Absent women: why we still need to advocate for women’s voices
Despite all current debates surrounding gender equality, gender stereotyping still abounds in much of our daily life. We only need to turn on a television to see adverts of women shaving hair-free bodies, open a magazine to be confronted with images of idealised women’s bodies, or step into a clothes store bubbling over with sexist slogans - ever tried looking for a girls superhero t-shirt? Sadly, we found one on Amazon, proudly emblazoned ‘Training to be Batman’s wife’.
Men and women are different, we get it. There are distinctions in biology and social/cultural stereotypes are embedded in society highlighting further dissimilarities that may or may not actual exist. One theory about so called differences is about the way in which women and men process emotion.
Countless studies have explored the neural networking occurring in male and female brains when exposed to emotional stimuli, with outcomes often demonstrating that women have a stronger reaction to emotional content. Research published in 2015 by the University of Basel was picked up by newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post, Daily Mail and Washington Post – all of which declared to their large readerships that men and women’s brains really are wired differently.
It would be a travesty to generalise this. After all, scientific studies only work on small ‘representative’ segments of the population (for example, the University of Basel had 3398 test subjects), and only conclude with a hypothesis or ‘best guess’. We all will have known, at some point, a male in our lives who has strong emotional reactions. So it would be ridiculous to assume men are immune to emotional reactions regarding affective content.
What's in a name
This suggested divide between men and women’s inner experience can be harmful. For centuries women were not earnestly accepted as writers or not recognised at all. For example, Anne Bradstreet, an American poet writing in the 1650s, most known for her work ‘The Tenth Muse’ (which was published without her knowledge by her brother in law) was not even credited with a name, the work simply being classed as being ‘written by a gentlewoman of these parts.’
Women have also disguised or made ambiguous their gender identity, in a bid to be taken more seriously in the publishing world. For example, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans); George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin); Vernon Lee (Violet Paget); and James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon). Some female authors have chosen initials rather than first names on their works such as A.S. Byatt, and J.K. Rowling, whose male publisher thought Harry Potter’s target young male audience might be put off reading a book written by a woman.
Gender insecurity even befell Victorian literary giants, The Brontë sisters. Writing in a biographical note prefixed to the 1850 editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte Brontë says:
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names, positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine,' - we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
If you’re reading this, you’re likely to think the playing down of female identity to be an outdated practice. Surely since the Brontë sisters’ era and the publishing of the first Harry Potter in 1997, things have changed. However, as recently as 2011, writer and Nobel Prize winner V.S Naipaul, suggested that the sentimentality of women does not appeal to a male readership and women writers would always remain “unequal” to him. In the arrogance stakes, we think he might have a point.
Unfortunately, the reality is still often the case that female writers are dismissed and considered as ‘unequal’. For example, Sarah Davis-Goff (founder of Tramp Press) described her experience of sexism in a 2015 Irish Times article ‘Throwing the book at sexism in publishing’. In it, she says of a book launch she attended:
“I have just been told by the guy I’m talking to that he doesn’t read female writers. He doesn’t see why he should. Likewise, it took me a while to regroup after my business partner Lisa Coen and I were told that publishing a literary novel written by a woman, with three female protagonists, would be very difficult.”
Such experiences are frequently shared by female writers. Take Catherine Nichols experiment that she wrote about in the 2015 essay for Jezebel called Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel out under a Male Name.
Catherine sent a covering letter and pages of her novel from under her own (female) name and from her own (female) email address to 50 agents – she received just two manuscript requests. She set up a new email address using a male name and sent the exact same covering letter and pages to the exact same agents. She received 17 manuscript requests.
Books by female authors ignored by reviewers
In 2009, a group of volunteers set themselves up to draw attention to gender inequality within book reviews. They called themselves VIDA and began to analyse the gender balance of book reviews. The results speak for themselves. Books by male authors were reviewed 66 percent more often in The New York Times Book Review, three times more often in the London Review of Books and other magazines, such as The Times Literary Supplement, were even worse.
The New Republic Magazine study went one further and looked at the words used to describe books written by male and female authors. In reviewing books by female authors, reviewers were 3-4 times more likely to use words like “husband,” “marriage,” and “mother”, and nearly twice as likely to use words such as “love,” “beauty,” and “sex.” In terms of books written by male authors, reviewers were more likely to use words such as “president,” “leader,” “argument” and “theory.”
Best-selling author Meg Wolitzer, followed this news by stating that women writers are still “subject to segregation and prejudice, ranging from book covers that subtly (or not so subtly) hinder women’s novels from reaching a large audience to a literary environment that generally fails to understand that women’s issues are everyone’s issues.” Meghan Barry looks at this in detail in her article Why Are “Feminist” Book Cover Designs Still So Sexist?, noting that things are changing, yet maybe not fast enough as a growing female readership would like.
“It’s not that women don’t write about politics or men don’t write about feelings and families. It’s just that there is a very strong likelihood that if you open the pages of the Sunday Book Review, you will be jettisoned back into a linguistic world that more nearly resembles our Victorian ancestors.”
(The New Republic Magazine)
The first influencers were books
So why does any of this matter? Let’s for a moment go back to secondary school. Literature remains a popular curriculum subject, yet when the organisation, For Books Sake, asked people about books which influenced them at school there was a strong lack of women authors.
For Book’s Sake now actively champions women’s writing by empowering women and girls of all backgrounds and challenging inequality. They also campaign to increase the number of texts written by women, in the school system, after reports that works by female authors took up less than a third, on a good day, of secondary education space.
On a final note, when researching this article, a number of male writers told us (and we’re paraphrasing), that there was no prejudice within literature, just that if the market was unbalanced it was due to men’s writing being superior. *Sigh*
There is clearly, and sadly, still a lot of work to be done on raising the profile of
women authors, creating excitement around women’s writing and showing that women's voices are worthy.
Photo credits: J.K Rowling ( S.macken6 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International )