LESSON

Rediscovering Forgotten Women Writers

Honoring the far-reaching contribution of women authors.
Grade Level

In her book Silences, first published in 1978, U.S. writer Tillie Olsen pointed out that most literary anthologies included only one woman writer for every 12 men. If one searches more recent publications, the average ratio is slightly better: one to every five or six. But language arts teachers should not let this modest progress lull them into thinking that the problem of under-representation of female authors is solved or the challenge over.

I teach an introductory Women and Literature course at a community college in Burlington, Vermont. For many of my students (this past semester more than 90 percent were women between the ages 19 and 45), this is the first time they have been exposed to works by women writers. The purpose of the course is to help students discover writings by women, their many talents and different perspectives. I want my students to be aware of how integral women's voices are to the human experience.

In the same spirit, I always include women writers of color. Vermont is the "whitest" state in the country, and our student body reflects that. Lately, however, several African-American, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Bosnian students and a few students with disability have enrolled in the college. To expose the class to greater diversity and to initiate more discussion, I include in the curriculum writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Cade Bambara and Maxine Hong Kingston.

 

Taking a "Library Tour"

The course culminates in a major project wherein each student rediscovers a lost woman writer—one who did not master the medium of literary posterity, who did not have contacts in the world of publishing or one whose work is out of print. Each student prepares an oral report on the writer, makes a poster representing her life and work, and participates in a college-wide reading of a selection from her work. I give them a list from Literary Women by Ellen Moers of hundreds of writers from across the centuries and the continents, including those of Japanese, Native-American, African-American and other ancestries. To allow them to focus on lesser-known writers, I cross out famous names like May Sarton, Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir.

We begin by taking an electronic "library tour" to locate women's studies and women's literature web sites (e.g., A Celebration of Women Writers). I give them addresses of used bookstores and a web address for locating out-of-print works: Alibris: Books You Thought You'd Never Find.

Since the internet can be an electronic key to a hidden treasure, students become very animated by the quest. However, they find that it is not easy to track down lost writers. Materials are often hard to locate, and information about the authors is scant. As the search can become frustrating, this assignment works best when carefully guided. Each week, I check in about what the students have discovered.

With the information they have gathered, we are now ready to discuss some pertinent questions: What factors enable a woman to write and to be published? What difficulties might she face, especially if she has family obligations? These issues speak to some of my students, especially those who are single parents or first-generation college-goers, who have to juggle three to four classes, a job, child care and family life.

 

The "Lost" Writer

Difficult as it may be, the search is a valuable learning experience. Students are amazed at how many women's works are out of print. One student observed: "If these women tried to do anything academic or creative, every barrier in the world was placed against them. ... It is amazing to rediscover these women who faced almost insurmountable obstacles throughout their writing careers." Another said, "It made me realize how easily someone who was successful and talented can be not only forgotten but almost erased."

Equally rewarding are the public readings, which are advertised college-wide. The noontime event with refreshments draws students from other literature classes, some faculty, staff and, often, several parents. The readings offer a special forum not only for the otherwise "lost" writers, but also for the students' own articulations. Tavia Moody, a bright, attentive 20-year-old student, explains why she chose a piece written by Maria Jane Jewsbury in her twenties to a young woman friend: "The passage was about what education had meant to her, about what reading and writing meant to her." For Moody, the issues of women's relationships and learning are germane to her own choices as a young college woman.

Other students read passages from Fanny Fern, Rebecca Harding and Gertrude Stein, for example, that reflect their concerns: marriage, mother/daughter relations, independence and "beauty." Each student reads strongly and with pride. You can see their faces light up when the audience asks for copies of the passages they read.

The Women and Literature course is important to me because women writers have changed my life in so many ways, personally and professionally. I feel passionate about writers like Luci Tapahonso, a wonderful, Native American lyrical poet and storyteller whose work remains largely unknown in the classroom. Equally importantly, my students feel moved and encouraged by these forgotten lives and works. What's more, they have now acquired the tools to discover forgotten women writers on their own.

The web has made possible the re-emergence of women writers who were once influential but are less known today, such as Margaret Fuller (1810-50, writer and journalist who inspired the women's rights and Transcendentalist movements); Zitkala-Sa (1876-1937, author of many works, including Old Indian Legends and autobiographies about Native American experience); and Margaret Askew Fell [aka Margaret Fox] (1614-1702, Quaker leader who championed the equality of women and a feminist reading of theology).

Numerous internet projects are devoted to editing and rendering archival materials into electronic texts. Students can gain access to, and take part in, these projects without having to travel to major libraries. Here in Vermont, another kind of distance remains to be bridged. While there is a great deal of interest in Native American writings among our students because of the presence of Abenaki people in our region, for their Women and Literature project, most students gravitate toward authors who are similar to them: of New England origin, white and mothers.

As an introductory course, Women and Literature achieves the goal of opening up a world of women writers students did not know about. To help students build links with those who are more unlike us, I plan to incorporate more diverse voices of women in the curriculum.

Deborah Straw is a teacher and writer. She teaches at Community College of Vermont, Burlington.

 

Discussion Starters

  • Choose a woman writer—Gloria Anzaldúa, J. California Cooper, Mitsuye Yamada, Tillie Olsen, for instance. Who is she? Are you familiar with her works? Is she a major American writer? Why or why not?
     
  • What obstacles did women face in trying to write, to get published? Do these obstacles exist today?
     
  • Why have women writers been largely left out of mainstream anthologies? The internet is a wonderful vehicle to help students get acquainted with the many female writers who were once published but have been lost in obscurity. Such websites as A Celebration of Women Writers and Voices From the Gaps can help students identify many women writers. As a warm-up exercise, ask students to search by author name at the Celebration site and address the following questions:
     
  • What other works did Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (related by birth and marriage to three famous reformer-writers, and most famous for penning Frankenstein) write in the latter part of her career? Do you think she is a feminist, given her roles as dutiful wife and mother?
     
  • Who is Harriet A. Jacobs? What is the title of her work? Can you find writings by other women who had been enslaved? List them.
     
  • Who is Elizabeth (1766-c. 1866)? Can you identify other women preachers and their works? What roles did these women preachers play within their church and in relation to their male counterparts?
     
  • Who is Sarah Moore Grimke? What writings by other suffragists can you find?

 

Projects

1. Have students choose two obscure women writers and prepare a presentation about them. The presentation should include a brief biography, the reading of a selection from their works and some visual (e.g., poster, collage, sculpture) to demonstrate the student's interpretation of the woman's life and works.

2. Choose two women writers (one being a woman of color) who are/were contemporaries of each other. Compare and contrast the circumstances in which they wrote (e.g., what is their economic background? Are they free, married, enslaved or colonized?). How were their works published and received?