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
In my formal studies, I wasn’t exposed to many women writers. As an English major, I almost exclusively studied dead white men: William Shakespeare, Henry James, James Joyce, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway. I even took an entire course dedicated to Mark Twain. Women were conspicuously absent from the canon, which I thought meant that they weren’t writing, weren’t published, or simply didn’t matter. As a graduate student, having had my fill of dead white men, I ventured away from literature into the relatively new, hip, and at the time often maligned field of Rhetoric and Composition. Much to my dismay, I was immediately immersed in the study of yet more dead white men. However, when I was permitted those few credits of electives, I chose to study women—even though the few that were offered were dead white women, including the likes of Virginia Woolf. But it wasn’t until years later, after I had somehow survived countless personal mistakes during what I now refer to as my traumatic teens and twenties, and found myself an isolated, depressed, overworked thirty-something wife and mother, that I began delving into the lives and writings of generations of women I had never been exposed to in all my years of study.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
One semester I was asked to teach a British literature course, and after reviewing the text, which consisted of still more dead white men, I decided to add Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the syllabus, two women who happened to appear in the same anthology. It was then that my anger became palpable. How could I have obtained a graduate degree without being exposed to these women? Why didn’t their voices matter? As I began doing more research, which led to more reading, I found countless women with very similar life stories. In book after book, century after century, I discovered that women have been fighting similar personal battles over and over again. And all I kept asking myself, story after story, was why? Why weren’t their voices heard and shared within and across generations? Why hasn’t each generation of women truly learned the important life lessons put in writing by those who came before us? Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Amy Tan—each woman I studied led me to dozens more. These are the writers I wished I had studied in school. These women and their stories deeply resonated with me. At this point my studies and musings took on a life of their own, as I began to examine my own life as well as the lives and writings of creative women who have addressed themselves as subject throughout history.
As I read each woman’s works and studied each woman’s life, my own life changed. I developed a greater understanding of who I am, and what has made me this way. I realized I am not the first or only woman to live through the painful life experiences I have had, and that knowledge opened a new path for me.
Zora Neale Hurston
Just in time to celebrate Women’s History Month, I am excited to share all I have learned by offering Writing Women’s Lives for the first time online through I Am Subject! I have been teaching this transformative course at the University of Colorado since 2008, and am now offering it here in its entirety (the only thing missing is the requirement to write the academic essays!). You will hear women’s voices, and examine how women’s life experiences—their personal truths—have led to greater societal change. In this course you will be exposed to history, literature, psychology, and feminist theory as you analyze the lives and writings of creative women who have examined themselves as subject since the eighteenth century. You will see how their life experiences shaped their written words, and you will examine the impact their messages had on the society in which these women lived.
Most importantly, this course will offer you a greater understanding of yourself. As you learn more about these women’s lives and read their truths, you will be encouraged to apply those truths to your own life and the lives of women you know. My hope is that my life lessons and the lessons I’ve learned from the women who came before me can provide you with a better understanding of where you have come from. That increased awareness can provide a solid foundation from which you can face the future confidently with your eyes wide open.
I hope you will consider taking this journey with me.
“When I signed up for this class, I never expected to find myself. Many of these authors not only taught me about the strengths and weaknesses of women, they also brought awareness to myself. Identifying with these women has helped me to uncover the mystery behind my relationship with my father, and the strength in my mother. Most importantly, they have inspired me to become an even better, stronger, more independent woman than I was before.” ~class participant
(all images courtesy of wikipedia/wikimedia)