me—the easier it becomes. I am a woman. I do write. And in these things, though I may be different, I am not alone.