It may sound like an odd question to start off a blog post about women’s writing, but here it is: is there such a thing as women’s writing? Of course there are books written by women, nobody is denying that, but the idea of lumping the entirety of a sizeable chunk of the population’s authorly output under one umbrella term simply by virtue of the writer’s gender seems… somewhat problematic? On the flip side, by labelling it in such a way, does it create a space for writing that would otherwise have gone under the radar, perhaps highlighting issues and experiences that have not been explored in depth?
The debate about whether there is something to gendering thinking, experiences, and as a result, writing, is not new. Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing in 1898, said that “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver”. Second wave feminists argued, however, that in order to achieve a level of equality with men, it was necessary to find a space for the specificity of women’s experiences. In response to this, they came up with terms like “women’s writing”, “poetic language” and “écriture féminine” to articulate this particularity, and established publishing houses, like Virago in 1973, that were dedicated to retrieving lost or neglected works by women.
Increasingly across the arts, there is a discussion as to how useful it can be to talk about art in these terms, whether that is indeed in terms of writing, or even whether we should keep gendered categories when handing out awards. In modern society, we have a more nuanced understanding of the idea of gender, and how easy binaries between men and women may leave the experiences of some people out of the equation. Then again, we don’t call work written by men “men’s writing” – that is simply known as writing, i.e. the norm. Until such a time in which the norm is naturally thought of comprising anybody and everybody, is it necessary to have that space delineated for women?
I don’t propose an answer as to whether we should keep the term “women’s writing” or the gendering of art more generally, for I don’t think that there is a straightforward solution. Perhaps the best course of action is to be mindful of the terms we use and why we are using them.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics
Sylvie Gambaudo, ‘Is there such a thing as woman writing?’ in Angelaki, 22:1, 23-33, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2017.1285605
David Sims, ‘Should Acting Prizes Be Gender-Neutral?’ in The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/04/should-acting-awards-be-gender-neutral/522795/