Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

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“Recitatif”-Ignoring Black and White Stereotypes


Tony Morrison’s “Recitatif” is a short story about two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, and their interactions throughout their entire lives.  We know one of the girls is black and one of them is white but Morrison never tells us exactly which one is which so we are never entirely sure.  All we know is that the girls are of different class structures.  The girls never display any clear stereotypical characteristics of each race but have characteristics that could be each race.  Morrison does at great job at removing the racial codes from this story, leaving the reader to guess what the race of each girl is.

I found that at the end of the story I did not know of what race Twyla and Roberta were.  I had no idea throughout any of the book.  I couldn’t give an exact race to either one because there just wasn’t enough evidence in the story for me to do that.  There was one section that made me think Twyla was black, and it was on page 1228 in our anthologies.  It read:

“Mary, simple-minded as ever, grinned and tried to yank her hand out of the pocket with the tragedy lining- to shake hands, I guess.  Roberta’s mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too.  She didn’t say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her Bible-free hand and stepped out of line, walking quickly to the rear of it” (1228).

This section made me think that Twyla and her mother were black, because Roberta’s mother wouldn’t shake Mary’s hand at all and back in the 50s when this took place, it was stereotypical of a white person to not want to touch or associate with a black person.  But then I started to think that if Roberta’s mother was an upperclass black woman and saw Twyla’s mother as a lower class white hussy, she may still not want to shake her hand.  Morrison does this throughout the entire story, where you think that one girl could be one race but you are never exactly sure.

I think Morrison does this to prove a point that we are all equal.  In the story we know one girl is white and one is black but we are never sure which one is which because Morrison never comes out and says it.  By removing the racial code from the story, it helps to prove that we are all equal and that you can’t judge a person based on their race.  Also by removing stereotypes and putting the girls in similar life situations Morrison continues to prove a point that we are equal and anyone could be any race.

This book was enlightening and really made me think.  A lot of Toni Morrison’s writing does that for me.  Down below is a link to a YouTube video where she talks about her motivation for writing.


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The Presence of Plath’s Mental Illness in “Edge”


Sylvia Plath had a constant battle with mental illness from a young age, but persisted though her struggles of bipolar disorder until she took her own life.


“It was now February 11, and Sylvia Plath prepared to die. She left food and drink for her children in their room and opened a window. In the hallway, she attached a note with her doctor’s name and number to the baby carriage. She sealed the kitchen as best she could with tape, towels, and cloths. Then she turned on the gas and thrust her head as far as she could into the oven.” -Carl Rollyson- The Boston Globe 





Six days prior to her death she penned the poem “Edge.” She writes,


The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The Illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her Bare

Feet Seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She had folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stuffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood to bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag (818).



Plath writes omnipotently about her death, obviously knowing what she was going to do in a few days.  In the first lines, “Her Body is Perfected/ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”  The speaker is obviously pleased that they have died. The have died on their own accord, thus bringing a state of bliss- the smile of accomplishment of their face. The poem continues to writes “Her bare/Feet seem to be saying:/ We have come so far, it is over.” The speaker is obviously relieved they no longer have to walk the hard life they were once walking in. Plath continues to writes “The moon had nothing to be sad about./ Staring from her hood of bone./She is used to this sort of thing./ Her blacks crackle and drag” The moon is refering to the speaker- someone who no longer needs to be sad about anything, because now all of their sadness is over.

Being so in tandem with her suicide, one may assume the speaker of this poem is Plath herself, giving her last goodbye to the world in the only way she knew how- though her poetry.

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Vinegar Tom and the Feminist Revolution

It is Churchill’s feminist play that we see a harsh mistreatment of the woman of the witch hunts of Britain. In 1976, Caryl Churchill’s release of her famous play Vinegar Tom comes to the forefront of critics of Britain and examines the gender and power relationships from the perspective of women accused of being witches in the 17th century.

The play follows Alice, a woman living in a small village in her twenties. Alice and her mother have been accused of witchcraft after an argument with their neighbors and explores the path of both Alice and her mother through their trials and their inability to conform to society at the time. The play acts are filled with songs that discuss aspects of conformity and diversity surrounding any culture.

