21/06/2012

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN?


What I manage  to do the least while blogging is being a regular reader at other blogs or sites and I apologize. It is definitely not for a lack of interest. I manage to go on writing my three blogs, though with no fix schedules and especially not daily,  but I'm not very good at socializing or using social networks, mainly for a constant lack of time. I post my stuff and I'm off, if I want to go on reading, watching, working and living! 
As you know,  I have to divide my spare time among my several interests -  and I must underline the words my spare time - because I've got an engaging profession (teaching English as a foreign language and its literature) and I take care of my family and house with no "external" help. Nonetheless, when I bump into something interesting or stimulating on line, I can't resist reading and commenting. This is what I did with a thought-provoking  post by writer Rosanne E. Lortz at her website .
My premise is somehow connected to the theme she proposes and I am going to discuss here at FLY HIGH! : women and the reason why few of them excel/emerge in some fields, i.e. as writers of classics. Do you feel like  joining the discussion?


She opens the piece asking:   
Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Let's ignore Jane Austen and the Brontes for a minute and ask the question: why were all the classics written by men?

Many answers abound. I have never found the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory. I am also a firm believer in the fact that women are intellectually equal with men. So, why then? Why were all the classics written by men?
Then she quotes from G. K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World?" 
Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school-mistress, but not a competitive school-mistress; a house decorator, but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful.



Rosanne E. Lortz comments: 

Chesterton has hit upon something here. Women, though not limited in ability, are often limited in the extent to which they can pursue something because they are called to pursue so many different things. (Read the whole post by Rosanne E. Lortz  HERE)

I'm afraid I can't agree with her not finding the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory but,  of course,  I'm like her sure that women are intellectually equal with men. But I hate generalizations and sterotypes, too. When it comes to this question, that is , why most writers and painters and memorable artists are men, I must agree with  Virginia Woolf and what she wrote in her essay  about "Shakespeare's sister" (chapter three from A Room of One's Own):

It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.
 Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably - his mother was an heiress - to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin - Ovid, Virgin and Horace - and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practicing his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen.

Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter - indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager - a fat, loose-lipped man - guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting - no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted - you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last - for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows - at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? - killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
 That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare's day had had Shakespeare's genius.

But for my part, I agree with the deceased bishop, if such he was - it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had Shakespeare's genius. For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom? Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, on the length of the winter's night.
This may be true or it may be false - who can say? - but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare's sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational - for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons - but were none the less inevitable. Chastity has then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was a poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned. That refuge she would have sought certainly. It was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century. Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. Thus they did homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them, that publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood....
So the fact that few women instead succeeded in becoming classic writers   - let's just think of  Jane Austen or the Brontes - and that they did excel at writing is due to their refusal to conform to the female stereotype of the age they lived in. They were brave and focused, though not exactly competitive.
For the majority of us, if we bake it is because we feel it is right, if we draw or paint watercolours it is because we like it, if we stay at home and play with our children it is because we married a man we loved and chose to create a family.
Many women at the time of Jane Austen had to marry for convenience or not to starve, couldn't have money of their own nor a profession, their writing was thought improper and had to hide behind a male name. They were limited by law and conventions in a totally male-oriented society. Jane Austen decided not to marry and to live on her writing. Do we really have to ask why so few tried and succeeded?
There have been centuries in which women were educated only to become wives or accomplished ladies. No other role in society was meant for them. They could only learn what we today love doing as hobbies or part of our family life (gardening, drawing, sewing, take care of the house, look after their children). Do we still wonder why they couldn't excel as artists or intellectuals?



If we think about nowadays and modern careers we can wonder why women are still socially less competitive than men, because that is true. Few women get to the highest positions in society, economics,  finance, politics, science, industry, banking system and so on. 
We can all agree it is not because they are not brilliant or smart,  or less than their male equivalent. We can even agree that for many men  it is still difficult to overcome certain old stereotypes hence our society is still latently and hypocritically male-oriented. However,  women are more and more competent and successful in so many fields. 
Why are there still so few in the positions which count? Their psychology? I mean, their tendency to put affections and feelings first or their being ready to self-sacrifice?  Their  being not too ambitious nor greedy?  But these are also generalizations, which is something I really can't bear. What do you think? 

14 comments:

Laura Hile said...

Thought-provoking post! Love the G K Chesterton quote.

As for life as a woman, I can only speak for myself. Limited? Repressed? Naw. I'm an idealist, that's all. And I've made an idealist's life choices. (You can tell by looking at my bank balance, ha!) Basically, I want my life to count. And the way I see myself accomplishing this is by investing in people.

