Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

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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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What’s the true story?

200px-Lucille_clifton 220px-Paula_Gunn_Allen

Lucille Clifton is an African-American writer and teacher who creates poetry that allows the reader to see well-known situations at a completely different angle. She uses her interest in feminist themes to recreate the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God demands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but at last second, God stops him and he later just sacrifices a lamb. This theme has been prevalent throughout history and has been recreated by many artists, but always following the same story line.

Abraham titiaan_abraham_izaak

For many artists, this has been a very popular scene to paint. It is almost always at the point in time where he is just about to sacrifice his son and God stops in just seconds before. As you notice, Isaac’s mother, Sarah, is not present. She has no influence over this situation and it is unclear as to whether she agreed to this or not.

In Clifton’s poem, sarah’s promise, she gives this figure a voice. Whether this be the truth or made up, she allows this person who is never even viewed in the visual recreations of this story a say. She states:

who understands better than I

the hunger in old bones

for a son? so here we are,

Abraham with his faith

and I my fury, Jehovah,

I march into the thicket

of your need and promise you

the children of young women,

yours for a thousand years.

their faith will send them to you,

docile as Abraham. now,

speak to my husband.

spare me my one good boy. (820)

In the Bible, women often don’t have a voice. They are viewed only for procreation because the greatest woman is Mary. Clifton takes this opportunity to give Sarah back her voice and create a different context for the reader. Sarah is demanding God of all things to stop this blasphemy and spare her son. Not only is this unacceptable for a person to do, but it is INSANE for a woman to do or even think of. She doesn’t show this women as weak because she is “losing faith” in God, but strong-minded because she has expressed her anger and stood up for herself. Clifton believes strongly in giving this voice back to women and starts to do so by almost rewriting history in the way that she would like to view it.

Similar to Clifton, Paula Gunn Allen creates a new view on the most well-known biblical story of Adam and Eve. The story of Adam and Eve has been told for many years in order to teach Christians of the ultimate sin. This is part of the creation myth where God creates these two people to multiply. God gives them one rule and it is to not eat from the tree of forbidden fruit. As the serpent tempts the two, they are persuaded to take part in the “Ultimate Sin.” Of course the women, Eve, eats from the tree and then persuades Adam to do the same. Resulting from this is the expulsion from the garden. Leaving Adam and Eve more aware of their nakedness and ashamed of themselves. As of the story of Abraham, this has also been one that has been reproduced time and time again in the history of art. Visually, this has never been an invigorating experience, sexuality is clearly a topic that is frowned upon and this is where many Christians teach lessons about sexuality and what they belief is right and wrong.


In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo illustrates two parts of this scene. At first, before the serpent tempts these two people, they seem care-free and happy. After the expulsion, they end up mortified and run away covering their private areas up. Also in these two examples below, it is clear that they are ashamed of themselves.

0007727563 masaccio_expulsion_dtl

Paula Gunn Allen’s poem Eve the Fox she states:

Eve the fox swung
her hips appetizingly, she
sauntered over to Adam the hunk
who was twiddling his toes and
devising an elaborate scheme
for renaming the beasts:  Adam
was bored, but not Eve for she
knew the joy of swivelhips
and the taste of honey on her lips.
She was serpent wise and snake foolish,
and she knew all the tricks of the trade
that foxy lady, and she used them
to wile away the time:  bite into this,
my hunky mate, she said, bending
tantalizingly low so her warm breasts
hung like peaches in the air.  You
will know a thing or two when I get
through to you, she said, and gazed
deep with promise into his squinted eyes.
She admired the glisten of sweat and light
on his ropey arms, that hunky man of mine,
she sighed inside and wiggled deliciously
while he bit deep into the white fleshy
fruit she held to his lips.  And wham-bam,
the change arose, it rose up in Adam
as it had in Eve and let me tell you
right then they knew all
they ever wanted to know about knowing,
and he discovered the perfect curve of her
breasts, the sweet gentle halfmoon of her belly,
the perfect valentine of her vulva,
the rose that curled within the garden
of her loins, that he would entered like bees,
and she discovered the tender power
of his sweat, the strong center of his
muscled arms, she worshipped the dark hair
that fell over his chest in waves.
And together riding the current of this
altogether new knowing they had found,
they bit and chewed, bit and chewed.

In this poem, she clearly shows Eve expressing her sexuality and embracing the erotic. She uses phrases like “Eve for she knew the joy of swivelhips and the taste of honey on her lips.” Here it is clear that she is aware of her sexuality and it is in a positive way. She also uses words like “appetizingly” to express Adam’s desire for Eve’s hips. This story has been converted into something almost liberating, showing women that they need to express their bodies in a positive way and that the awareness of these sensations is okay. Many of Paula Gunn Allen’s poems and Lucille Clifton’s poems express the many differences of women, but in a positive way. Often times, women have been viewed negatively for expressing their sexuality and have been judged for their many differences. Just by their different sexual organs, women have been put on the bottom of the totem pole and both of these poets want to reclaim these differences and express the beauty in them.