“In Vinegar Tom, Churchill attempts to not only deconstruct the subjugation of women, especially with respect of class issues, but also create a psychological realism and multiple subjectivities for her female characters. One of the ways she does this is through the structural manipulation of time frames.” She recognizes the structuring of time as a symbolic social act, where the perpetuation of linearity and causality mystifies the authorship of history and gender. This manipulation serves to alienate the spectator.”(
Khozaei, Gender Politics and Deconstruction of Patriarchy in Caryl Churchill’s Selected Plays, Pg.575)

The playwright Churchill, an influential feminist author who writes this from inspiration from the Women’s Right Act of 1970, writing this as a social critic of inequality at the time. It is in Churchill’s writing that we see this as a moment in time capturing on the cusp of a feminism revolution.

In a world where momentum is advancement for all genders and races, we see that the 1970’s was the start of a revolution for a feminist revolution in England and the world. Culturally, America can relate to this movement of advancement from the 1970’s following this ideal of a 1950’s “Nuclear Family” in America and England and the turbulent 1960’s of a revolution in America the 1970’s was a time of civil unrest for our own cultural reference.

The world itself was becoming smaller, with advancing relations, technology, and culture from America and England we see a world beginning to become smaller. Vinegar Tom was important in capturing the sentiment of this 70’s revolution in England. The 1970’s Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 that worked to establish equal treatment between both men and women for Pay and conditions for working. It was passed as a reaction to the Ford Sewing Machinist Strike of 1968. The Machinist strike was a major impact within the UK as women sewing machinist stopped creating essential seat covers which eventually lead to a major production shut down of cars. This was the start of the feminist revolution for the UK. Later influencing legislation for equal pay, this was a culture shock for a stricter Europe at the time.

Churchill’s song in her play were set in a modern setting and allowed the audience to relate to the plight of the characters in the 17th century. The songs dealt with conformity, struggles to be different, and to stand alone from each other.  The importance of these songs are a way of displaying the problems with conformity in a society and gender relations between men and women and the structure of inferiority for many women in England.

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My Lifetime Between Great Hands


“I am in the world

to change the world

my lifetime

is to love to endure to suffer the music

to set its portrait

up as a sheet of the world…

and the child alive within the living woman, music of man,

and death holding my lifetime between great hands

the hands of enduring life

that suffers the gifts and madness of full life, on earth, in our time,

and through my life, through my eyes, through my arms and hands

may give the face of this music in portrait waiting for

the unknown person

held in the two hands, you.”

-Muriel Rukeyser; “Kathe Kollwitz” (pp. 1208)

The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature

While reading this excerpt of Rukeyser ‘s poem, “Kathe Kollwitz”, I couldn’t help but picture a grieving military mother, mourning the loss of her child; perhaps her only child. The thought of a woman losing her own flesh and blood is a difficult one to completely grasp unless one has personally gone through the experience. However, the way that Rukeyser writes gives those lucky enough to avoid such an experience an opportunity to see through that perspective.  When analyzing this poem, I heard the voice of a mother in a sorrowful, prayer-like state, speaking openly to herself, and then to her deceased child. The first ellipsed section sounded like a sort of promise made by the mother, to carry on after her child’s death and “change the world”, using her tragedy as motivation, to display the wrongs happening around her in the form of a “portrait” or “sheet of the world”. The second part has more of a mournful, despairing tone, in which the mother describes how she must “suffer the gifts and madness of full life on earth” without her child, awaiting the day when she will be reunited with the “unknown person held in the two hands”.

Personally, I think it is amazing how so much power can be held in two little stanzas of poetry. You can delve so far into this text and begin discussions about loss,  unconditional  maternal love, and especially about the struggles of military families. It is so saddening to picture a mother having to bury her own child and this poem gives a voice to those women who have. Oftentimes, people picture mothers of deceased children as powerless, and expect them to simply give up on their own lives to resort to a lifetime of mourning. While this may be true for some mothers, I like that Rukseyer displayed the strong side of motherhood; not only did she emphasize the pain and suffering that this mother was experiencing, she showed how the mother was channeling her pain into actions towards changing the world in the name of her child-so they would not have to die for naught. I think I was overwhelmed the most by the idea of the child living through the mother although they have passed and she now must go on living, caring the burden of her loss while using her body, mind, and soul to criticize and mend the world she lives in.

I found this video about two moms of deceased soldiers who are using their grief to make a difference:


I think the group that presented this text was correct for including the portrait “Woman with Dead Child” by Kathe Kollwitz because it is a visual representation of all the emotion that Rukeyser was trying to get across (see below). This drawing, made in 1903, was the inspiration for Rukeyser’s poem. The most striking thing about Kollwitz’s work is the non-human appearance of the mother. She is cradling her child and buring her face into his chest. Although the viewer cannot directly see the mother’s face, the parts that are visible are haunting, and monster-like. Also, the size difference between the mother and her child (ex: her leg is the same size of the child’s whole body) creates the  sense that the child, although grown, is still a child to their mother. I think this can apply to all moms; they always see their children as babies, even when they’re grown with their own children.

