She didn’t write it. (But if it’s clear she did the deed. . .)
She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.)
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!)
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever. . .”)
She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!)
She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own “masculine side.”)
She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help....)
She wrote it BUT. . .
~Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing
My Women Writers course is by far my favorite class to teach. It is also the most challenging. In this course we don’t just read works by women writers. We dig deep in order to recover—and finally hear—women’s voices; we examine how women’s life experiences—their personal truths—have led to greater societal change. What has always interested me, even more than the women’s writing itself, is the story of their lives, not because their lives were incredibly extraordinary–although some of them were—but because I can always recognize so many of their personal struggles in my own life. In this course we take a long and at times painful look at the influence of childhood experiences and relationships, core and situational self-esteem, love/sex relationships, career success, marriage, motherhood, depression, addiction, and—thankfully—humor and the ability to laugh at life’s absurdities.
We search for the answers to difficult questions. Why, after all this time (centuries, in some cases), are women still facing the same struggles? Why are some creative women able to overcome adversity and triumph, personally and professionally, while others, equally talented, falter, stumble, lose their way and give up their dreams? How were those who thrived able to overcome all of the obstacles thrown in their paths, and why haven’t we learned more from them, so that we can apply their lessons learned to our own lives, and then pass our life lessons down to those coming up behind us?
The fall semester is now complete, and together with an incredible group of young women I have finished the journey of Women Writers for what could be the last time. While I certainly grieve that possibility, my heart is also full as I sit and read my students’ reflections. Their words are powerful and empowering, and I would like to share some of their thoughts here:
The most important key to accepting our truths is to forgive ourselves and others. At this moment it seems scary, acknowledging what I have tried to keep hidden for so long. But like all of these brilliant women, the ability to be honest with ourselves is what will not only make us better people, but better women.
You’ve made me realize things about my health I never thought of; you’ve made me question society’s “plan” for me as a woman; you’ve made me consider law school; you’ve made me realize how important it is to talk about taboos, and things that society wishes it could shove under the carpet. You’ve taught me the important lesson of forgiving oneself—something no one else has ever told me. You’ve taught me the importance of being gentle with oneself, and have given me a lifelong project to work on. You’ve made me realize the struggles of other women writers, and have given me hope, knowing I’m not alone in my struggles or my creative ability.
I had completely forgotten about how much I enjoy reading, and over the past 15 weeks I really loved being required to sit down and spend time with the fabulous women we had been discussing in class. In late August I griped about taking a required writing course, but now, in December, with a long reading list for the holiday break, I realize that I have never, in my entire career as a student, learned as much about myself and developed my personal beliefs more than while spending my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the company of some terrific women, discussing the terrific women of years past.
This class has been such a beautiful and eye-opening experience for me. Although a lot of the women that we read shared very sad or uncomfortable stories, learning about their lives showed their strength, and that they could endure and overcome their struggles and setbacks. It is so important that these women have shared their stories. We are all different, but every woman faces hardship in her life. From these strong women we can learn, become stronger, and help each other and ourselves. In the words of Maya Angelou, no matter what happens, “Still I’ll rise.”
When I think back to all of these women that we have read, my heart is filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Each woman was so courageous to share her truth and her experience through her writing. It was a gift that each one gave to the world in her writings because it served as such an inspiration. Their courage gave the gift of courage to someone like me as I struggle to face my own history. I have learned the absolute importance of knowing my truth, accepting my truth, and speaking my truth. I have learned that I do not have to be a victim of my circumstances, that I am not limited due to my past, and that I always have the chance to change the ending of my story if I do not like it, and this is exactly what I have done.
The most important lesson that I have learned from this class is that I must not dwell on the negativity in my past, but focus on the brightness of my future. I know that I will make mistakes along the way, but I will now look at every mistake as an opportunity to learn and become a better woman because of it. My past definitely affects the person I am today, but does not necessarily define the person I was meant to be.
It takes courage to face your own history in the comfort of solitude, let alone with the world watching and judging. And though I may not have experienced much of their pain first hand, I have learned that all moments, no matter how small or grand, are important and worth sharing. In each of us is a living literature, equally whole and honest to our unique self.
Beyond renewing my passion for feminism, through this class I have learned to fully embrace and accept others as well as myself. For the first time I have consciously begun to recognize the people in my life beyond the role they play for me. I am able to accept these people as people. I can acknowledge their individuality and grasp that they may be carrying baggage like the rest of us.
To understand a story, all I need to do is listen.
Yes, for one small block of time, in a very small room on a very large campus, we were all present, and we held space for others’ stories and for our own. What an incredible gift.