Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 11/28/2011

Reading Women Writers

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: just trust me, she was a badass

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: just trust me, she was a 17th century badass

Like many other college freshmen across the country, I enrolled in a prerequisite, required English class for my first semester of school. Unlike most other college freshmen, though, I wasn’t stuck reading the immortal words of old, dead White dudes. Instead, I enrolled in a course called “Women and Culture” which was, predictably, all about female writers and female-centric works.

Yeah, I know – a feminist blogger at a women’s college enrolled in “Women and Culture.” I am a walking, talking feminist stereotype. But in actuality, my thought process behind choosing that course over courses that focused on the literature of South America or the Mediterranean (my other choices) wasn’t exactly rooted in my feminist identity (at least not at face value). It was more that when I really thought about the English courses I’d taken in high school, I realized that I’d barely read the work of any female authors. I read Mrs. Dalloway in my AP Lit course and a few short stories and/or poems by women over the years as part of a larger unit, but that was pretty much it. I realized that my education had mostly been founded on the words and ideas of men. I figured it was about time that I did something about that.

And I’m really glad I did. Thanks to this course, I was introduced to an impressive list of women, most of whom I had never even heard of before, some dating back as long ago as China’s Tang Dynasty and Japan’s Heian period. I read the beautiful poems of Sor Juana and the Lais of Marie de France. I read the plays of Aphra Behn and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The list goes on. As my professor described the experience of first reading these women, every time I finished one of these works I had to ask: “Where have you been all of my life?”

But interestingly enough, along with the joy that came with reading the works of women – and not just women, but women who broke some incredible barriers by writing hundreds of years ago – came frustration. These women wrote of the type of sexism and double standards that, though they’re clearly not as bad today, are still very much present. That was the central paradox of reading these women writers: it was both astounding and inspiring that their work was still so relevant, but in some ways that relevance was beyond upsetting.

Despite this, though, I highly recommend that everybody read the works of these women and/or other women writers. I always thought that I was just the kind of person who didn’t get non-contemporary literature, that I just couldn’t connect to it on a deeper level. It turned out that that wasn’t true – it’s just that I couldn’t relate to the authors I had been reading. I mean, sure, there are some people who venerate Milton and Charles Dickens and the like. And that’s cool. But if it’s okay with everybody I’m going to go ahead and start an unofficial fan club for Sor Juana, Aphra Behn and all the women who came before and after them. And you’re more than welcome to join me.

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  • Johannah @ at 11:27 pm, December 1st, 2011

    I know exactly what you mean. I just took a British Lit course and we pretty much skipped over every female author. My final paper was on the evolution of feminism as seen through lit and I had to cite men’s attitudes about women (especially Chaucer) or seek out readings from the time periods that the class just didn’t cover. I love literature, no matter who wrote it, but a little less outright skipping the women, please!

    On a side note, since you seem to be interested in women and the Middle East, have you read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi? If you haven’t, it’s incredible.

    Happy Holidays!

  • Global Feminist Link Love: November 28 – December 4 @ at 1:03 pm, December 5th, 2011

    [...] Reading Women Writers - “ Thanks to this course, I was introduced to an impressive list of women, most of whom I had never even heard of before, some dating back as long ago as China’s Tang Dynasty and Japan’s Heian period. I read the beautiful poems of Sor Juana and the Lais of Marie de France. I read the plays of Aphra Behn and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.” (FBomb) [...]

  • Chally @ at 5:02 am, December 6th, 2011

    I’m curious about what you’ve found interesting in the Heian period and Tang dynasty?

  • Julie Z @ at 6:52 pm, December 6th, 2011

    The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (Heian period) and from the Tang dynasty a number of female poets, including Huang Yuanjie, Gu Ruopu and Wang Duanshu. Definitely check them all out!

  • Girls Are Made From Pepsi » Sunday Hustle 11/12/11 @ at 9:40 pm, December 10th, 2011

    [...] Why reading women’s writing is important in the 21st Century. (The F-Bomb) Interestingly enough, along with the joy that came with reading the works of women – and not just women, but women who broke some incredible barriers by writing hundreds of years ago – came frustration. These women wrote of the type of sexism and double standards that, though they’re clearly not as bad today, are still very much present. That was the central paradox of reading these women writers: it was both astounding and inspiring that their work was still so relevant, but in some ways that relevance was beyond upsetting. [...]

  • Daniel de culla @ at 3:34 am, December 11th, 2011

    Adorable. I enjoy You and yrs so much.
    Kisses and Blessed Be’

  • Laela @ at 2:08 pm, August 28th, 2012

    Would you mind creating a longer list of the most favored and inspiring books from your course?

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