Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

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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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The Absence of a Mother

Jamaica Kincaid writes in an excerpt called, “Xuela,” “No love: I could live in a place like this.  I knew this atmosphere all too well.  Love would have defeated me.  In an atmostphere of no love I could live well; in this atmosphere of no love I could make a life for myself” (1053).

Readers are told from the beginning that Xuela’s mother dies in childbirth.  The woman that her father leaves her with, is just a woman that washes his clothes.  This maid does not treat Xuela like her own children; she does not love Xuela and Xuela does not love her.  Xuela is sent to school, where she receives a difficult education.  When her father comes to pick her up from school, his new wife not only hates Xuela, but even tries to kill her.  Clearly, Xuela has grown up in an environment where no love present.

In the video clip below, Kincaid describes how she likes to pretend that she “is all alone in the world” and “bereft of love,” but makes her way through in the end.  This is clearly seen in “Xuela” because as mentioned before no one loves her.

She also goes on to say that hatred is a form of love and when you hate someone it is bending toward love.  This statement can be related back to Xuela because she did not love any of the “motherly” figures in her life, but she says “in an atmosphere of no love I could live well.”  This hatred in a way bends toward love because it led her to find out who she was as a female and furthermore, was able to allow her to express herself emotionally and sexually.

By the end of the story, Xuela may have had a difficult life with no motherly love, but she has traveled this self-discovering journey.  She has accepted her life and claimed her emotional and sexual identity.  Without a mother as a role model and a father who has a little role in her life, Xuela has found an environment that she enjoys.  She is accepting of nature and seems to become one with the atmosphere around her.

At the end of “Xuela,” we see that Kincaid has written about sexual pleasure.  I enjoyed the quote above because I thought it expressed Kincaid’s thoughts well.  To me, it seems as if Kincaid is saying that she cannot believe that the U.S. is trying to free all these other foreign people, when women at home are not free to express themselves sexually.  When Kincaid includes masturbation in “Xuela” it seems as if she is trying to make a statement.  She can write about whatever she wants to write about.  And, when she writes about what she truly believes, then that is when she is free.

Going back to the quote: “in this atmosphere of no love I could make a life for myself,” I can see where Kincaid’s life has paralleled with this statement.  Kincaid may receive harsh comments from critics on what she writes about, but in her difficult atmosphere, she can make a life for herself that she enjoys and accepts.

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Cixous: Write, let no one hold you back

In Helene Cixous’s work, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” she writes, “Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; no the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself” (392).

To me, this quote was meant for all women.  Women should not let anyone hold them back.  And the part that I found especially significant was for women not to hold themselves back.  Cixous grew up reading male texts, where there were few women writers to look up to (390).  Cixous is encouraging women to write because it allows them to explore female empowerment.

I can see why men would discourage women to write; why would men want women to feel empowered?  Men probably would like women to remain inferior, or at least would like them to “think” they are inferior, so they stay in power.

In the clip below, Cixous comes right out and says that a great mind is universal; it doesn’t matter if it is a man or woman.  There was even a list put out of “intellectuals” that would most likely lead the 21st century and no women were on the list.  And this was in 1992!

As the interview continues, we see that Cixous starts to discuss the strategy of silence, writing, and phallocentrism.  I really enjoy that Cixous is hesitant to use phallocentrism as a part of her strategies because she doesn’t want to ridicule men, but instead wants to give women the opportunity to rise from the silence.

This reminded me when Woolf said that she enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s work, but thought that Jane Austen was great.  Bronte mocked men in her work, while Austen totally ignored the problem with men and their writings, and wrote what she wanted to write about; Austen wasn’t bogged down with hatred for men, which Woolf liked, and Cixous may have enjoyed also.

It is important for women to not hold back, not only because it gives other women the opportunity to have a female role model, but it allows women to stick together and show men that their should be equality between sexes.

At the end of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous concludes her essay by saying, “When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation…In one another we will never be lacking” (405).  This teaches us (women) that when we all say what we need/want to say, we will never be absent from society.  Or, in other words, we will never be seen by men, as lacking in intellectualism.

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Kate Chopin: A Woman Before Her Time

Awakening Cover 1899

“She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (715).  This sentence by Kate Chopin can sum up the whole novel of The Awakening.  It shows how Edna dares and defies all societal expectations of the time.  We have learned in class that there were men and women who enjoyed and rejected the book.  Willa Cather, a female author who often wrote about frontier life on the Great Plains, called it “trite and sordid.”  To understand why Chopin would want to create a book that “swam far out” we may want to look at her earlier life.

