Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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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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Cultural Identities

   

Many times when a woman writes, her stories go beyond the issues of women’s inequality and their struggles to find acceptance in society; their writing becomes a symbol and inspiration for those who are of  different nationalities and come from different cultural backgrounds. Michelle Cliff is a prime example of a famous women writer who takes true-life experiences and implements them in such a way that forces her audience to be aware of how one’s culture can affect their entire lifestyle.

Born in Jamaica, Cliff was a light-skinned Creole and a lesbian.  Her autobiography entitled If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire, explores her identity as a Jamaican woman and uses the diversity of her and her ancestors in order to investigate and criticize the events that led to their oppression by the “white” society.  Cliff combines elements of history and fiction to represent the suppression and realism of her cultural identity.  Her reinvention of history through fiction can be seen as Cliff’s attempt to have her audience walk in the shoes of the oppressed and to peak into history through their eyes.

While explaining the roles of the “white” teachers during her secondary schooling, Cliff writes in her story:

“One teacher went so far as to tell us many people thought Jamaicans lived in trees and we had to show these people they were mistaken.)  In short, we felt insufficient to judge the behavior of these women. The English ones (who had the corner on power in the school) had come all this way to teach us.  Shouldn’t we treat them as the missionaries they were certain they were? The creole Jamaicans had a different role: they were passing on to those of us who were light-skinned the creole heritage of collaboration, assimilation, loyalty to our betters.  We were expected to be willing subjects in this outpost of civilization.” (919)

In my opinion, I could pick up a strong sense of sarcasm while reading this specific passage.  Cliff was light-skinned, but yet her “white” elders still demanded and expected behavior from her and her peers that reflected the utmost respect; but not respect based off of positive morals and excellence in being a role-model, but respect based solely off of the fact that their culture was deemed to be the “right” way of living.  Throughout Cliff’s story, she expresses the fact that her cultural identity had a significant impact on not only her writing, but her life as a whole.

Just like Cliff, Shara McCallum expressed much of the same ideas of cultural identity.  McCallum also was born in Jamaica and used her heritage as a source of influence for her writings.  During an interview, McCallum states that she considers herself to be a woman writer of many cultures.  Her poetry was highly effected by her need to re-write and revise history.  Many times McCallum moved back in time to popular myths and legends that shaped to world of women, and would attempt to “write or right” their story.  McCallum considered many of her works to span across a wide range of material that was meant to be reinvented in order for her audience to gain a new perspective on a traditional story.  During her interview, McCallum states: “The poet has always had a responsibility to address the culture in which she or he is raised and lives; and culture, second only to being conveyed by language itself, is transmitted through the stories, fables, and myths we make of our experience as human beings. It follows that rewriting these tales is one avenue to addressing their permanence and their effect on us ontologically.”

McCallum’s poem Seed states:

I am a child of the sun, balancing

the wind on my hips.
I have learned to make stones
dance, to walk with each footfall
echoing silence, to listen to the songs
of leaves. I am a child of the hushing sea:
waves, the sound of my listening;
salt, the scent of my sight.
I have taken machete to the coconut,
ground sugarcane between my teeth,
to unclasp their sweetened rhymes.
At dawn, I have held the waking earth,
each grain of dirt and sand
spilling from my half-open hands.
Wherever I am, I am
that space between
the husk and the heart
of the fruit.

McCallum takes many elements from her cultural background and creates a sense that it is not only her femininity that is being represented.  Especially in the above poem, McCallum emphasizes the hips, a body part that is the focus of many other writings; but she also mentions coconuts, sugarcane and rhymes, which are all elements of the Jamaican culture.  The video that is linked provides a small insight as to the daily lives of the Jamaican people and the importance of nature and how it shaped their entire well-being.  Natural fruits, bodies of water, dirt, sand and the sun provide resources for many societies in Jamaica that allow them to function, and by showcasing these elements, McCallum is expressing her appreciation for her culture.  This poem sheds a positive light on coming from a different nationality, but none the less shows how much of an influence culture has on the identity of a woman writer and how it can affect their writing style and content.