“Woman with Dead Child”- Kathe Kollwitz

I really enjoyed this poem, even though the subject matter was pretty heavy. I think that military families and their daily struggles are things that need to be talked about; and not only talked about, but supported. For a mother, nothing can compare to losing your child, and thousands of military mothers, fathers, and families go through exactly that every year. But even through this immense loss, there is a silver lining of sorts. Through this loss, there is a common thread that ties all human beings. We all experience love, loss, and grief. And the love of a mother for her child transcends race, ethinicity, origin, etc. I think it is through these experiences that we can become closer in a worldwide sense, and resurface the humanity that we somehow lost along the way.

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One e

Toni Morrison is was born February 18 1931 in Lorain Ohio. n 1949 Morrison entered Howard University, where she received a B.A. in English in 1953. She also earned a master’s degree  in English from Cornell University in 1955, for which she wrote a thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf . After graduation Morrison moved to Houston Texas and became an English teacher at Southern Texas University. After her divorce in 1962 she moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked as a textbook editor. A year and a half later she went to work as an editor at the New York City headquarters of Random House which is the largest general-interest trade book publisher in the world.


As a young girl Morrison’s father, George Woford, told her numerous folktales, which she states is a method of story telling that later worked its way into some of her writing. The folktales were primarily about black communities. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters.  One example of this would be in her only sort story “Recitatif“.  This short story is the story of two young girls. Right from the beginning of the story the reader learns that the two girls are of different races. However, throughout the story, the reader is unaware of which girl is of which race. Morrison plays on stereotypes of whites and blacks, and lets the readers decide for themselves which girl is which.



One example of how Morrison uses stereotypes in order to make the reader define the girls races is on the first page. Morrison states, “And Mary, that’s my mother, she was right. Every now and then she would stop dancing long enough to tell me something important and one of the things she said was that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smelly funny, I mean.” (1225). Right from the start you can see how Morrison uses aspects of what the reader may assume to be stereotypical connections to race. The fact that the mother told her daughter in the story that “they” never wash their hair is already showing racial assumptions. Since the Morrison put this in the story, she is making the reader  lean toward conventional aspects that would define the girls’ races.


Another example of stereotypes in the story that Morrison uses would be the girls second meeting in the story, eight years later during the 1960’s. The reading states, “”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her. “Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?” Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling. “Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest- Oh wow. Forget it””. (1229) When reading this the reader is forced to assume the races of the girls. One may assume that because Jimi Hendrix was a African-American rock singer, that it is African-American teenagers who would be going to see him. However, Jimi Hendrix’s music was popular throughout different communities, came from England, and had a band with two white men. or that reason it could be possible that the girl who was going to the concert could be Caucasian.


One other example of how the reader show decide for themselves which girls is which raced based on the stereotypes provided would be during the racial strike. It states, “”Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot.”” Twyla responds by saying, “She wasn’t black”. (1234). When reading this the reader might first assume that Roberta is the one that is black. This is because she is the one who is participating at a racial strike. However, there were also Caucasians that helped and participated in different racial strikes. Also, the act that they use the word “bigot” can be taken in different ways.  Bigot can be defined as, “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”.  It’s an interesting word to use because it could go wither way with which girl you put with which race.


All in all, you can see how Morrison uses the readers own stereotypes on racism in order to define which character is which race.



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Blame On Women


Caryl Churchill was born September 3rd 1938 in London. She emigrated to the Canada when she was ten but decided to return to England to go to college. Chruchhill graduated Oxford  with her B.A in English Litature.  In 1976 she wrote a play titled Vinegar Tom. The play was written in the time of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. The theme of the play is centered around the power struggle between men and women at this time. Women were being seen as witches if they were different from society. For example, the character Ellen, she is a herbal healer that uses very strange ingredients and methods. Even tho she does do anything bad, even being a good witch is a bad thing to the society.