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Celebrating the Erotic

Often times if a women is found celebrating her sexuality, she can be labeled with dark words such as: whore, slut or even sleezy. This is a serious claim that has created a society that believes that a woman is to act a certain way. A way that not only has suppressed strong feelings of sexuality, but it has created a horrible name for women who celebrate it. The term erotic is often connected with the female race. A woman that comes off as “erotic” can be seen as inferior and irresponsible in our culture today. Expressing these strong urges has been feared Audre Lorde on the other hand, encourages women to embrace the erotic roots and satisfactions that urge them.  In her essay, the Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, she states:

“The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic.” (537)

Many people often connect pornography with filth and wrongness, therefore, by relating such things with the female erotic, it’s image has been tainted.


Here she explains how men have used something so wonderful and used it against women in order to create a sense of inferiority. Women are made to believe that being the farthest thing from erotic is what they should strive to be. Going back to the idea that they have other things to worry about in the home and with the children.  

By repressing this eroticism, these women are then not allowing themselves to be empowered. Through this expression of feeling, it is possible for women to then gaining the knowledge to them become empowered. It allows women to know that satisfaction and joy is possible. With this huge release of pleasure and creative energy, women can experience things in a completely different light. This is something that Lorde feels needs to be released.

“I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all of my experience.” (539)

Here she is expressing her own feelings and desire for these sensations. Understanding that through her writing she is to reclaim her own sexuality and means of eroticism as an example to other women.

In her poem, Love Poem, Lorde uses symbols of nature to show the importance of the anatomy of a woman’s body. Not only does her use of nature empower her writing, but her way of telling about this deep erotic relationship between two lovers shows how positive expressing these feelings can be. Lorde describes:

“Speak earth and bless me with what is richest
make sky flow honey out of my hips
rigid mountains
spread over a valley
carved out by the mouth of rain.

And I knew when I entered her I was
high wind in her forests 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 into her entrances
through lungs of pain.

Greedy as herring-gulls
or a child
I swing out over the earth
over and over
again.” (540)

She describes the woman’s body as something positive and sensual. “hips rigid as mountains” this is a topic that at this time wasn’t discussed therefore it was quite radical. She is blatantly showing society what has been repressed for so long. While attempting to claim what she is: her sexuality.


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How far will you go for the devotion of your sex?

The theme of loyalty can be found in Susan Glaspel’s Trifles. This loyalty is expressed between a group of women being oppressed in an extremely patriarchal society. This play begins with the a group of people trying to figure out who murdered the off-stage character John Wright, with the main suspect being his wife. As the men rummage through the house trying to find evidence, they leave the women to gather items for Mrs. Wright. The men think that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are simply dealing with their small, unimportant issues, also known as trifles, when in all reality they are solving the case. With this said, as the women begin to solve the case, their loyalty to Mrs. Wright is shown in their acts to cover up the many clues that the men don’t seem to be concerned with.  Just one case where the defiance towards this Patriarchal society these women are forced to live in.


As the scene begins, there are many examples where the men make it clear that they should not be bothered with the small “things” that women waste their time with. When they first begin to look around, they enter the kitchen. Before they sit around and criticized Mrs. Wright’s shortcomings as a wife, they begin to belittle the things in the kitchen, deeming them as unimportant in their investigation. The Sheriff himself says, “Nothing here but kitchen things” (983). Here he clearly states the unimportance of this place that has been so important in a woman’s life at this time. Once again, another gentleman Hale, begins to put down the things that many women associated themselves with, in this case focusing on Mrs. Wright’s fruit preserves. He goes on and says, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (983). As these comments keep coming throughout the play, the women, more specifically Mrs. Hale, begin to stand against the men in a very passive and secretive way. As they rummage through Mrs. Wright’s things, they begin to unveil the true story, while the men are more concerned with what they consider problems that are more important. As the men continue to criticize, Mrs. Hale is still yet to completely back down, while also allowing her defiance to go under the radar. The men begin to discuss how dirty the towels were in the kitchen and assume Mrs. Wright as unfit. Immediately, Mrs. Hale answers with “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they may be” (983). Right here is where the reader can tell that she is a little upset with the men criticing a woman’s kitchen, and she begins to stand up for Mrs. Wright immediately. She is well aware of the daunting tasks expected of a farmer’s wife while the Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters is completely unaware and just responds with the inclination that these men are just doing their job and that it is okay for them to criticize Mrs. Wright.
There are many different clues that are tampered with throughout the novel. I wonder myself if the men were even capable of understanding that these things were clues, because these are things that are so unimportant and easy to look over for them. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters show a concern for this so when they run into these clues, they make the brave choice to cover them up. Their trifles give them clues to the murder while the men simply just snoop around. When they begin to rummage through her sewing kit, they come across a quilt that she had been working on. With stitches so perfect than sudden chaos, one would know that she had become mentally unstable and this could point to her murder. When seeing this, loyal Mrs. Hale begins to rip out the stitches and fix it immediately. Mrs. Peters is very uneasy about Mrs. Hale touching things, but she went along and did it anyways. Mrs. Hale stands by Mrs. Wright’s side despite the fact that every other character would rather ring her neck and shove her in the cell without thinking twice.