Chopin grew up knowing how to speak English and French.  She was taught by her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and the nuns at Sacred Heart.  Here we can see how she was heavily influenced by adult women.  Her father died in a railroad accident in 1855.  Chopin was married to Oscar Chopin in 1870 and lived in New Orleans for a couple of months in 1872.  They even went to Grand Isle for vacation.  Below, is where the Chopins ended up living in 1879: A home in northwestern Louisiana.  The house ended up burning down in 2008.

House Before Fire

Mr. Chopin ended up dying in 1882, which left Kate to raise six children on her own. We can see already that Chopin faced many deaths of people that were close to her and how she had to take on bigger responsibilities.  Her obstetrician encouraged her to write.  She was described as a woman who “could express her own considered opinions with surprising directness.”  Not only do we see this “surprising directness” in The Awakening, but we can see it some of her other short stories, such as “Desiree’s Baby” and “A Story of An Hour.”

Chopin once commented, “human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.”  This comment is useful in understanding what Chopin may have meant by The Awakening.  There is more meaning to life, then just obeying conventional rules.  Chopin may have been trying to say that without these standards, a woman (or anyone) had the opportunity to find the true meaning to life.  When Chopin’s grandmother died in 1897, she began to work on The Awakening.  I was hoping to find out that Chopin died of some magnificent death that defied all societal expectations, but I was let down.  Doctors say that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

A lot of her life experiences were reflected her in works.  We can see that her education came from many women and that her father wasn’t around long enough to make a significant impact.  Maybe Chopin did not have an exact feminist view when she wrote The Awakening, but just wanted to convey that women had feelings and desires too.

In Chopin’s “A Story of An Hour” we see how the main character is set free once she learns of her husband’s death.  (The death was caused by a railroad accident, which can be connected to Chopin’s father’s death).  In a way the female character is elated by the fact that she does not have to succumb to a man’s wishes.

By the end of the story, once the woman finds out that her husband was in fact not dead, she died herself.  We can read this short story with a feminist view and say that the woman died because she was upset that she would have to be forced back into a lifestyle she thought she escaped.  Or, we can say the woman died because she was so happy to see her husband, her heart just could not take.

For me, I think Chopin did write to express her views.  People of her time characterized her as having “surprising directness,” so I do actually think Chopin wrote of her own awakening.  She may not have had a husband that never took care of the children, like Edna did, but Chopin might have seen other experiences where this was the case and she wanted to express her views on the matter.  Without an interview from Chopin, we are able to tell that she put many of her real life experiences into her works.  So, part of me wants to assume that Kate Chopin was before her time and wanted the same rights as men.  Of course, this may not be the case, but we can agree that an awakening did occur.

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Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

After reading A Room of One’s Own, I can further appreciate Virginia Woolf.  The fact that Woolf created her own style of writing must have been difficult, but she was also a woman creating this new style, when many men around the world believed women couldn’t/shouldn’t write.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf says, “Mary is tampering with the expected sequence.  First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence.  Very well, she has every right to do both these things if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating” (55).  In this quote I believe Woolf is referring to her own style of writing.  As readers, we can see how Woolf has strayed from the linear, traditional writing style of her time and has created her own style by including common interruptions.  Click here to see a video on more information about the Modernist writing styles (start at 5:20).  When Woolf writes that Mary had “every right…if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating,” she is saying that if the purpose of the author is to create something new it is alright to write in that style.

Woolf did not want women to write like Charlotte Brontë in her novel Jane Eyre, but instead like Jane Austen.  What made Jane Austen a genius compared to Brontë was that Austen did not write with anger, but with an incandescent mind.  In other words, Austen wasn’t writing for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating.  Austen’s writing wasn’t bogged down with hatred from being oppressed as a woman, but instead her writing was filled with what she wanted to write about.


The fact that Virginia Woolf adapted to a new style of writing in the early twentieth century can only show proof of how strong of a woman she really was.  When most women cared about what men thought because they needed them to survive (because of financial reasons), Woolf did not need one.  Woolf had her own money to take care of herself, therefore she had no man or children to attend to.  She had more free time, and a room of her own to express her thoughts and write about what she wanted to write about.