The Source of the Problem

This morning Tansy Rayner Roberts tweeted a link to this post by Stuffed Olive which neatly encapsulates the source of the problem with regard to the invisibility of women writers.

A brief re-cap. One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why women writers are less successful than male ones is that while women readers are happy to read books by and about both men and women, many male readers only read books by and about men. There’s plenty of evidence to support this. I’m starting to regard people who continue to dispute it with the same disdain I reserve for Creationists.

So, why does it happen. Stuffed Olive reports a conversation with a teacher of English:

The English study texts at her own school, she informed me, are almost all centred around male characters. Except for one book about growing up under Islam, all the protagonists are male. Many of the texts are only about boys and men, for example The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, while others possess only secondary female characters, the majority of whom are depicted as in need of protection by the male protagonists.

This is in Victoria, and there’s no national curriculum in Australia, so individual schools can, to some extent, set their own policy. Other parts of the world may be different. But I’ve already heard from Janet Edwards in the UK who said, “Every book we studied at school was either exclusively male or had a female minor character for comedy.” She added later that she went to an all-girls school.

So there’s your problem. If, as children, we are taught that the books we should be reading are by men, and about men, then it is only to be expected that boys will grow up thinking that they only need to read such books. Girls will read books about women too, because they want characters that they can identify with, but they’ll continue to read what they have been taught is the “good stuff”.

Clearly not all school curricula will be this bad, but I’m pretty sure that many are. And until we can fix this problem I don’t think that the issue of gendered reading habits will go away.

Feedback would be welcomed, especially from people who have been through school recently, or who are involved with setting school/examination reading lists in any way.

12 thoughts on “The Source of the Problem

  1. I’m so glad you posted this Cheryl. Thank you.
    My hands shake with emotion when I think about the extent of this issue, which shouldn’t even BE an issue. I too am keen to hear more from students, teachers and parents about their experiences and thoughts, and appreciate you spreading the word.
    The more we understand the lack of access to books by/about/for girls and women (and the more we spread the word), the more people can begin to question the status quo and make changes within our schools.
    – Stuffed Olive

  2. I was in a mixed state school in the UK about 15 years ago. One of my GCSE texts was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first part of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I think the whole class was aware that our (male) English teacher didn’t like it, although I don’t recall this overtly affecting our study of the book. Other than this I remember studying various Shakespeare plays; poetry by William Blake, Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon and Laurie Lee; and books by William Golding and George Orwell. Not a very good record…

  3. There’s an interesting study of the reviewing habits of some prominent SFF bloggers that backs up what you’re saying here:

    Whilst this is an issue in the SFF community I don’t know whether teachers are all that aware of it. It’s something to bring up at the next parents’ evening, anyway.

  4. Curiously the novels I read for school, at the 2 exam levels were by Jane Austin, Emily Bronte and George Elliot. There was also the ‘Modern Novel’ which almost every year was George Orwell. I read it but didn’t pay it as much attention for study as to the main novels by the above women.

    However I take your point – almost every other writer on the curriculum was a man – the plays were all by men, the poetry and prose were mostly men and I think almost all the short stories were by men.

    It is certainly a point worth thinking on as I give presents of books to the extended family.

  5. In Ireland, the Primary School (6-12) books are set by the individual schools themselves. In Secondary School (12-18) we have two state exams – the Junior Cert (~15) and the Leaving Cert (~18). There are set texts (novels, plays, films and poems) for both exams. You can take a look at them here for the Junior Cert and here for the Leaving Cert

    Way back in the dim distant past, I did To Kill A Mockingbird, Philadelphia Here I Come and Hamlet for the Junior Cert and Hard Times, Macbeth and um… I think Educating Rita for the Leaving Cert.

  6. I think for leaving cert (in 04) we did Wuthering Heights, Macbeth, Amongst Women, amd a Room With a View (yes, the film). Certianly I’d consider all of those to have strong female characters, not necesserily aspirational characters, but we had a goodteacher and read everything quite critically including discussion of domestic violence and apologism (Amongst Women) and remantisising abusive relationships (Wuthering Heights).
    For the Junior Cert we did Pride and Prejudice, Dancing at Lughnasa, and… either Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, or Goodnight Mister Tom, maybe both? Again, lots of female characters.
    Of course, I went to an all-girls school and maybe that made a difference.

