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Literature and Gender

For centuries, human societies have tended to assign different roles,

codes of behaviour and morality, and even different feelings and thoughts to
men and women. By doing so, they used the biological distinction
of sex(between male and female) to construct and enforce the social distinction
of gender (between masculine and feminine). For instance, according to
18th and 19th century English standards of femininity, middle and upper class
women as opposed to men were supposed to devote themselves almost
exclusively to the domestic sphere of hearth and home as daughters, sisters,
wives and mothers caring for fathers, brothers, husbands and children. They
were expected to adopt a suitably modest behaviour and a moral code of
sexual purity and self-sacrifice, and avoid having strong desires and strong
opinions, especially in opposition to the men who were seen as their
guardians. Such differences of gender roles, by affecting access to factors like
education, experience, time and financial support, have had their influence on
the ways in which men and women could participate in literature as writers,
readers, critics, and arguably even as characters. The heroine of Jane
Austens last complete novel Persuasion (1818), Anne Elliot says, Men have
had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs
in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands, and indeed until
a few decades ago political, economic and cultural power rested
overwhelmingly with men in the English-speaking world (and in many other
cultures). Therefore, gendered approaches to literature have often sought to
counterbalance the male focus that this involved by concentrating more
strongly on womens perspectives.
It is rather easy to see how education, socially acceptable experience,
leisure time and financial background are factors that determine
the readership of literature. As far as education is concerned, even upper and
middle class women had serious disadvantages, not being admitted until the
late 19th century to the schools and universities which represented the highest
intellectual standards. Instead, they typically had to content themselves with a
rather more limited education concentrating on moral virtues, modern
languages and the social graces of music, singing, drawing, dancing and polite
conversation. At the more basic level of literacy, women were at first similarly
handicapped in comparison with men. Female literacy levels were lower then
male ones in 18th and 19thcentury England and Wales, although by the 1840s
more than half, and by 1900 almost all women in England and Wales could
sign their names in marriage registers. In addition, by the 18 th and especially
the 19th century, women from not only the upper class but also of the middle
classes tended to have significant free time, as well as the financial means to
get access to literature through the relatively affordable options of circulating
libraries or serial publications. This resulted in an extension of the
readership of literature also among women, so that by the 1870s novelist
Anthony Trollope could declare, Novels are in the hands of us all; from the
Prime Minister down to the last-appointed scullery maid. We have them in our
library, our drawing-rooms, our bed-rooms, our kitchens and in our
nurseries. This increasing readership, which included large amounts of
women (such as Trollopes scullery maids) with little or no classical
education, an ostensibly limited experience and delicate sexual modesty, in
turn had its influence on what kind of literature could seek wide popularity.
Gender distinctions in education and experience have influenced the

lives and works of women authors as well. Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

famously described successful playwright and novelist (and thus his literary
rival) Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) as if her writing proceeded not from an
educated and well-regulated mind (like his own) but the ignorance and dull
animality of a woman with cow-like udders and with ox-like eyes. Several
decades later, Jane Austen (1775-1817), who spent less than two years in a
school for young women (while two of her brothers went to Oxford), was
ironically playing with the well-established image of the ignorant female
scribbler when she rejected advice on what books she should write. Lack of a
solid classical education, she suggested, deprived her of proper knowledge of
science and philosophy as well the quotations and allusions that were the
privilege of masculine erudition. As certain genres were more dependent on a
formal education than others, genre and gender could be seen to be
connected. Indeed, one could argue as George Eliot did in the 1850s that
women authors could successfully turn to novel writing precisely because this
genre, as opposed to genres like the epic, was relatively new, with few formal
rules and a short tradition almost entirely accessible in English
There was often also much suspicion about the moral
consequences that could arise from the treatment of certain subject matters as
well as the publicity and financial benefits involved in female writing. Alexander
Pope applies moral double standards when he expresses special outrage at
those shameless scribblers who not only write libellous Memoirs and Novels
but are also for the most part of That sex, which ought least to be capable to
such malice or impudence that is, women. The image of the immoral
female author who capitalizes on stories of (sexual) scandal and thus earns
an independent living which gives her a dangerous potential for licentious
behaviour was the legacy of early 18th century writings like Delarivire (or
Mary de la Rivire) Manleys highly popular satires of sexual and political
corruption (The Secret History of Queen Zarah, 1705, The New Atlantis, 1709)
or Eliza Haywoods explorations of power games between genders in works
likeFantomina (1725). As a reaction to such images of immodestly public
women writers, later female authors wishing at least formally to conform to
ideals of private domestic femininity often opted for publishing
anonymously and largely refrained from to the public exposure involved
in drama. The late 18th century novelist Frances Burney (1752-1840) was
expressly banned by her father from having her plays produced on stage,
although she had spent months working on her first one. The father advised
instead that In the Novel way, there is no danger, which was all the more true
that Burney like Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe and many other female writers
published several novels anonymously.
Female writers continued to experience restrictions in subject matter as
to what aspects of life they were supposed to portray or even be aware of.
Many critics of Anne Bronts The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Emily
Bronts Wuthering Heights (1847), unaided by the gender-ambiguous pen
names of Acton and Ellis Bell under which the novels were published, were
unwilling to suppose that such scenes of brutal violence as depicted in these
novels could have been even familiar to lady writers. A few years later,
Elizabeth Gaskells novel Ruth(1853), dealing with the social neglect and
injustice involved in the tragic story of an unmarried mother, was banned as
dangerous by her husband from her own house and symbolically burned by
some of her male acquaintances.
In addition to limitations of schooling and socially acceptable
experience, women authors often also had to labour under economic and