The fact that there were no men being accused as witches shows the reader who has the power in the story. When bad things happen, such as crops not growing, animals dying or people getting sick, someone needs to be blamed for it. Back then they did not have any idea about sicknesses or nature, so instead they blame someone that makes the most since. At the very end of the play, two of the characters are saying why women are witches,

Sprenger: Women are feebler in both body and mind so it’s not surprising
Kramer: In intellect they seem to be of a different nature from men…
Sprenger:…like children…

Sprenger: She was formed from a bent rib…
Kramer:…and so is an imperfect animal.
Sprenger:Fe mina, female, that is fe faith minus without…
Kramer:…so cannot keep faith.

They go back and forth listing all the reasons why women are less the men; backing everything up with so called “evidence”. It is much easier for them to blame someone who cannot do anything about it then actually take responsibility for there actions. They even encourage the so called “evil” behavior. At the beginning of the play a man is trying to persuade a women to sleep with him again. It doesn’t matter either way if she does it or not because there are consequences on both ends.


At the end of the play there is a final song titled “Evil Women“. It is the response women have to all the accusations and blame they get placed upon them. They are saying that the men are the ones who are making the women seem so evil. This is the one time in the play where the women have a strong voice.

“Evil women
Is that what you want?
Is that what you want to see?
On the movie screen
Of your own wet dream
Evil women.”

-Erica Nelson

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A Woman’s Hysteria


“Hysteria is a woman’s weakness. Hysteron, Greek, the womb. Excessive blood causes an imbalance in the humors. The noxious gases that form inwardly every month rise to the brain and cause behavior quite contrary to the patient’s real feelings. After bleeding you must be purged. Tonight you shall be blistered. You will soon be well enough to be married.” (1249)

In the early 16th and 17th centuries, the term “hysteria” was strongly used to describe the mental condition of a woman whose behavior seemed to be out of the ordinary according to societal rules.  In her play Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill expresses the fact that an outspoken and controversial woman is seen as demonic and sinful, rather than independent.  In a moment of weakness, a woman was seen as being in a vulnerable state, one that causes her to easily be influenced by evil and supernatural spirits and was guilty of sin because of this.  They were not given a chance to explain their behavior, but were automatically subjected to a series of torturous “treatments” and in most cases were condemned to death by hanging.

During the 16th century, witch hunts became a popular form of rioting against women who were rumored to have been possessed by the devil.   “Moral panic” broke out and doctors coined the term “hysteria” to explain and describe a woman’s abnormal mental condition, leading to the assumption that she was under the influence of a supernatural body.

Churchill’s writing re-invented the views of the witch trials, bringing in topics from this century and incorporating those in the same manor that the witch trials were treated in the 16th century.  During an interview, the artistic director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke, stated, “The exciting thing about Caryl is that she always tends to break new ground. The degree of innovation is extraordinary. Every play almost reinvents the form of theatre.”  According to Cooke, Churchill was not afraid to expand her ideas about feminism, bringing in issues with women from the past and dissolving them into issues with women of the now.

The idea of “hysteria” is mocked in Churchill’s play, creating a sense that no matter what a woman were to do, she had no control over her body and what happened to it.  In earlier centuries, the common thought was that when a woman experienced her menstrual cycle, a toxic gas would be released, traveling to their brain and causing the woman to become panicked, emotional and crazed, or “hysterical”.  Churchill takes this historical fact and puts a feminist twist on it, treating “women’s hysteria” as the cause for all suffering.  A woman’s independence was stripped away from her, and no matter how much she tried to deny the fact that she was no possessed or did not commit a sin, this only fueled the assumptions that they needed to be treated in order to return to their “normal” state.

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The Strength of the Visual

It is clear, that some of the most powerful forms of documentation are those of writers who witness a situation first hand. Wars, famine and oppression can be illustrated using words in a way that is so powerful that the reader can often tell what the people were going through and how they felt throughout these historical milestones. Without much of this documentation, the truth of history may have been lost or even skewed incredibly.


Poet Muriel Rukeyser does exactly this with her poem about famous documentary artist Kathe Kollwitz. With this poem, she shows what it would be like for a person, like Kollwitz, who lived between war and suffering.

“Held between was my lifetime among wars, the big hands of the world of death my lifetime listens to yours. The faces of the sufferers in the street, in daliness, their lives showing through their bodies.” (1208)

Attempting to document what was happening in the world that she was writing in while accrediting the work of female artist Kathe Kollwitz. There is an important function to work like this, because it has a much stronger message to the reader, just as Kollwitz’s work had on her viewers. Documenting this pain and agony not only raises awareness, but also has a larger impact on the viewers by giving the more of a visual.

not_detected_235978Kathe Kollwitz, The Survivors, 1923

In this piece by Kollwitz, she uses the same ideas that Rukeyser does in her poem and creates a raw visual of the suffering of the people post WWI Germany. The innocents of the children has been taken away and they have seen so much death and agony. This is shown by making their eyes black and lifeless. An image like this can be quite shocking and definitely has an impact on the people of the world at this time.