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Breaking Through the Shell

        

“Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement” (391). Helene Cixous’s strong feminist philosophy helped to bring justice and equality to the world of feminine literature. Cixous was not afraid to break the barrier between what was appropriate and what was not, focusing solely on bringing to light the unfair and oppressive treatment toward women who wished to express themselves through writing. The woman’s body and intelligence was meant to be celebrated and exposed, not hidden and shamed. It is obvious in her work titled, “The Laugh of Medusa” that Cixous was very adamant about liberating the “New Woman” and moving beyond the “Old”. In order to break out of the shell that had encompassed women for years, female writers could not accept the barriers that had been placed on them and could not be afraid of the consequences and back-lash that might have occurred after their writing was read by the public.

Here is a video clip from the NYS Writers Institute in 2007:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evT0gGJ5Oms

“When I don’t write, I sleep, and when I sleep, I dream, and when I dream, I write.”  While speaking to the students and other faculty at the State University of New York, Cixous goes through her journey as a writer and how her everyday life was shaped around her fascination with writing.  Cixous mentions how writing is a journey, and the journey that she talks about is exactly the type of advancements that she explains in “The Laugh of the Medusa”.  In her essay, she writes, “ We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty; we’ve been made victims of the old fool’s game: each one will love the other sex” (399).  For decades, women have felt that their bodies were something to be ashamed of and that any expression of their sexuality was deemed embarrassing and adulterous.  Cirxous strongly encouraged the celebration of the female body and the livelihood that it brought to women.

Cixous served as an important role model for many contemporary women poets, especially for those who were dying for an answer to their problem; dying for a light to show them the way to a successful and meaningful career.  Audre Lorde, in particular, was one poet whose ideals were very similar to those of Cixous.  In her poem, she writes:

“And I knew when I entered her    I was

high wind in her forest’s hollow

fingers whispering sound

honey flowed    from the split cup

impaled on a lance of tongues

on the tips of her breasts    on her navel

and my breath    howling in her entrances

through lungs of pain.” (540)

Lorde uses nature as a way of showing the power of the feminine physique.  The fact that Lorde uses body parts that are usually touched by finger tips and by breathe creates a sensual and erotic feel.  This poem expresses the erotic love between two people, and even though their gender is not determined, there is still a clear picture of their love.  In my opinion, Lorde expresses the oppression of women as writers and as human beings, and even though they were help back by society they were still able to be passionately in love.  Lorde states in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, “…I find more and more women-identified women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic’s electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange” (540).  Just as Cixous was doing in her essay, Lorde encourages women to break out of their shells and dare them to take risks without worrying about the consequences or turning the other cheek.  Lorde was not afraid to express her sexuality and voluptuousness in her poetry and other writings, creating a sense that the subject of her body was the most important story to tell.


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Love and Water

Edna Pontellier’s appending suicide has been considered one of the most controversial endings in the history of literature.  The sacredness of the sea and her lack of interest in her domestic duties elude to the notion that Edna does indeed drift off into the water with the intention of killing herself, but this is not known for sure.  Chopin writes:

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to waner for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lost itself in mazes of inqard contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.  The touch of the sea is senuous, enfolding the body in its soft, clost embrace. (705)

There is an interesting article written by Rich Christie that connects Edna’s need for independence and self-discovery with her growing passion for the sea.  What once was an irrational fear has turned into an escape from reality.  As a small child, Enda felt a deep fear of drowing and instability while wading through the water.  It is not until she is an adult that she begins to realize that the water creaetes a sense of peace and isolation.  Chopin says, “Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance – that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would enver be able to overcome” (715).  As Edna looks longingly toward the shore, there is this sense that the sea represents the “infinite” and “engulfing” emotions that flow through her.  The fact that her husband is away, her children are at their grandmother’s and she had thought about buying a small house for her own eludes to Edna’s deperate attempt at forming her own inderpendence away from the typical Creole lifestyle.  Edna is attracted to everything that goes against her society.  She begins a quest to find her individuality and find the things in life that satisfy her needs rather than the needs of her family.  “Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon her face. She felt no interest in anything about her” (733).  Edna no longer felt no interest in attending to anything other than her own happiest, and even that was not on top of her list.

The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate” (728).

When Chopin says that Enda’s future was never a concern of hers, there is this sense that the future was not important because she never planned on having a future.  Her suicide could have been pending and building up for a very long time.   She didn’t think about the future because her death was pre-determined, the future simply did not matter.  This quote backs up the idea made by many critics that her suicide was intentional; that Edna drifted into the water with the intention that she was going to kill herself.  I do not think that this is the case at all.  Edna’s previous irrational fear of water is wiped away, and as she drifts into the sea there is this sense that she is finally able to trust what she has feared just as she has been able to stand up for herself in a society that did not accept women as equals.  The water represents her finally liberating herself from what was unjust; and just as she felt a barrier between herself and the shore earlier in the novel, Edna feels an isolation that finally brings her at peace.


