[eng] Cecilia Katunarić - The appropriation of literature by women

They knew how to read, 
but not how to write. 
And it took them even longer 
to gain the freedom to choose 
their reading topics. But the 
longest struggle women had to 
wage was to obtain recognition 
for their written production; 
this recognition was 
- and in many ways still is - 
quite naturally addressed to men, 
especially when this activity 
was not purely occasional 
 [1](Adler et Bollmannn, 2007)

    The literature written by women represents a late cultural fact, because for twenty centuries, the literature of male authors was mostly disseminated, officializing the patriarchal power. The ban on women learning to write explains, to a large extent, their invisibility in history. Indeed, the maintenance of female ignorance was the modus operandi of patriarchal domination to justify the intellectual disability of women in political decision-making and, therefore, their confinement to the domestic sphere. 

    With a few exceptions [2], it is estimated that women began writing under very restricted circumstances in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: “She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any persons beyond her own family party. Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blottingpaper.” [3] (Woolf, 1929).

    From the 19th century onwards, women writers [4] appropriated writing, transforming it into a space of vocation and professional development. Thus, the first publications by women writers made literature written by women official. It was a transgressive and progressive process. At first, the pioneers covered up their literary identities to ensure the publication and dissemination of their creations: anonymity, pseudonymity, transvestism and the assignment of the literary work to a man were the most frequent strategies. Secondly, women writers who assumed their authorship were devalued by literary critics. Indeed, since its genesis, this production has been conceived as a minor literature, since its feminine imprint places it below world literature or literature written by men. This underestimation explains the invisibility of women authors and their works in the annals of world literature. 

    Both the issue of restrictions on access to writing and the place of women in the early twentieth century were highlighted in the controversial essay A Room of One's Own [5] (1929) by the Anglo-Saxon novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf. The manifesto questioned, for the first time, the paradox between the omnipresence of female characters in world literature and the absence of women in history:

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of the husband [6] (Woolf, 1929).

    Virginia Woolf contrasted the autonomy of heroines with the instrumentalization of women, thus promoting the dismantling of patriarchal myths. Twenty years later, the myth of women in literature was deepened by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her critical work, Le deuxième sexe [The second sex] [7] (1949), the combat book of women's liberation:

The myth of woman plays a significant role in literature; but what is its importance in everyday life? […] Thus, to the dispersed, contingent and multiple existence of women, mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the definition given is contradicted by the behavior of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong: it is said not that Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine [8] (Beauvoir, 2011)

    The comparison between the myth of woman and the condition of women established by Simone de Beauvoir identified femininity as a cultural attribute: “on ne nait pas femme, on le devient.” [One is not born, but rather becomes, woman]. Thus, this maxim contributed to the distinction between sex and gender, therefore, to the denaturalization of the biological sex male/female with the binomial of genders, masculine/feminine [9].

    In the 1970s with the advent of post-structuralism [10], a new reflexive field positioned itself in the formal academic space, "women's studies", with repercussions in the social sciences, humanities and art. Within this context, literature written by women was examined by feminist critics [11], with the masterpiece, Le rire de la Méduse [The Laugh of the Medusa] [12] (1975) by the French-Algerian philosopher Hélène Cixous, standing out. The scholar then conceived the notion of "women's writing": the free expression of thinking about the world and the condition of women; a revolution of sisterhood that encouraged women to write about themselves. At the same time, deconstructivist analyses [13] perceived "women's writing" as a manifestation of "sexual difference." Consequently, the notion of "women's writing" as a constitutive matter of literature written by women broke through universal codifications, distinguishing other representations of women's universe from the feminine. 

    Beginning in the 1980s, "women's studies" formalized as "gender studies" [14] remarked how power relations between the sexes determined the androcentric and ethnocentric prejudices of the academic canon: the former evidenced a gaze centered on the heterosexual white male; the latter an optic whose point of compression is Western culture (Montecino and Rebolledo, 1996) [15]. Thus, gender studies in literature integrated women authors from the literary margin, decolonizing hegemonic discourses.