legal disadvantages. To start with, as Virginia Woolf was to write later, a

woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. A
comparison of the output of 18th and 19thcentury female novelists with those of
their male contemporaries suggests that many women writers (like Elizabeth
Gaskell) found it difficult to reconcile the demands of serious writing with their
normal household duties, to the detriment of the former. Although as yet
unmarried, Frances Burney wrote her first novel Evelina(1778) in stolen hours,
and delayed revealing the publication of her book to her father until critical and
popular success were already certain. (This success then helped her to
become a semi-professional writer who received considerable sums of money
by subscription and for the copy rights of her three subsequent novels.) As an
added difficulty, married women writers in the late 18 th and early 19th century
(like Ann Radcliffe, 1764-1823) could not enter into legal contracts or have
control over their earnings, both of which were the exclusive right of the
Considering the manifold limitations that women writers and readers
experienced, it is little surprise to find that related themes would have found
their way into the writing of and about women. Restriction did, in fact, become
one of the most enduring motifs of English fiction dealing with womens lives,
manifesting itself in various disguises as the abduction and incarceration of
women characters by male ones in carriages, castles, madhouses, brothels
and seemingly comfortable homes. Such motifs run through works as various
as Aphra Behns The Unfortunate Happy Lady (1698), Mary Davyss The
Reformed Coquet (1724), Frances BurneysEvelina (1778), Ann
Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Mary Wollstonecrafts Maria, or
The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (1847), Emily
Bronts Wuthering Heights (1847), or American writer Charlotte Perkins
Gilmans famous short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1891), and even works by
male authors like Samuel Richardsons Pamela (1740) or Wilkie Collinss The
Woman in White (1860). The effects of the social restrictions were often
symbolically represented in fiction as the mental anguish and
even madness that many female characters were made to undergo from the
heroine of Frances Burneys Cecilia (1782) through the famous madwoman in
the attic of Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre (1847) rewritten as the heroine of
Jean RhyssWide Sargasso Sea (1966) to the main character of Sylvia
Plaths The Bell Jar (1963). Women writers of the past three centuries have
been at the forefront of trying to remedy the disadvantage of earlier centuries,
when, in the words of the heroine of Jane Austens Persuasion, the pen has
been in the hands of men, that is, literature as most institutionalised aspects
of culture was overwhelmingly under the control of men. By taking the pen
in their own hands, increasing numbers of women writers have been giving
voice to womens experiences and concerns. Such concerns included
inadequate education (e. g. in Charlotte Lennoxs Female Quixote, 1752),
insufficient useful activity (e. g. in George Eliots Middlemarch, 1871-2),
economic dependence (e. g. in Frances Burneys Cecilia, 1782, Jane
Austens Sense and Sensibility, 1811), legal disempowerment (e. g. in Anne
BrontesThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848), moral double standards (e. g. in
Elizabeth Gaskells Ruth, 1853), and many more. In addition to thematising
specifically female experiences, women writers have also been taking active
part in public discourse on more general social issues such as the importance
of responsible leadership in Ireland (e. g. in Maria Edgeworths novels The
Absentee, 1812, and Ormond, 1817) or the living and working conditions of the
urban labouring classes (e. g. in Elizabeth Gaskells North and South, 1855).
As literary production, so literary criticism was also for centuries

dominated by men who had a virtual monopoly over the

necessary education and intellectual authority. This did not always help the
recognition of female talent: double standards were often applied to measure
mens and womens literary output as they were to measure their sexual
behaviour. As Charlotte Bront explained in retrospect, she and her sisters
chose to veil their identities under the ambiguous names of Currer, Ellis and
Acton Bell because without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and
thinking was not what is called feminine we had a vague impression that
authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how
critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for
their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise. Similar considerations induced
Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans (1819-80) to publish her first fiction under
the male pseudonym George Eliot, and contemporary critical opinions that the
author may be an elderly clergyman only served to strengthen her resolution to
use the same name for all her subsequent novels.
Although such double standards have by now become largely
impossible to apply explicitly, the revaluation of literary history and
the revision of the literary canon to recognise significant contributions by
women still take a long time. Feminist criticism has long been instrumental in
revaluating parts of literary history by completing and complicating the
orthodox narratives. Thus, medieval female authors like Julian of Norwich
and Margery Kempe (who, illiterate, were exceptionally lucky that their visions
and stories were committed to writing at all) are now included in histories of
English literature. In addition, women writers and their texts have been
claiming recognition in some of the post-colonial literary canons in English, as
Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) and Sidney Owenson (Lady Morgan, 1776?1859) did in the case of Irish literature. More fundamentally, accounts of
literary processes have been revised. For instance, the 18th century rise of the
novel, often presented as the exclusive achievement of male authors like
Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding (as in Ian Watts classic
study), has been recently reinterpreted to include the contribution of female
pioneers of the genre, such as the popular and inventive female fiction writers
Aphra Behn (1640?-1689), Delarivire Manley (c. 1672-1724), Eliza Haywood
(1693-1756) and Mary Davys (1674-1732). Similarly, genres (such as
courtship romances and Gothic fiction) which were formerly regarded
as female-dominated genres and (therefore) neglected by mainstream criticism
and literary history have been receiving serious attention as expressions of
various legitimate social and psychological concerns. As a corollary, publishers
as well as specialist internet sites have made many women
writers texts accessible often works that had been out of print for decades or
even centuries.