Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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Filling in the Blanks

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Recitatif is a term derived from the musical term recitative.  The word describes a piece of dramatic music, such as opera, where there are spoken parts within the music.  It also can be traced back to its Latin root word, recitare, which can be defined as reciting from memory.  Recitatif also happens to be the title of a literary work by Toni Morrison and not by coincidence.  The title of this short story is important to understanding the text because Morrison leaves readers to fill in their our thoughts between the broken parts of the character’s memories.  The readers’ personal thoughts and opinions influence how they read the story.

This story story is set up in different “acts” which are recollections of one of the main character’s memory.  It begins with two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, who are placed in an orphanage, not because they are orphans, but because their mothers are unfit for one reason or another.  Many times throughout the story the reader’s are encouraged to fill in the blank about the different aspects of the characters.  This can be seen throughout the entire story as reader’s are left guessing about the race of the girls.

“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. Smell funny, I mean. So when the Big Bozo (nobody ever called her Mrs. Itkin, just like nobody ever said St. Bonaventure)- when she said, “Twyla this Roberta. Roberta this is Twyla. Make each other welcome.” I said, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here.”” (p. 1225)

Even though this passage comes from the first scene of the story, it is extremely important.  It is the first instance where race comes in and the first hint of uncertainty for the reader.  We do not know who is white and who is black at this time.  Based on stereotypes, especially stereotypes between races at this time in history (which is presumably the 1950’s or 60’s), it is not an unlikely assumption that Twyla is white while Roberta is black.   We know that it is Twyla making these assumptions about Roberta ( ie. she is smelly and does not wash her hair) based on things her mother has told her.  This seems to be a white person’s view on black people, but once again it is not possible for the roles to be reversed.  It is just as possible that a black person would feel that way about a white person, it is all about the way the reader interrupts the text.

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The reader is once again challenged towards the end of this first act when Twyla and Roberta’s mothers come to visit them.  Roberta’s mother is portrayed as a stuck up, holy roller.  She refused to shake the hand of Twyla’s mother, who is dressed rather gaudy and trashy for lack of a better term.  In this scene, it can be thought that Twyla’s mother is a “trashy,”  low-class black women, while Roberta’s mother was a higher class, religious white women.  On the other hand, there is a stereotype of large black women, who are very religious and not afraid to publicize that, so the opposite opinion is also not far from the truth.

This back and forth process of thought continues throughout the whole story.  We meet the girls at several points in their lives from late teens to adulthood. In each situation your judgement of the characters changes.  Especially, when the two friends discuss Maggie, a older woman who used to work at St. Bonnies when they lived there.  As Twyla remembers the incident with Maggie, she recalls that the older, “bad” girls in the orphanage had beat Maggie one day after she had fallen.  Maggie was deaf and could not speak.  In Roberta’s recollection of the event, the girls had pushed Maggie and then Twyla and Maggie had joined in as they kicked her.  The interesting part was that Roberta remembered Maggie as being black, while Twyla remembered Maggie as a white woman.

“”Listen to me. I really did think she was black. I didn’t make that up. I really thought so. But now I can’t be sure. I just remember her as old, so old. And because she couldn’t talk-well, you know, I thought she was crazy.  She’d been brought up in an institution like my mother was and like I thought I would be too.  And you were right. We didn’t kick her.  It was the gar girls.  Only them. But, well, I wanted to.  I really wanted them to hurt her.  I said we did it, too. You and me, but that’s not true.”” (p. 1237)

This passage comes from the last act of the story.  It is the confession from Roberta to Twyla about her memory with Maggie.  This passage can quite possibly be our biggest clue as to the races of the girls.  Maggie represented a lot for both Twyla and Roberta.  For the girls Maggie was a representation of themselves.  At times they had been beaten down by life and were left without a voice.  So if this symbol is true and they saw themselves in Maggie, it would be interesting that they would remember Maggie as being the same race as they were.  Maggie’s race would be a minor detail in the whole scheme of what happened.

This is the only short story written by Toni Morrison, but her other works carry similar messages about racism and other societal problems.  Recitatif  largely expresses Morrison’s opinions and by reading this piece she makes her reader’s not only aware of current events, but also makes them aware of themselves.


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The Generational Gap

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Toni Cade Bambara was born in New York City, New York.  She is well known for her many works dealing with  the Black Power Movement and her role as an activist.  In her work, My Man Bovanne, Bambara explores the generational gap between the the main character, Miss Hazel, and her children.

“”Generational gap,” spits Elo, like I suggested castor oil and fricasse possum in the milk-shakes or somethin. “That’s a white concept for a white phenomenon.  There’s no generational gap among Black people. We are col-” (p. 556)

Miss Hazel’s children are taking part in organizing a political party involved with the black power movement.  They want their mother to head a council of the older folks. In getting their mother to form the council, Miss Hazel’s children seem to be forcing their mother to conform to their beliefs.  They criticize Miss Hazel for not giving black women the proper appearance.  What her children seem to be forgetting is that the point of the movement is to gain equal rights and to gain a mutual respect among people in general.  They lose respect for their mother’s individuality somewhere along the line.

