By Meenakshi Malhotra
Human beings have always told stories. However, in the course of history, the voices of many groups fell silent, their lives — and their stories-hidden from ‘his’ story. Before the story of women’s writing can be recounted, we have to look at the term itself.
Why are we still using the term Women’s Writing? Do we use the term mens’ writing?
Is the conceptual category of women’s writing a description , a prescription or a ghettoization?
When we say women’s writing, are we marking out women as a group whose gender identity needs to be declared in order to evaluate their writing? Or are we saying that the writing will lead us to a revelation of the gender identity of the writer?
Does it then, or can it then become a reductive activity, an “intellectual measuring of busts and hips”, as feminist and literary critic, Elaine Showalter, writes in one of her essays ?
Or are we making an allowance for them, much in the spirit we view any kind of affirmative action, as a sort of acknowledgement of past wrongs? And reparation of the kind we make towards historically marginalised or oppressed groups?
In a sense, women have always written, albeit in an environment where a large part of their work has been hidden from history, not acknowledged or documented. Another problem is that their writing and its evaluation has not only been framed by, but completely explained away in terms of the gender of the writer, leading to generalisations and gender stereotyping. This is a reductive and circular view where every detail in the text is sought to be explained with reference to the gender of the writer. So the statement that emerges is “she writes like this because she is a woman” or “only a woman can write this or this way” and that too not in a tone of approbation.
The goalpost for the woman writer was set by male critics, often the self-appointed custodians of literary traditions where the gatekeepers were all men. In a sense women writers were being pushed towards adopting the honorary status of men, (the incidence of the male pseudonym) or to forget their femininity and become a frump. Another image was also that of the virago or the “hyena in petticoats”, a form of labelling to undermine strong, strident and opinionated women. Here I am deviating from Showalter’s idea of the ‘feminine’ phase by suggesting that the woman writer of the 18th and 19 th century were actually challenged to forget their femininity.
It was deemed inappropriate for women writers to write about sex and sexuality, as is evident from the discomfort and disquiet around Radhika Santwanam, described in the Introduction to Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Present (2009), edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. Interestingly this censorious attitude to women’s writing was not a historical but a product of relatively recent ideas of gentility and appropriate womanhood enshrined and embedded in Victorian morality, which were appropriated by the newly-emerging middle classes who had received western education.
Sumanta Banerjee in his The Parlour and the Streets (1989) traces the loss of a vivid colourful idiomatic oral language drawing from the popular culture of the streets. As this vigorous colloquial idiom was deemed inappropriate and unfit for literary usage, it did not find any place in the new respectable national literatures in the regional languages that were emerging in the 19th century. So the ‘literary’ got marked off from the colloquial where the baby (women’s literature –oral and written) was literally thrown out along with the bathwater.
Prior to the 19th century, in England , one reads not just Mary Wollstonecraft, but also Aphra Behn, and other signposts to alter an otherwise barren landscape of women’s writing. Here as we probably know already, the anxiety of ‘influence’(pointed out by Harold Bloom) is replaced by the anxiety of authorship, where the woman writer is made to feel orphaned and alienated, a Jane come lately since she has no genealogy or tradition to which she belongs. Thus we see the attempts in many instances, where writers claim their mother’s heritage.
Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) is a case in point. While the figure of the mother is very important even for male writers, there is a special poignancy in which this relationship is signified in women’s writing. Thus there is Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography, Amar Jiban ( 1876, one of the first autobiographies in Bengali), Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986) , all autobiographical texts where the mother’s death becomes a moment of unusual poignancy, helping shape the contours of the writing self.
Another problematic issue is obviously the seemingly unified and homogeneous category of ‘women’, which is an imposed unity for a heterogeneous and diverse cross-section of people. So when we refer to ‘women’s writing’ as a category, we have to think whether we are being just or fair in clubbing such a diversity of voices under one rubric or template. What tends to happen is that a diversity of voices tend to get homogenised and flattened out and specific issues are lost or get submerged depending on power dynamics, on factors like access to vectors of power related to race, class, caste, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.
Some of these issues were flagged by women of colour or Afro-American feminists and also by ‘third world’ academicians. They felt that the unmarked category of women, while seemingly inclusive, actually excluded them in fundamental ways. They rejected the term ‘feminism’ and instead replaced it with their coinage, ‘womanism’. They also compared women’s writing to a patchwork quilt, where ever bit is both an individual piece as well as part of a collective and bigger creation and endeavour.
Now what do we see in terms of the situation on the ground of or for the women writer? One is Virginia Woolf’s vignette in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’( excerpted from A Room of One’s Own, 1929). Nearer home, we have the narrative of how Rashsundari teaches herself to read and write. I would go so far as to say that one of the themes of women’s writing seems to be a thematising of women’s writing itself, their coming to voice, textuality and affiliation, about the pangs of growing up female and about the process of gendering across societies.
However, while these themes and issues maybe crucial to women’s writing , they may not always be framed as belonging to the category of the ‘literary’, according to the rules put in place by its custodians. So even though a lot of novels by women circulated in the marketplace, they are missing in the archive.
Therefore one obvious way of approaching women’s writing is to do so through the non-formal, the informal, the non-canonical, through modes and forms which slip under the radar of the ‘literary’. Thus the memoir, the diary, letters autobiographies or hagiographies, the poetic fragment are also aspects and forms that we need to take into account while discussing women’s writing.
There is a fair amount of material on women and the novel, how women were peculiarly suited to the exigencies of novel writing and consumption, and how they are more shadowy figures when it comes to poetry. If we see the poetry section in the usual courses, we see a handful of poems (in a somewhat tokenistic way), many of them deeply personal, confessional and autobiographical. Some poets like De Souza seem to use irony quite a lot, for example in ‘Marriages are Made’. If we were to isolate stylistic features of women’s poetry as specifically gendered , relatively short verse forms, brevity, tightness of language and syntax, are all evident in women’s poetry and one of the most anthologised female poets, Sylvia Plath, eschews the elaborations of an intricate style and sticks to flat statement, staccato rhythms and colloquial tones. As Dickinson frames it, they “shut me up in prose/because they would have me still.” We can only speculate about the ‘they’ in these lines.
Women’s experience on the stage and as playwrights were also dictated by certain social norms. Women’s visibility on the stage and their occupying the public domain represented a kind of transgression, as is evident both in theatre journals and in the autobiographical writings of actresses like Binodini Dasi, known to generations of Bengali theatre goers as Nati Binodini. The stage raises a question about the ‘proper’ legitimate domain of women, who were viewed as violating the boundaries of morality and respectable and acceptable behaviour.
The story of women’s writing is still in the process of unfolding. From learning to read and write in secret, as showcased in Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography (since literacy in women, it was believed, was a sure precursor to widowhood) because of the taboo on women’s literacy, many women have emerged as powerful voices-and presences-both in the archive and in the marketplace. The hand that supposedly rocked the cradle can also hopefully rock the world, challenge the existing order of things and write a better world into being.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’ in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.
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