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Where My Ladies at?

June 29, 2014

One of my biggest frustrations over the course of my time at Oberlin is that male authors have dominated my reading lists. This may come as a surprise to some; Oberlin is a progressive institution so you'd think that I'd be reading works by people of all genders. Not so. In my sophomore year at Oberlin, I took six classes in which I read literary fiction and/or critical/theoretical texts: Intro to the Advanced Study of English, Intro to Comp Lit, German 203, German 204, the Translation Seminar, and Literature in Exile in Spain and Latin America. In those six classes these are the works I read by women:

  • Love in a Fallen City, a short story collection by Eileen Chang
  • maybe 4 additional short stories for my German classes, not sure of the authors
  • "The Poor Singing Dame," "The Poet's Garret," and "The Haunted Beach" by Mary Robinson
  • approximately a dozen articles by various women

That may not seem like much, but I've checked the syllabi I saved to my computer and racked my brain and I'm almost certain I haven't forgotten anything. I might have under-estimated the number of articles but I doubt it. Even if I did, the point still stands that female writers and authors have been vastly under-represented in my courses.

Maybe this is my own fault for not signing up for any courses cross-listed under Gender Sexuality and Feminist Studies or what my friend's mom would call "and women" courses (i.e. courses about "x topic and women"). Maybe I should have been going out of my way to find literature classes in which I would be able to read works that reflect my lived experience. Fair enough. Except that's not fair and it's certainly not enough. It's not enough that I only find 10 classes with the word women in the title (and that's counting classes like "Self Defense for Women") and six with feminism or feminist in the title when I use the search function on the course catalog. It's not enough that when literature professors "don't have time to cover everything" (what professor has had time to cover everything?) they inevitably choose to cover white men at the expense of other authors. It's not enough that I am forced to pick through the literary canon to find the few authors who were allowed in that are "like me." It's not enough that non-white, non-cis-het people have to search even harder than me to find less that the canon deems acceptable. It's not enough that all of this is true in spite of the fact that 67.9% of English majors nationwide are women.

I get it though, or at least I think I do. I know it's important to teach canonical writers - people like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, the "Big Six" of English Romantic poetry - not only because they wrote things that many people consider "beautiful" or "good"1 but because they influenced writers, artists, and thinkers who came after them. In fact, I'm a huge believer in the importance of the chain of influence and I think that anyone studying literature should make the effort to read books like the Bible, the Divine Comedy, and the Odyssey simply because all of their favorite authors have probably read them too. However, I think it's important to remember that the people who decided and who continue to decide what constitutes the western literary canon were and are overwhelmingly white men - old white men, actually, probably with a variety of prejudices that prevent them from recognizing the greatness of a lot of authors who aren't old white men. When professors teach the canon and only the canon, they teach their students that they should value the same things as these old, white men, regardless of their race or gender (or gender expression or sexual orientation etc. etc.).2

So by not questioning the canon or being reluctant to expand upon it by studying authors who fall outside its standard definition, we allow ourselves to be a part of this self-perpetuating cycle. I've already seen evidence of this in my translation classes. In last year's translation seminar, which came closer to an even gender breakdown than any of my previous literature classes (5 men, 8 women), I think there were only three of us who chose to translate female poets. Then in my translation class last semester I was the only student who chose to translate a female writer out of a class of nearly all women.

And this doesn't end in undergrad. Traditionally Oberlin sends a lot of students to graduate programs and eventually to careers in academia. If Oberlin literature students are taught primarily about white, male authors what can we be expected to teach to our future literature students?

Now I'll admit that I don't really know how to solve this problem. My instinct is to say that it's the professors who have the most power to affect this sort of change. They can set new reading lists including more female writers (and all sorts of writers who don't have the white, European, cis-het, male voice we've chosen to canonize), not just as tokens or one-offs, but as meaningful parts of the curriculum. I am willing to believe though that professors may not have complete control over what they teach. If that is true, than it is up to us, the students, to show that we want to see ourselves represented in our reading lists. Moreover, that we want to see people we don't know represented in the literature we read. I know that I want to read stories I haven't read before, to hear narratives that might open my mind and make me think differently. I think, or at least I hope, that isn't too much to ask. Do you agree? Please let me know in the comments. I'm not an expert on gender representation and I want this to be a conversation rather than just me writing and you silently reading.

Footnotes

1Gotta love those highly subjective concepts.

2For the record, my professors at Oberlin have done a good job of teaching me to question the canon thus far. I just don't think you'd know that from their reading lists.

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