    However, a decade later, the epistemology of gender studies was questioned by “queer theory” (Butler, 1990) [16]. This theory accused gender essentialism, claiming that heterosexuality was a cultural invention (Tin, 1996) [17]. Thus, the doxa of heteronormativity, by attributing the feminine to women and the masculine to men as the natural norm, excluded sexual diversity. In this way, "queer theory" not only made visible the LGBTQIA+ [18] community, but also the cultural productions of sexual dissidence. Therefore, in the current debate, it is relevant to review the literature written by women because it is also a reflection of the subversive failures of biological sex and the construction of female gender.

    Currently, the debate on the place of women and the feminine in literature is a transversal paradigm addressed by different fields of study. However, beyond continuing to investigate both the fictional representations of women and the characteristic imprints of women's writing, it is fair to ask two questions. First, how long will we celebrate the inclusion of women authors in the curriculum as isolated facts? Second, why do we, who write, still find it so hard to carve out a writing space for ourselves in the academy? The unspoken answers only lead us to understand that the process of the appropriation of literature by women continues to be a historical struggle.

[1] Adler, Laure y Bollmann, Stefan, Les femmes qui écrivent vivent dangereusement [Women who write live dangerously], Paris, Flammarion, 2007.

[2] Hildegarde Von Bingen (1098-1179), Catalina de Siena (1347-1380) Christine de Pisan (1365-1430), Beatriz Bernal (1501-1562), Teresa de Ávila (1515-1582), Louise Labé (1524-1566), Madame de La Fayette (1634-1693), Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1651), Úrsula Suárez, (1666-1749).

[3] Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own. Insel Verlag Berlin 2019, p. 80.

[4] Jean Austen (1775-1817), Johanna Schopenhauer (1766-1838), Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859) Mary Shelley (1797-1851), La Comtesse de Ségur (1799-1874), las hermanas Brönte (1800), George Sand (1804- 876), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1881), George Eliot (1819-1890), Alejandra Amalia de Baviera (1826-1875), Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885).

[5] Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, Cambridge, Newnham College and Girton College, 1929.

[6] Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own. Insel Verlag Berlin 2019, p. 54.

[7] Beauvoir, Simone, Le deuxième sexe [The Second Sex], Paris, Gallimard, 1949.

[8] Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, Vintage Books, London, 2011, p. 275.

[9] Sex is to biology as gender is to culture, was British sociologist Ann Oakley's scoop in 1972. 

[10] Post-structuralism is also known under the name of French theory. Theorists: Louis Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Rancière and Monique Wittig.

[11] French post-structuralist feminist theorists: Lucy Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Antoinette Fouque, among others.

[12] Cixous, Hélène, Le rire de la Méduse et autres ironies [The Laugh of the Medusa], Paris, Gallimard, 1975.

[13] Some representatives of deconstruction are Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Lucy Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

[14] "Gender studies" also known as "women's studies". It is one of the branches of the poststructuralist corpus.

[15] Montecino, Sonia y Rebolledo, Loreto, Conceptos de género y desarrollo [Gender and development concepts], Santiago de Chile, Serie de Apuntes Docentes, PIEG, 1996.

[16] In the sense given by Judith Butler in her work Gender Trouble (1990) where she shows that, far from clarity, genders are in constant disturbance, multiplicity and uncertainty. The work published in 1990 became the icon of the LGBTQIA+ movement.

[17] Tin, Louis-Georges, The Invention of Heterosexual Culture, New York, Dutton Books Pinguin, 1996.

[18] LGBTQIA+: Acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, +.

* Cecilia Katunarić, feminist literary critic, specialist in gender and cultural studies. Teacher, Department of Spanish, University of Western Brittany, Brest, France.

[1] Translated from the Spanish and French by Andrea Balart-Perrier.

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