Toni Cade Bambara advocated for this mutual respect and it transcended in her works and her teaching including this presentation about “The Wall of Respect.”

One thing that was important to Bambara that come across in her works was the importance of the older generation in the Black Power Movement.  In “My Man Bovanne,” Bambara writes, “Cause you gots to take care of the older folks.” “…Cause old folks is the nation.” (p. 558)

This view is symbolized by Bovanne, and older blind man from the neighborhood who “fixed things.”  He had been popular with the kids  when they were little, but now was forgotten by them.  This comments on the fact that many times the older generation is forgotten in the hustle and bustle of present issues, as Miss Hazel’s children do.  Also the fact that Bovanne is blind symbolizes the children’s blindness to the real issues, or their blindness to their mother’s own individuality.

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People in general are blind to many things around them, black or white, old or young and this is what births injustices.


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A Woman’s Greatest Joy and Deepest Sorrow.

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For years, women writers have been encouraging women to step outside the boundary lines of society and be her own person.  This message of empowerment has come in many different ways.  In earlier writings, it was sometimes an encrypted secret message that needed to be uncovered through deep analysis, or it was a message that was stored away from the public eye until much later.  With our push into contemporary writing, these messages of empowerment are becoming bolder and more straight forward.  Something that had not been thoroughly discussed was the female body.  This is uniquely female.  A woman’s body can define her, and now through contemporary women writers such as, Gwendolyn BrooksAnne SextonSylvia Plath, and Lucille Clifton, the female is celebrated and looked at in a different light.  These women also describe another distinctly feminine feature that, without the female body, would not be possible and that is bearing children.  Becoming a mother can be a woman’s greatest joy and her deepest sorrow.

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Two of the biggest criticisms of women are their body’s and their ability to be a mother.  It took a long time before women’s bodies were actually embraced for their beauty and not just the ability to carry children.  Woman were covered from head to toe without even the slightest glimpse of skin showing, and this is still practice in some parts of the world.  When women began to dress “provocatively” during the Roaring Twenties, everyone through a fit.  Today, most woman embrace their bodies, however we, as woman, face much scrutiny to have “the perfect body.”

In the poem “Homage to My Hips,” Lucille Clifton uses her hips as a main theme in a poem that is certainly empowering.

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Hips a distinct feature on a women’s body.  They are a body part that is highly criticized.  They are body part that usually sticks out.  They are body part that are important in order to birth children.  Clifton is using her hips as a means of power.  Her hips represent her freedom and her womanhood.  Clifton is embracing her body and what it means to her.

Anne Sexton also wrote about a distinctly female body part in “In Celebration of My Uterus.”  The uterus is obviously part of the female reproduction system and in this poem Sexton uses it to unite all women. In the third stanza she writes, “Many women are singing together of this:/one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,/one is at the aquarium teaching a seal,/one is dull at the wheel of her Ford….”  (p. 533)She goes on to list more examples of different types of women doing different things.  Each of these women are different on the outside, we all are.  We all have different careers and lives, but inside, we are all the same.  We all have a uterus, we all have the power to proclaim our womanhood.  Sexton also wrote a few darker poems that assess the negative points of being a woman and becoming a mother.  Sexton’s poem “Menstruation at Forty.”  In this poem her description of a menstruation cycle is more like the description of a miscarriage.  The poem seems to have multiple interpretations.  It could be that by getting her period, it is a constant reminder that another chance to have children is gone and she is thinking about children that she is now too old to have or it could be that the menstruation makes her think of a miscarriage. 

Sexton is one of the first poets to openly write about abortion, which even today is an incredibly controversial topic.  Abortion is not a pleasant thought whether one is pro-choice or pro-life.  During the process someone is mentally, physically, and emotionally harmed.  Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “the mother” also focuses on abortion.  “Abortions will not let you forget./You remember the children you got that you did not get,” (p.808) “I have heard in the voices of the win the voices of my/killed children.”  Theses quotes from the poem “the mother” (p. 808) indicate that the narrator is haunted by an abortion or abortions.  Brooks fought hard for black women’s rights which included redefining black motherhood.  “Believe me, I loved you all./ Believe me, I knew you though faintly, and I loved, I loved you/All.” (p/ 808)  These poem sends a powerful message and makes powerful statements that really reach at the reader’s emotions.  It seems as though it is saying that some women may have no choice, but to abort, and it is not because they do not love their “children,” but for reasons outside their control.

Most look at motherhood as a great joy, but there are some dark sides of it too.  Brooks was able to shine some light on the issues of abortion, but what about women who were forced into motherhood and cannot or will not have an abortion.  This can be seen in Kate Chopin’s, “The Awakening.”  The main character states that she loves her children and would give up her life for them, but she would not give up being herself, she would not give up her identity.  This is a similar theme to what Sylvia Plath writes in her poetry.  There is evidence in her poetry that she loved her children even though she may have not been ready to have them.  Putting aside her known mental illnesses, Plath writes about the negative sides of being a woman that no one speaks of, such as the pain of not being able to have children or the constant pressure of having to be perfect.

