History is littered with great female writers, from Agatha Christie through Anita Desai to JK Rowling.
However, the vast majority of professional authors in history have been men. Prior to the 18th century, it was laughable for a woman to write a book. Only men would do so and even if women did write, they’d do it under male pseudonyms so that only a thorough inquisition into the author’s life would reveal their gender. Many brilliant works by “anonymous” writers or unknown men might’ve been written by women.
Thus, due emphasis has to be placed on work specifically made by women in order to accurately portray their importance in literature. Since 1970, there has been a thorough emphasis on the review of the female role in English literature. Several colleges in the world offer the study of female literature as specific topic or module in the greater study of English literature.
Failure to apply this gender bias would throw up disproportionately male results when ranking literature or classifying it – due to the obviously unbalanced ratio of men to women in the industry. The study of female literature has even become a literate specialization of its own.
Whilst women were shunned for the greater part of human history, their works were respected by an enlightened few. George Ballad and John Duncombe wrote books in the 1700s lauding a multitude of women for their intelligent, mature writing. However, for every applauder of female works, there were equally critical people; Richard Polwhele wrote a book exclusively designed to criticize Mary Wollstonecraft and her literary circle for their work.
But that wasn’t going to stop women from seeking out the roots of female literature and to start bringing their works to the fore. Mary Hays published a six-volume study tracing the path of female writers throughout history, and giving them the recognition they would’ve not received otherwise.
Virginia Woolf followed suit, and she made an interesting discovery – there were large gaps of time during which women had written nothing. That seems unrealistic, and thorough revision of literature and the acquisition of “lost” works throughout history yielded so many texts by females that scholars from the era claimed that it was “too much” to compile. What a pleasant problem!
The rediscovery of women’s contributions to literature came back to the fore during the second wave of feminism that swept the world. This second era of feminism focused on bringing a historical identity to women – depicting their roles in major historical events and correcting the history written by biased men. This movement was very successful in that it brought attention to the skill and talent of female writers from the world over, and it began uncovering a large part of English literature that had never been appreciated before.
During this era, many more women began to take courage and get feminist theories and books published. Dale Spender and Jane Spencer published studies in 1986 that ascertained that women have been writing since the mists of time, and that men simply haven’t been giving them much attention.
The effect of these studies was very successful – major publishers began to re-print works they’d received and ignored throughout history. They started to give female literature all the way from the 18th century to the 1980s – almost 200 years of writing! – a chance to be read again, and they printed many more copies of women’s work.
Even more, several publishers began to singularly dedicate themselves to the publication of female works. Publications like Fireweed and Room of One’s Own prided themselves on the creativity of their women’s work. Anthologies of women’s writing became much more common, and major publishers were backing them and making sure that women everywhere got the chance to read what other women had written.
This explosion of acceptance and goodwill led to a greater scholarly interest in writings by people of different races and creeds and helped shape the multi-coloured book shops we see today. Taboos fell down one by one and literature was re-united with authors – it was no more a club for bearded old men wearing monocles!
The days were finally long gone when women would have to mask their gender in order to get published, and English literature gained a lot from allowing itself to become a field of a thousand peoples from a thousand places. With this explosion of writing came the categorization of works into hundreds of different groups and sub-groups, because everything was so much more diverse and exciting and new.
The stage was set for a writer from a less heralded group to come and sweep the stages of literature. Cue financially-stricken single mother JK Rowling and her little story about a wizard. Today, she is a billionaire and her books have inspired millions across tens of different languages. She is the most successful female writer ever, and her work is one of the most iconic in history, across all genres.
The emancipation of women is a movement across every single field and every single profession, but none more than so creative arts, and women have, and will continue to excel in literature.