  7. I looked round a private (i.e. fee paying) girls’ school on an open day a few years ago, considering it for my daughter. It was clearly a good school. But on one of the noticeboards was a list of the plays produced by the Girls Theatre Group over the last 20 years, not one by a woman, and several (e.g. Peter Pan and Wendy) with almost no female roles. And this over a period when plays by, e.g. Caryl Churchill, Aphra Benn and Sarah Kane had made social and critical waves in the theatre.

    I raised this with one of the teachers who looked a bit nonplussed and said something along the lines of, but there aren’t any plays by women suitable for secondary aged school children.

    I have been a minor and no doubt unifluential activist on the subject since, but subsequent conversations have indicated that this is still utterly normal in UK secondary schools.

  8. I have to say that I do make an effort to read female-authored genre fiction. And every time I let the effort lapse – assuming that after some effort to make sure I do, it’ll be naturally ingrained – the men take over again. The constant effort, it seems, is a necessity… because unconsciously perhaps, I’m taking male-authored fiction as the canon, and female-authored as peripheral? Or simply it’s easier to find male-authored fiction? Either way, it’s something I keep trying to fix, but it does need that effort more than it ought to.

  9. That sounds about right for how I experienced literature studies all throughout middle and high school. College had minor improvements, but I think that was more to do with the classes I chose to take and with what professors: predominantly women, or feminist-studies oriented men, or courses that were actually about women’s writing.

    Also, it’s not just a matter of what each school chooses, because they aren’t choosing in a vacuum. It’s a matter of why they choose what they choose, and that comes down to the accepted canon – which is, on average, about 13% woman-written, and those women who are included are included as singular figures, isolated from their context. It’s not socially mediated by women, either. I’m paraphrasing “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” here, but the same problems Russ talks about there are the problems I currently face as a student and member of academia. (Hasn’t changed much in thirty years. I went through the anthologies I’ve been assigned throughout my university career and found that *not a single one* was edited by a women scholar.)

    Women’s writing is either presented as a separate field from the study of literature – because real literature is by men, being the implication – or is only included in the form of “firsts,” not as part of a tradition of writing by women. This same problem applies to the writing of any marginalized group: it sure as hell doesn’t count in the actual canon, and when classes are offered on those kinds of writing, they’re electives, not main courses.

  10. So two things for US issues (lots more, but these 2 I deal with):
    First, when an English or History teacher wants to read “The Classics,” it’s a slanted because that list was developed from a period of history when most of the works were written by men in the first place. So you’re right, a real need for the lists to alter is in order here. When I speak to English teachers, what I’m hearing is not so much gender concerns but 2 other concerns. First, “if I change the reading list, my kids will be at a disadvantage on the standardized tests that focus on “The Classics”” – which means we need to address those bloody tests again and Second “Oh I *couldn’t* throw out X book – it’s really *important*” – so what “I” learned must still be properly relevant and important. That requires a change in the teacher prep classes about “picking new and more relevant classics” – let’s face it, Grapes of Wrath was more relevant when it was chosen in terms of everyday experience.
    Second, I work in my daughter’s HS library – and the librarian there is finding that it’s hard to find “boy books” for the Young Adult set. That is, most of the books coming in are clearly focused on girls – written about and for girls – with varying success at being positive – but with very few boy/man roles and largely written by women. The librarian has actually asked me to look for the occasional boy-book so we can make sure they’re not left out.

    Interesting dichotomy.

  11. The whole YA has too many “girls books” really bugs me. I do agree that there are a lot of YA books that focus on romance, which doesn’t interest boys, but those don’t interest all girls either. Why shouldn’t the boys be reading books by women writers? It seems to me that worrying overmuch about the gender of the writer when it comes to male readers of any age, we perpetuate the idea that “worthy books” are written by men, with predominantly male characters.
    I do think that J.K. Rowling, Katherine Collins, and Holly Black have proven it’s possible to be a women writer with good female characters and still have boys liking those books.

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