My readers pester me to write books more quickly---and I try! ---but real life and the needs of real people push into my writing time.

I left the traditional workplace to raise my sons. Later I began teaching in our small church school. It's a great work environment, and I love my colleagues and the freedom I have in the classroom. The salary? Eh. Like I said, I'm an idealist.

If you were to come into my classroom on any given morning, you'd see me working one-on-one with students. But I'm teaching far more than academics. I'm looking to build up and encourage students during the worst year of life---7th grade!

What a privilege is mine! I'm able to make career suggestions, I unearth hidden interests and talents, and I prod students to push past difficulties (math, usually) to accomplish their dreams. All day long I'm investing emotionally in the future. Some days I feel I'm accomplishing nothing. After all, who sees what I do (besides God)? What difference will it make?

And that's when I tell myself this: "You're changing the world 20 thirteen-year-olds at a time."

I also teach a high school honors Creative Writing class. Here's a quotation I share with those students. (Next year I will share the G K Chesterton quotation as well. Thank you!)

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

Maria Grazia said...

@Laura Hile
Thanks a lot, Laura , for your contribution to the discussion.
As a teacher and an idealist myself, I totally sympathize with you and what you said.
I too feel privileged at doing what I do and I'm sure this is "bliss". Not all women can/have been able to/could choose in their lives. So is happiness a question of ... freedom of choice? Take care. MG

Danielle said...

What a thoughtful, passionate post!

Why still so few women in prominent positions? I do think some countries have made considerable forward strides in this area, but then not all countries consider such things positive progress,

Personally I consider some significant factors in this issue to be infrastructure, legislation, and the value traditionally placed on personal autonomy. For example, depending on which country I have lived in a female president has been perceived as either a) a long-awaited culmination of a century of female participation in parliamentary politics b) damaging for the family unit b)selfish feminism d) communism e) a curiosity. It is not something that is based on women’s abilities and capabilities and psychology alone but, for example, about whether pay-based engagement with society outside the home is judged a benefit or a detriment to whichever unit/s of society is/are rated as most impactful on economics and/or morality by the large majority.

Maria Grazia said...

@Danielle
Hi and welcome back to Fly High! Thanks for your interesting thorough comment.
What you say reminds me how often I've heard the negative complain "Working women are the cause of the wreck of the family as the basic unit of our society and of the disoriented latest generations of children/teenagers". Not completely true, not completely false.
But what other chances did women have to get their freedom and independence"?
Quite a delicate, complicated matter.
Enjoy your day!

enrage_femme said...

Your post was both beautiful and thought provoking—particularly as I daily chafe from the attacks women’s reproductive rights are enduring in the United States—one incident prompted a performance of Eve Ensler’s ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol yesterday.

After reading your heartbreaking tale of Judith Shakespeare, I am in danger of writing a vindication for her so she is not forced to go the way of Anna Karenina and Madame Butterfly. My threat is not without precedent. I was moved to take such a stand after reading ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Ms Austen’s casual recounting of the tales of the two Elizas infuriated me as a 21-year-old orphan and victim of date rape. Forty years later my first fan fiction (and now self-published novel ‘Goodly Creatures’) found me winning a victory for that mother and daughter.

But back to your tale—I am imagining, just before Judith is forced to wed by her parents, she makes the acquaintance of Christopher Marlowe through her brother. They devise a marriage of convenience. He would be free to pursue his proclivities unhindered and in return he would allow her to write using his name. Children and sex are not part of their bargain. Together, they create an alternate persona, Jude Lawless, where Judith dresses as a man and the two roam the countryside as bosom buddies. Through this impersonation, she could have those life experiences needed to enhance her poetry. For years after Marlow is murdered, Judith could ‘find’ unpublished manuscripts (she could claim poor housekeeping as the reason they weren’t discovered before). Jude Lawless could sell these newly-found works for his friend’s widow. I think a subplot of Judith having the upper hand with her brother who had relied heavily on Marlowe and his wife for inspiration and even writing at times. I could easily make the case that Judith was responsible for ‘As You Like It’ and Twelfth Night. I see the brother and sister fighting over the ending of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Othello.’

Maria Grazia said...

@enrage_femme
What a creative mind you are! That is a unique comment and I love it.
Whenever you want to present your story and your book/s to the readers of FLY HIGH! , please, just drop me a line at learnonline.mgs@gmail.com
I'll be glad to have you as my guest :-)

aurora said...

You have started really an interesting theme, Maria Grazia. It is somehow really sad that successful and accomplished women still have to fight for their place under the sun. I mean that metaphorically, of course.
The phrase "cherchez la femme" was not invented without a reason.
For example, I admire very much George Sand and her life. She was also a good writer too. However, she understood even then that using a male name would help her even more which is sad and understandable at the same time.

