The Literary Women Who Were Left Out 

by Laura Granda-Mateu

The more women writers I encounter, the more I am amazed at how much I still have to discover, to enjoy, to share, to bow down to. Contemporary writers, classics, in their original language, translated, hyper-famous, unknown, forgotten, revered, underestimated. I want them all. 

The more I ‘discover’ them, the more I get upset about something. Something so obvious for many of us, something that we keep thinking, that keeps happening. Some days it clouds my thoughts. Where were all these women, all these literary treasures, back in the school classroom? 

I was brought up in Southern Europe; my Literature teachers, who I remember fondly, were passionate about their subject, they opened my eyes and heart to many literary worlds. And nevertheless, where were they, these women.

Reading the following anecdote, we can imagine how common something like this, and similar remarks, might have been for these female authors, whilst working on their craft: 

when an aged, well-intentioned writer with a young wife once said to George Sand “Look here, you should be making children, not books” the French author slowly cast a mocking eye over the old man’s feeble frame and replied, “You make them.” 

de Zapata, C. (1975) ‘One Hundred Years of Women Writers in Latin America’, Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 7-16.
Winter in Majorca, by George Sand (image: goodreads)

For a long time, their stories have been silenced. Where I come from, one would study Benito Pérez Galdós, but not Emilia Pardo Bazán; Charles Dickens, but not much about George Elliot; Shakespeare yes, but nothing about Aphra Behn; Chaucer, but nothing on Christine de Pizan. From the other side of the Atlantic, we would hear names like Poe, Whitman, Hemingway and Melville, but never those of Phillis Wheatley, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather or Edith Wharton. 

One should be fair, maybe there was a line mentioning Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and The Bronte Sisters (although my school book included only two of these sisters; can you guess who was left out?). Truth be told, they barely had a line, not a proper paragraph as did their male counterparts. In my books, full paragraphs were not given to these women. And not even a line for female voices outside the Eurocentric world.

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley (image: WikiCommons)

Portrait of Harriet Beecher- Stowe (image: WikiCommons)

As Dale Spencer already pointed out in Mothers of the Novel:

When I realised that there was this great heritage of women novelists of whom most of us have never heard, whose existence we have not even suspected, I began to appreciate the significance of our loss and it became a priority, to ‘re-present’ some of these women and their work to contemporary readers.

Spender, D. (1986) Mothers of the Novel. London and New York: Pandora.

This great heritage of women that we unearth little by little, as the treasure that it really is. Sometimes it gets to us formally -in a classroom, if we have had that privilege- sometimes it is other women in our lives who bring it to us, great fortune if this is the case. Sometimes they arrive to us by chance, or luck or by surprise. One voice takes us to another voice, and then, a jar full of wonders and gifts is open. There is no going back. The search for more will last all our lives. 

Portrait Charlotte Forten Grimké (image: WikiCommons)
Cristine de Pizan (image: WikiCommons)

And what about poetry, did you have to recite poems at school? I did; so many. Voices from the Iberoamerican fathers of Magic Realism, and Spanish poets from the Generations of 1898 and 1927. As a child, Miguel Hernandez’ elegy to his friend and its verse about the almond tree would make me cry. His voice against the Spanish Civil War and his verses longing for his dear dead friend will stay with me forever. That poem spoke of a love that I yet did not know could be so big, so golden, so painful, so rewarding; the love that comes with real friendship. I was hooked; more poetry please, more real stories, and surreal ones too, and dreams and birds who come and go and become something else. I want them in my life, in my literary canon. Nevertheless, the rage comes back to me, as I never recited a verse by a female poet. 

I did not even think that they existed; they were not in the classroom, not in the books, none of my teachers mentioned them. There was no need to ask, there was just emptiness, darkness, for many years in Primary school it did not occur to me to question it. We normalise awful things, as my parents once told me, when I asked them how was it for them growing up in our country under the dictatorship. The key danger does not reside in experiencing awful things, they pointed out, but in our capacity to normalise them and keep swallowing them, whilst we keep dormant, without questioning them, and accepting that it is the way it is. 

Life in the Anglo-Saxon world has taught me that the literary scene in northern cultures might not be very different when it comes to visibility of women in literature and, in general, visibility of women from the past, both in and outside the classroom. Although the literary contemporary scene looks quite exciting and promising, neglect keeps happening, especially when it comes to class and ethnicity, what voices speak, and what stories are heard.

The puzzlement can happen as well when looking outside school curricula (from different countries); for instance, checking the kind of lists we all know, with shiny titles such as ‘the best female authors in history’ (I confess, I have added one of those to Resources below). Those lists can be full of glorious and big names, who might deserve to be there; but equally, those lists can be excruciatingly painful, mostly names from English-speaking countries, and even within those borders, the lack of diverse voices, in a broad sense, is outrageous. More literature canons are needed. 

Be the reader you want to be, build your own canons and please do share them. Look further, get out of your borders, read in their original language if you can, find good translations, keep curious. Stay home too. But get out, meet all those ‘other’ women, from the past and the ones whispering and shouting their stories now. It will be utterly wonderful. 

someone will remember us

I say

even in another time

 – Sappho (c. 630 BC – c. 570 BC)
Excerpt from If Not, Winter. Available at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/160692/if-not-winter-by-sappho-translated-by-anne-carson/9780676976083/excerpt (Accessed: 17th March 2022)

Resources: 


About the Author:

Laura M. Granda studied History, Cultural Anthropology, and Teaching at university. Her formative years studying at postgraduate level and working in different countries -such as Mexico, France, Bulgaria, Palestine- strengthened her interest and curiosity for understanding current societies and their intimate connection with their past and heritage. 

Her history/heritage research interests are varied. Her love for this subject started with the Mediterranean, followed by an obsession for Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Settling down in Britain contributed to her found passion for the Long 18th Century, as well as with historical dress and textiles. This sartorial interest took her to focus her Master’s in Heritage dissertation on the interpretation of women’s historical clothing in cinema and tv drama, analysing the different narratives that clothing can tell us.

Some of her other passions include film, creative writing, teaching, language learning, literature, and mixed-media craft making.

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