This approach has been loved by many writers and artists and has impacted the world and politics immensely. Artists like Dorothea Lange and writers like Adrienne Rich had great contributions to the world with their work, by exposing the hardships of the world that have been so easily covered up or ignored.





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Something to Burn

In Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, she writes a section called “Something to Burn.”  Part of the section goes like this, starting at line 5-12,

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches, or what will you choose?

Sometimes it’s lunatics, shut them away.

It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

Find something to burn.

Also, here is a man singing it on stage.

I like that they had a man singing this song especially because people try to find anything to blame their problems on.  Specifically, in today’s society many people are breaking out of the societal expectations that were normal hundreds of years ago.  Now, not only women, but men are to blame also; something could be “wrong” with them, and if there isn’t an obvious reason, they will find something, anything! “Fine something to burn.” Below is a news report on Vinegar Tom, stating that Vinegar Tom is a play about witches with no witches in it.

The fact that Churchill wrote a play with no witches in the story, causes the audience to think about what the play is really about.  “Something to Burn” is especially significant in the play because the people at the time needed someone to blame for troubles in their lives, or if they saw some people acting differently, something must be wrong, so they chose witches to blame, or rather women.  These women were considered witches because they went against societal expectations; Alice was not married and slept with a man, and Susan wanted a remedy to abort her unborn child.  “It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews” shows that individuals need to blame someone, even if that someone didn’t do anything wrong.

Churchill’s play examines how outspoken women were seen as troublemakers, and therefore must be witches.  Churchill once said, “Women are traditionally expected not to initiate action, and plays are action, in a way that words are not” (1237).  Through this play Churchill’s true action conveys a story of how women were viewed when they went against the norm of society.  Churchill did not only speak about what her feminists beliefs were, but she wrote about them and incorporated them into her plays, where the audience would be able to actually see the acts take place.  Women were aloud to speak back in the day, but to have an audience witness an event like Vinegar Tom take place, it was even more powerful Churchill because it showed that these accusers were wrong.

Susan’s role is especially significant to me because the audience knows that she is not a witch, but by the end of the play Susan is admitting to herself that she is in fact a witch.  This character is what I believe ties the whole play together.  Susan out of everyone should know that she is not a witch.  Her and most everybody else is caught up in hearsay and believes so strongly in what other people are saying and accusing each other of.  The fact that Churchill chooses the women that are outspoken to be convicted of witchcraft, also can show that women, not men, were to act appropriately in society or else.

“We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away,” can show that society doesn’t want to admit that their is something wrong with themselves.  Everyone is going to have a flaw, if society just accepts the facts that there are going to be troubles, then they may be able to live a happier life.

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Recitatif and the Unknown Races


In the story Recitatif, by Toni Morrison we are introduced right away to two young girls. The only thing we know about them is that they are or different races and are placed in a shelter. The interesting thing that Morrison does is she never tells us what race each child is. Throughout the story it is the readers decision to choose who they think is which race. Their job is to notice parts in the novel that would set the races apart. As the reader your tendency is to lean toward stereotypical aspects that would define the girls’ races.  For example we are given a chance to be stereotypical right in the beginning of the story:

“We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t  read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher” (pg. 1244).

This right away tends to make readers think Roberta is African American. This was because the story was written in 1983. During this time period many slaves could not read or write.  This is the first assumption the reader would make but throughout the novel Morrison challenges us.

The next section where Morrison plays on the race role is when Twyla and Roberta meet at the Howard Johnson’s. (click for a quick old commercial of one of these restaurants!!) Twyla was working there and Roberta stopped in.

“”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her.

“Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. “Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?”

Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling.

“Hendrix. Jimmy Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest—Oh, wow. Forget it” (pg. 1229).

Many would assume Roberta was African American here as well, but others would could assume she was Caucasian.  A lot of Caucasians were huge fans of Jimmy Hendrix. It is another way of Morrison trying to get the reader to question the races.

Morrison deliberately left the races out. She wanted to show that people make assumptions based on people no matter what you tell them.  Morrison wrote many other stories about these situations. Morrison is very passionate about who she is and what she has done to get to where she is in life. Below is an interview with her. She is a powerful woman!