We are not a side-note, we are not an option module: we are the canon

Victoria Roskams asks why women are always seen as a special subject.

Being the right nosy so-and-so that I am, I’ve had a good old look at the list sent out to all third-year English students taking the dissertation unit explaining what everyone’s topic of choice is. Just out of interest, you know. Besides the inevitable ‘ooh what a cool idea!’ and the ‘wish I’d thought of that,’ it did also strike me that a fair amount of the chosen topics revolved around women, feminism, and gender issues. Great! I’m all for it. But this, and talking to other dissertation students, did make me wonder about the fact that we have to wait until this point, the first time we have completely free rein over our topic, to actually get our teeth into women’s literature.

The idea that the literary canon is biased isn’t new to anyone. Just as History students are awake to the notion of ‘his-story’, we English students are no strangers to the prevalence of the Dead White Man in the canon, that is, literature that is both popular and critically esteemed. While I would personally credit my tutors with valiant attempts at redressing this imbalance in their set texts, other female students I’ve spoken to have felt hard done by in terms of how much women’s writing they’re set to read throughout their degree. Many feel it only continues the pattern set in secondary school and college English courses, in which the curriculum dictates a paltry one or two women, maybe a Carol Ann Duffy or Gillian Clarke here, a Brontë or Austen there.

I got my counting cap on and looked through a fairly bog-standard list of the English literary canon. Of the 169 novelists, poets, and dramatists, women comprised only 24. For those of us who aren’t calculators, I can tell you that’s 14 per cent. It’s interesting to compare this with some research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which found that in film and television crowd scenes, women tend to comprise about 17 per cent of the represented population and this has an effect on the way in which gender balance is perceived.

‘If there’s 17 per cent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 per cent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men,’ Davis says of a hypothetical crowd scene. Compare this with my findings in the literary canon – is it possible there are people out there who consider the 14 per cent women, to 86 per cent men equal representation? Davis sums up far better than I can what a lack of representation means for our education.

‘What we’re in effect doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys,’ she explains. ‘We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 per cent of the space in the world.’

What’s clear is that women are not adequately represented in the literary canon. Davis’s crowd-scene survey suggests that some people would look at the canon, see the names Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Virginia Woolf jumping out amongst the men and assume that finally, true equality has been reached; all is well, there are some women in the canon so everything’s fine.

But what about those whom the canon ignores? The poor representation of women doesn’t come from the fact that they didn’t write – that’s just not true. There are omissions as far back as the Renaissance, such as that of Mary Wroth, who pioneered the prose romance form, right up to modernism, the popular image of which ignores many of the women behind the movement such as Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes.

It remains that female students study women and women-centric literature so infrequently that, when it comes to having free rein over the topic at dissertation level, the natural choice is literature by women and/or about women. It’s brilliant that so many of us actively want to explore women’s issues in literature, but disappointing that we don’t get the opportunity throughout our entire literary education, right up until the final year of undergraduate study.

One second-year student I spoke to said she was constantly inclined to bend every essay question towards women’s issues just to have a space to actually talk about women and their experiences, and I’ve heard this corroborated by others. Some students said that in a twelve-week course, in which each week has a designated theme, generally one week would be set aside for women’s writing and the rest would be devoid of anything but men. When so much brilliant literature by women exists and with so many female students enrolled in the English course, this shouldn’t be the case.

An issue for another day, perhaps, is the seemingly overwhelmingly female readership of female authors – that is, female students are the ones actively engaging with women’s issues by taking them up as dissertation topics. I’d venture to suggest male students still, maybe subconsciously, shy away from female authors, for the most part. While I know this is to their detriment more than anything, I’d be happy to see more men engaging with women’s writing, not because they feel they ought to fulfil a quota, but because they are genuinely interested. Opening out the canon to encompass as many women as men would benefit everyone, not just female students looking for accurate representations of their experiences.

Illustration by Billie Gavurin


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