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Through these poems we see that woman have a voice.  Woman no longer have to hide under mountains of clothing or flavorful, poetic words.  We have the power to embrace ourselves for who we are and we can be empowered individually and as a whole. We are women.


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Guiding Us Into the Present.

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The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American history when the arts exploded among the African American community.  The movement began in Harlem, New York in the early 1920’s after the end of World War I and concluded around 1935.  During this time several issues were raised about African American civil rights.  People began to protest and express themselves through art, music, and literature.

Several pieces of famous literature were written during this era.  One form of literature that was extremely popular was poetry.  Famous poets, such as Langston Hughes and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, emerged and wrote poetry that commented on the social and political issues of the time.

In Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s poem, The Proletariat Speaks, she comments on the difference between what she desires in life and the reality.  She describes things that she would love to have and then describes in the following stanza the actual things that she possesses. (DeShazer, p. 974)   We see similar commentary among the fiction writers’ as well, such as Zora Neale Hurston.

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 Zora Neale Hurston was born in January of 1891 in Alabama.  She moved to Eatonville, Florida at an early age and many of her works are placed in towns inspired by Eatonville.  Hurston had been a strong-willed individual from a young age.  One of her most famous works is Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which the main character, Janie, goes through the struggle of a difficult marriage.  She defies the norms of her small town society after her husbands death in order to find happiness. This work comments on the socioeconomic status of her home town and some of the social injustices that African American people, especially women, had to endure during that time.    For a further look at Their Eyes Were Watching God and commentary on Hurston’s writing can be  seen by following this link. 

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African American culture was blossoming during the Harlem Renaissance.  Everyone was celebrating the culture, standing up for their civil rights, and supporting one another. Zora Neale Hurston was often criticized in her writing because it did not always support those values of the movement.  In her short story, “Sweat,” the main character Delia is dealing with an abusive marriage.  Delia is taking on a dual role in her relationship by taking on both her own responsibilities as a woman, such as keeping house, caring for her husband, and working in the kitchen, and taking on the responsibilities of her husband, such as working , because he does not attend to them.  In this story, Hurston does not positively represent black men.  Sykes, Delia’s husband, is represented as an angry, drunk who is unhappy with his life and deals with it in the wrong ways.  This is not something that one would expect to come out of an African American woman writer during this time period.

Overall, Hurston’s writing is praised and criticized for what it is.  Her writing is emotional, real, and intrigues reader’s to the fullest from her use of  Southern “Black Vernacular” to the pressing topics that she writes about. Zora Neal Hurston’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance bridges the gap between women writers in the 19th Century and the women writers of now. The literary world received a great gift that will continue to be studied for years to come.

In conclusion…. 


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The Big, Bad (Bold) Woolf

virginia_woolf-a In Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf mentions many precarious topics.  Most of the essay is spent dissecting why women have not had success in writing, how they are oppressed by men, what she thinks they can do to become successful writers.  Woolf also brings up issues surrounding gender, sex, and homosexuality.  In today’s world, these topics and analyzed and discussed through and through, but that was not so in Woolf’s world.

Woolf writes about her experience with a fictional book, Life’s Adventures, by a fictional author, Mary Carmichael.  She begins by saying that, Mary has potential to be a good writer, but she has not yet figured it out.  Her sentences are interrupted, unlike the sentences of Jane Austen.  However, Woolf reaches an interesting sentence, “Chloe likes Olivia…” (56) At first glance the relationship seems nothing more than a friendship.  This is still odd because at that time, especially in novels, women were not friends.  Woolf mentions later that in most fictional relationships between women, the women are opposing each other.  We know that in the Early 1900’s women were expected to stay home, care for children, the home, and their husband.  Their relationships and interactions with other women were scarce.  So for these two women to be in the same room together, alone, with no male present, it was a big deal.  This had the potential to change the view on women’s writing.

Upon further reading, one may notice a foot note regarding the mention of Sir Chartres Biron and his opposition of one of the first lesbian novels by Radclyffe Hall.  This foot note brings a whole other aspect to the relationship between Chloe and Olivia.

Woolf says, “For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.” (84) Homosexuality was and still tends to be a taboo topic.  Around the time of Woolf’s essay, homosexuality was pretty much not spoken of, ever.  The history of sexuality in general was very much changing in the time of Virginia Woolf.  Especially in the 1920’s and the emergence of the “flapper,” a women’s sexuality was more apparent than ever.  This was a scary occurrence for many and threatened everything that they have ever known.  From that time forward terms and different movements have evolved both supporting and opposing homosexuality

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Woolf seems to find faith and hope in this new perspective provided by Mary Carmichael.  She wrote boldly about topics that we less discussed and many that were controversial.  What would Virginia Woolf think about of the great women authors there are today and the amount of fictional novels written about woman and women relations?   I believe that women today have found what Woolf had described many years ago in A Room of One’s Own. I think that if she was to come back into our lives, she would be impressed, but who knows?Well of Loneliness Virago