Maria Grazia said...

@Aurora
That's why we also have the Bell brothers (the Brontes had to publish under male pen-names: Currer, Ellis and Acton) or George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) whose novels I love!
Thanks a lot for reading and joining the discussion.

elizabethashworth.com said...

I think one reason women didn't write classics is the same reason that 50 years ago a woman couldn't be an airline pilot or a firefighter. It wasn't that they weren't capable. It was because it wasn't a woman's job. That is why the Brontes sent their manuscripts to a publisher under a male pseudonym. Why George Eliot wrote under a male name and why many men were so shocked at the novels of Mrs Gaskell.

But don't forget that throughout history there have been women writers. Hildegard of Bingen is one example and Christine de Pizan.

Women have always written but perhaps have not always been published. William Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy was also a poet, although she seems to have seen her role as supporting William's work rather than becoming known as a poet in her own right.

Nowadays women have as much chance as any man to be published. But men's writing is still often seen as more important than women's, which is too often labelled 'chick-lit' and dismissed. And many men will not read a book written by a woman. Things are better for women writers, but I still don't think there is true equality.

Maria Grazia said...

@Elizabeth Ashworth
Thanks, Elizabeth, for taking the time to write your contribution to the discussion. I don't know why, but the majority of my best favourite books were written by women. I agree with you: much has been done for women's equal treatment in society, but much is still left to be done!
Have a very good weekend!

Prue Batten said...

What a wonderful post!
I would say that women throughout the world are indeed making their mark ... here in Australia, our parliament has an exceptionally large component of women and of course we have a female Prime Minister.
I think the glass ceiling has been well and truly broached in the First World and one can only hope that through education and observation, the chances will feed down through to the Third World.

This quote in respect of Classic Novelists was the most telling to me:

'When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, on the length of the winter's night.'

This is the essence of it all. Women held the fort when the men did manly things. To run the home and keep the family alive (education or no education) there was little time to 'write classics'. Apart from trying to survive within a chauvinistic society through the generations, women also had no domestic luxury to assist so that their time could be spent devising the narrative for the next 'classic' . It might be in their heads, they might long to tell that story, but chance is a fine thing and poverty a real thing and it would never have happened.
Even when Jane Austen began to find success, we must surely note that she came from not an entirely 'poor' background, so 'chance' was hers.

There are great classics emerging from the hands of female writers in the 20th and 21st centuries and there will be more. I read one such the other day: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Thanks so much for this post, MG. I found it fascinating.

PS: Have to say i would line up for that alternative history of 'Shakespeare's Sister'.

Maria Grazia said...

@Prue Batten
I agree with you when you say that women had little luxuries to help them in their engaging hard work in the house, but we should think of those coming from good, wealthy families. No education, no profession, no money, no independence for them. They didn't have to work hard, they were supposed not to do any job. I think of those women and immensely pity them, they didn't become mothers or wives because it was in their nature but because they were expected to be mothers and wives. It was their duty.
Now most of us in this world can choose our destiny but, nonetheless, we are still few respect to men when it comes to so many fields.
The reasons of this situation are what we are discussing here thanks to all your interesting contributions.
Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!
MG

Elisabeth Storrs said...

Very thought provoking, MG - the example of Shakespeare's sister is very apt - a person, whether male or female, can have innate intelligence but it is opportunities like education and the chance to socialize with others who could inspire and mentor that enables talent to be honed into brilliance.

Unfortunately, even when given such advantages, women (past and present) are still hampered by male gatekeepers - which brings to mind the famous quote of Samuel Johnson:

"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Ironically, in Australia, our foremost literary award is the Miles Franklin Prize (after Stella Miles Franklin who was forced to use a male pseudonym.) Alas - so few women novelists have won this award that some 'rebels' have set up The Stella Prize in response- hence AWW2012.

What is most interesting about your post is that it made me ask myself not only why women didn't write classics in the past - but why they are not considered to have written them in our times.

Maria Grazia said...

@Elisabeth Storrs
We've got few great women writers in the 20th/21st centuries ourselves here in Italy. Without much thinking I can only recall Elsa Morante and Oriana Fallaci or Dacia Maraini and Margaret Mazzantini who are still alive and winning prizes. Very few women who write are considered "intellectuals". It also happens that, if a love story is written by a man it may be considered literature, if by a woman it becomes chick-lit.
Thanks for contributing your opinion, Elisabeth, as well as Johnson's quotation. Hugs. MG