Long before Congress designated March as Women’s History Month in 1987, I was a young girl who imagined one day living a life exciting enough to write. My favorite books were about curious girls who broke all the rules.
1964 novel by Louise Fitzhugh “Harriet the Spy” was my favorite. Like Harriet, I kept a journal of comments about my friends and family. Harriet’s attire of jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt was my usual couture; his aspiration to become a writer matched mine. Spotlighting a brash and unconventional heroine, the novel excited not only me but also a school board in Xenia, Ohio, who voted narrowly to keep the book in libraries after it was challenged as dangerous reading. in 1983.
Now an English teacher, I often remind myself and my students that it’s only been about 60 years since women like me have been teaching women’s literature to young women in college. Until recently, only wealthy and privileged women received any kind of education, which then usually consisted of a little reading, accompanied by embroidery, piano and French. Education for women, as for men for most of history, was the preserve of the upper classes and those associated with them.
Prior to the 20th century, women’s lives were domestic, with the exception of working-class women who worked in various ways to put bread on the table. Most women had neither enough education nor enough time to write – and those who dared were told that such behavior was unwomanly.
Women writers of the medieval period were exceptional and almost always wrote as part of religious vocations. While highly educated literary luminaries like Héloïse wrote in Latin in the 12th century, less educated figures like the medieval English mystic Margery Kempe could not write. Determined to share the religious revelations that rocked her life, Kempe sought out a male scribe (a priest) to take the dictation for her. Kempe persisted in her unusual literary activity, just as she had insisted on traveling alone to Palestine, riding in boats and donkeys to see the birthplace of Jesus. Kempe’s autobiography, “Margery Kempe’s book”, is the first written by a woman in English.
Mary Prince is another example of a woman who felt her story was too important not to be recorded. A black woman born into slavery in the West Indies in 1788, Prince told her story to an Englishwoman, Susanna Strickland, who helped publish “The Story of Mary Prince” for the Anti-Slavery Society of London in 1831. The oldest slave narrative written by a woman, Prince’s words attest to the terror and inhumanity of slavery: “How can slaves be happy when they have the halter around their neck and the whip on their back? ”
rooms of their own
Some women have taken up the pen to denounce the fate of women with literary ambitions.
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), lamented in her poetry: “Alas! a woman who tries the pen/Such an intruder on the rights of men,/Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,/The fault can in no virtue be redeemed.
Mary Wollstonecraft, in “A demand for women’s rights” (1792), urged women to educate themselves to become rational and independent. Women weren’t naturally weak and stupid – as she admitted most women of her day. On the contrary, women have been doomed to ignorance by being denied education; men generally preferred them to be devoted wives or playthings.
Charlotte Bronte echoed Wollstonecraft through the reflections of its literary protagonist. In Jane Eyre (1847), Jane insists that “women … need as much exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as their brothers”. (It should be noted that Charlotte Bronte originally wrote under a male pseudonym, Currer Bell, in order to be published.)
Women writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wanted more than “land for their endeavours.”
In “A room of one’s own” (1929), Virginia Woolf argues that women need financial resources and a room of their own to write. She thought of Jane Austen (among others), who wrote her novels while she sat in the family living room. Austen’s nephew wrote that Austen “had no separate study to fix, and most of (his) work must have been done in the general salon, subject to all sorts of occasional interruptions”. Proprietors enjoyed quiet libraries for meditation and writing; the women wrote in the living room, often disrupted by daily household affairs (it might remind some of us of trying to work from home during a pandemic!).
Over the past hundred years, successive waves of feminist movements have helped uncover and dismantle structural inequalities for women of color and lower socioeconomic classes. More women than ever before have access to education and professions. We are in the midst of an explosion of writing by women of different races, classes, ethnicities and gender identities. In addition, contemporary women’s writings address subjects that our literary ancestors would have blushed: the female body.
Poet Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) praises her hips in “Tribute to My Hips”: “those hips/are free hips./they don’t like to be restrained.” Sandra Cisneros also praises women’s hips in her 1984 novel, “The Mango Street House.” Poet Anne Sexton writes about her hysterectomy (“In celebration of my womb”), while essayist Emilie Pine investigates menstruation, sex and menopause in her 2019 collection of essays, “Notes to self.” Novel by Julie Otsuka from 2011 “The Buddha in the Attic” enters the minds of Japanese immigrant brides the night they lose their virginity. Graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel in 2006 “Fun Home: A Family Comedy” represents the body of women in lesbian sex. In his 2018 book “I’m afraid of men” Transgender writer Vivek Shraya completely challenges gender boundaries.
As I write these words, I am grateful for all the plays I have written without interruption, and for the classrooms filled with passionate female writers who will soon change the world with their words – a world in which we will no longer have need Women’s History Month, because every 12 months will resonate with the voices of women and their truths.
Kabi Hartman is a senior English language teacher and director of the academic advising program at Franklin & Marshall College.