Example of Log Cabin Quilt Pattern

As they continue to rummage for scissors, they notice an empty bird-cage. This makes them begin to wonder where the bird could be. Shockingly, right before their eyes is a dead canary with its neck snapped inside Mrs. Wright’s sewing box. They now had her motive. “But, Mrs. Peters–look at it! Its neck! Look at its neck! It’s all–other side to” (988). Their shock overcomes them as footsteps are heard and instead of bringing it to their husband’s attention, they simply tuck the box away, still unable to understand what they have just seen.

As you can see, these women are so closely related, yet so different. They understand each other’s individual struggles that are all driven be common sources. The patriarchal society in which they are forced to live in helps them understand each other and have this loyalty that can not be broken. Mrs. Hale says it herself, “We live close together and we live far apart. We go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (989). Right with that passage it shows the strong loyalty and understanding of these women.


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Why Have There Been No Great Women Writers?

Throughout Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she thoroughly expresses how women lacked the opportunity to write. Yes, Woolf may in fact struggle with the notion that women may have expectations that hindered their writing careers, but she also explains the outside influences. During this time, it was only expected of women to be mothers and very domesticated without little to any say against their husband or father. With this, a fictional character said to be Shakespeare’s sister who was brought up in the same home, but had very different opportunities, giving an understanding as to why she in fact was not a successful writer. With little to nothing to do with her skills to express herself through words, but strictly on how many things were not offered to women during the 16th century and years to come.


On page 38 she states, “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.” As you can see, this bright young woman was thought by Woolf to have the intelligence, but she had other things to tend too, once again being interrupted. She lacked this opportunity in her life to strive and create work that could have possibly been compared to that of men at this time. While Shakespeare was away learning the ins and outs of this art, she was at home getting dinner ready and preparing herself for marriage.

During this time, this was expected of women and many found themselves lost in the gender roles and traditions of this time. Woolf uses this fictional character to show the possibilities of what could have happened if these women pressed for these rights. She explains how even when poor Judith Shakespeare was granted a moment to herself she would just scribble some words down and burn any evidence. She further goes on to explain that:

“…genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born among the working class.” (39)

Wasn’t that exactly what women were at this time? Simply just uneducated degenerates who could not function in this patriarchal society? It is clear that she believes that only the elitists can possess such knowledge. To me, I feel as though Woolf is confused. it is clear that she respects Shakespeare enough to value his genius, but her feelings about the capabilities of women get in the idea. She struggles between this idea of whether women could or could not possess the “genius” of Shakespeare at this time. She says it herself that “..is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard feared and mocked at.” (39) But it is hard to say because little record was kept about women at this time. Personally I feel as though Woolf may have been mistaken. I believe that there were many talented women writers at this time, but it was clear that they wouldn’t have ended up in a playwright or anything like that. She has a very somber tone when discussing the outcomes if this talent was present in a woman’s life.

In a way, I feel as though she is oppressing women by over and over again repeating that this genius was unreachable by women. The intelligence was there, the opportunity was what was missing. With the similar thoughts of Woolf, any hope that a talented young girl was to share her poetry with the world, she ended up disillusioned by this patriarchal society in which she was brought up it with little room for change.

Many those who had a chance ended up just like poor Judith Shakespeare, dead, alone and at strife against herself.


In reference to Woolf, this sort of thinking was not just present in the world of literature, but also in the art world. Being an Art History major, I am very familiar with Linda Nochlin’s work, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Although there are many parrallels between both Woolf’s and Nochlin’s work, I feel as though one of her ideas in particular fits the best. When Nochlin says:

“Could it be that the little golden nugget–genius–is missing from the aristocratic makeup the same way that it is from the feminine psyche? Or rather, is it not that the kinds of demands and expectations placed before both aristocrats and women- the amount of time necessarily devoted to social functions, the very kinds of activities demanded-simlply made total devotion of profession out of the question, indeed unthinkable, both for upper-class males and for women generally, rather than it being a question of genius and talent?”

It is evident that she recognizes the external factors of an artist just as Woof expressed her knowledge of the same thing when speaking of women writers. But she also puts it into a new perspective when discussing the aristocrats, predominantly men, showing that this lack of “genius” may not be encircled around the sex of a human being, but in fact the lack of opportunity and personal experience for each individual.