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The Oppressed Gender

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“It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.” (67)

During our class discussion today, this quote really struck me as something quite important and imperative to the point that Virginia Woolf was trying to make through her writing of A Room of One’s Own.  On the previous pages in her novel, Woolf explains that women should write in the style women, but then goes on to say later that when writing, a woman should not think of her sex while doing so.  At first these two ideas seem very condescending, but when analyzing them further I realized that Woolf’s ideas actually complement each other.  A woman cannot choose one or the other; in fact, she can do both at the same time while still keeping her identity.  I think that what Woolf is trying to say is that a woman should not write in a particular way that hinders her personal writing style.  Back in the time when women were just beginning to explore their writing talents, their writing was filled with anger and resentment; resentment toward the male population that kept them from fully living out their lives and exploring their true potentials.  Women thought that they had to write in an angry and frustrated fashion simply because they had been repressed for so long by the men in their society.  Forced to live a life filled with motherhood and domesticity, women were not given the option to have a career path of their own and earn their own means of living; they were to strictly rely on their husbands for financial dependency.  Woolf states that “…in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned.” (26)

When women finally began to break out of their shells and create careers of their own in writing, the built up and previously unspoken resentment toward the male population came pouring out throught their writing.

“But there was another element which was often present and could not immediately be identified.  Anger, I called it.  But it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions.  To judge from its odd effects, it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.” (31)

The above quote sums up perfectly the type of anger that women during this time expressed through their writing.  Their anger was spontaneous and wild; impulsive and uncontrolled.  Women wrote as though they are finally able to truly express how they felt about being oppressed and restricted for basically their entire lives.  But it is this anger that hindered their ability to be taken seriously.  I feel as though all women writers during this time thought that their writing had to contain the angry and frustrated elements that were previously mentioned in this post in order to be taken seriously as an author; almost as though there was an expectation for them to write in such a manner.  The key is that there was no reason for them to feel the anger and pain in their writing, unless that was the angle that they wanted to go for.  To be taken seriously as a writer, their stories and other writings just simply had to be good and enjoyable to an audience.  Going back to Woolf’s point about writing like a woman but yet not thinking of sex at the same time, I think that it was important for women to write in a way that a reader would not be able to tell whether or not the story was written by a man or woman.  This goes with Woolf’s statement about be “woman-manly” or “man-womanly”.  Woolf expresses her opinions about being open to thinking outside of the typical gender expectations.  There is this sense that both sexes should identify with both genders in order to be successful.  There is a unity of mind, one that suggests that whether a person is male or female, they have the qualities that are suggested in both genders.  Woolf tries to explain in her final passages that women should step aside from the typical gender roles and write pieces about things that they are passionate about rather than what is expected of them.

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“For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls  could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen.  Of course the answer for many years to come was, Yes, by living the life of Aphra Behn! Death would be better! and the door slammed faster than ever.” (47)

Woolf links the oppression of women during this time period to the steady growth of insanity and thoughts of suicide within women.  Women had obvious feelings of neglect and oppression by the male population of this time, and it reflected in their works.  This passage was very interesting to me because I could not tell if Woolf is simply being sarcastic and over-exaggerating the situation in order to show the reader the struggle of women writers, or if these types of things were actually said during this time.  This article that is linked to the word “suicide” above is very interesting because it does link the suicide of three famous women writers, including Woolf, to their struggles of being writers.  Did mothers and fathers really believe that it was easier to be dead than to be a working women in society?  If things like this actually occured in the home during this time, I feel as though pressure from the parents to be domestic also fueled female’s anger and bitterness.  Aphra Behn was a very influential woman in the writing community, but yet parents would rather have their daughters dead than have them base their lives off of Behn’s accomplishments.  It makes me wonder how a woman like Behn was able to break the stereotypes and pain of the female community during this time when women like Judith Shakespear were so willing to take their own lives instead of trying to push forward.  I guess that is one point that Woolf is trying to make, that women were strong enough to stand up and take charge of their own power and destiny, rather than listening to the dismal thoughts of others.