I suppose I should start by saying that I'm not really in the mood to compose this post. I've got to teach shortly, and I'm not really feeling like writing or anything. That said, I feel like if I don't write about this now, then I won't write about it because the moment will have passed, and so, here it goes:
All around people have been doing this "woman writers" meme, and when first I saw it, I thought, "oh, I should do that!" Then, well, it seemed long and I didn't feel like it, but also as I looked at it, I just couldn't get it up to do it. Why? Well, I think my "woman writers" phase has come and gone. This isn't to say that I don't read women writers (I do), that I don't work on women writers (I do), or that I don't teach women writers (I do). The problem, I think, is that as I've developed as a reader and a critic, I more and more have a problem with characterizing writing by female authors as different or specific or outside of the dominant canon. This is not to say that women (or writers of color or whatever) do not bring different voices or perspectives to the table in their writing because obviously they can/do, but it is to say that by sticking them off to the side somewhere that texts by these writers then can be ignored in terms of the dominant canon of literature. If Ralph Ellison is taken care of by African-American lit, we don't need to weigh down our American-Lit Survey with his writing. Ultimately, Ralph Ellison can continue to be excluded from the canon of American Literature. Similarly, if Intro to Women's Lit can take care of a writer like Mary Wollstonecraft, then I don't need to bother with including it in the Survey of British Literature II. It's not literature; it's women's literature, and so I - and my students - need not worry about it. When we talk about "woman writers," are we in fact excluding their texts from those lists of Great Books that continue to be dominated by men?*
Now, I'm not advocating for a course of action in which we do away with all "special interest" courses. I think that there is a place for such courses, and I know that I was empowered by such courses as an undergraduate. My own reading history is such that I needed those courses in order to find books that spoke to me. (In my junior and senior years of high school, I read a grand total of 3 women writers - THREE - and of those three, only one was something that was assigned to the whole class - The Awakening by Kate Chopin - one was for extra credit - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - and one I read for a book report - The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, whom I was surprised to learn was a woman because I'd never heard of her. In other words, I was dying for an introduction to writing by women, and I needed women's literature courses in order to make that happen. Oh, and I was in high school/college in the 1990s - it's not like I'm talking about some pre-feminist era in which women writers had yet to be re-discovered.)
When I was an undergraduate, I was militant in my refusal to read male writers on my own time, and I rarely chose to write papers on male writers. I think that I fuzzily thought that this move on my part was a meaningful political choice - or at least I characterized it as that to myself - but I think the truth is that I was operating on personal preference more than any sort of political conviction (which would explain the paper that I wrote on Wallace Stevens' "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). I liked the idea of myself as some sort of literary activist, but the reality is that these choices were more about my development as a woman than they were about any sort of literary critical position on my part. I needed to read certain writers (Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing) and so I did.
But, for the most part, I read them on my own. Aside from the female authors I read in a few women's literature courses that I took, the female authors that I read in an academic context were tokens on syllabi full of male authors. (This was true in classes with feminist/female instructors as well as those taught by nearly-dead white men.) The women's literature courses that I took all counted for my women's studies minor, and that was why I took them, and those classes were filled with others like me. The converted. Sometimes there was a rare exception of somebody who ended up in the course by accident. (Example: that poor boy who accidentally took "The Feminization of Literacy in 19th Century England" and who, as was customary in our department, was trying to say something about "Lit Crit," but said "Lit Clit" instead - as the only male taking the class. Hilarious!)
Moving into graduate school, I had a similar experience. It was rare that women writers were given equal time to male writers, and most of my "on my own" reading tended to be by women - but by this point I realized that this was the case not out of some sort of activist higher ground that I was standing on but because I wanted to read these books. And listen up, folks: my specialty is 20th century literature. There is no reason in the whole world why a range of women weren't on my syllabi in the courses that I took - no reason except that to include them would have forced the instructors to make the hard choices to exclude a male author that was conventionally included. And as long as there's a women's literature course out there in which to stick all of those inconvenient women writers, it's easy to convince oneself that one need not make those hard choices. In other words, such courses offer an alibi for NOT revising the canon, even as they came into being as an effort toward expanding it.
To me, the utility of the canon is, in fact, that it leaves things out. It shows us what we value at a given time, and it shows what "counts." If the canon for British Literature from 1800 doesn't include short stories by Jean Rhys but the canon for women's literature does, then what does that say? Which of these canons has more value in a culture which continues to be patriarchal?
Also, many of my students would never take a women's literature course. So if I choose Tennyson over Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or if I choose James Joyce over Katherine Mansfield in a general studies course, that means something crucial to the picture that they have of what counts as literature and whose voices count in literature. The fact that "Introduction to Women's Literature" exists does not solve this problem. Morevover, the fact that there are lists of "women writers" that all "feminists" should read doesn't solve the broader problem within literary studies that by relegating such writers to the "women's" list - the ladies' room, the room of their own, if you will - that they get left out of a broader discussion of what makes literary value and what counts as great writing. Ultimately, we haven't - even after postmodernism and post-structuralism and all of the other posts - stopped believing in Literature-capital-L or Great Writing, as syllabi all over the internet show. And that list is still a short list, and that list is still dominated - even in the 20th and 21st centuries, if syllabi are any indication - by male writers. I suppose what I'm saying here is that as long as we are content to leave texts by women writers to their own segregated lists that this isn't going to change. And the common comment from students - especially male students - that I hear that they've never read a book by a woman until my courses will persist. And men will have further support in resisting identifying as feminist because, you know, those books aren't "for" them. From "women's literature" to "chick lit" is but a step, folks, and it's a rare man that reads "chick lit" on his own time.
So it's not that I'm against reading books by women. I think it's important to read books by women. But I think that it's important to read them in the social and historical context in which they are written - which means with and alongside books written by men - and not only in isolation.
*Incidentally, we can talk about this in terms of other literary ghettoes as well - lesbian or gay writing, African-American writing, Latino writing, etc.