The other day, I went to the library and picked up Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions by Sandra M. Gilbert and Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers by Lesley McDowell. Sounds pretty feminist-y, and I’m proud to say that was the idea. I was also tempted to grab a few Oxford and Norton anthologies sitting on the nonfiction shelves because I miss my collections–that are still in boxes in Georgia–that much.
I’ve spent most of my life looking up to men–in writing, I mean. Lucille Ball, Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett will forever be my starry idols. When I say I looked up to men, I don’t mean on some weird, psychoanalytical level like I think they are better than women or I was programmed to believe it. I just really loved the masculine style of writing. I also always loved pushing myself to write more masculine. It also so happens that most academic writing is very generic and masculine in prose and form, so I was also trying to get an A half the time, too. Whatever the underlying, educational motive, the idea that at first glance, an expert writer and editor may not be able to discern my voice and gender by reading my work, gave me a feeling of intelligible power. But, as much as I have read and studied women’s work in my time, I don’t think I’ve fully consumed it in the way that I could have.
I want to start doing that more.
Centuries ago (and in retrospect, not that long ago), female writers had to mask who they were through their writing. Some did this through tone and voice, some paired it with a pen name. They had to do this just to be considered for publication. Imagine a world where you had to pretend to be a man just to be considered successful. The idea is baffling to me, when I have so many women writers to look up to today, but to do that today as a way to fool the reader is honestly an empowering privilege. There aren’t any inherent biases that come with reading work without first knowing the author. You’re just reading.
I feel like when New Wave Feminism hit the scene and started showing girls and women everywhere what it actually means to be a feminist (and, really, let’s forget about the ones who still don’t understand or aren’t getting it right for today), I fell fast when it came to owning it. I’m still not loud about it, and I pick my battles for sure, but I am a woman so why not know what that means on every level? I think why I’ve gone deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole so quickly is because I’ve gone so long without feeling like I could relate. I’ve written about this some before: I had the worst, personal role models for feminism. But let’s face it, in the 1990s, we weren’t getting it right as a collective gender. A lot of what you saw in the media, was a bunch of women calling their husbands idiots and ripping their bras off to say “fuck you” rather than “why not?”. I remember really loving the sitcom Roseanne and wanting to gouge my eyes out whenever she would go on a rant on how stupid all men were.
I get it. We were still fighting to make feminism a movement, a known thing. For that, we had to be loud, I guess. But it still makes me cringe and look away to this day. Because I never, ever wanted to be that person. Gladly I will say I am still not.
But if I’m embracing more of what it means to be a woman, what does that mean for my every day? What does that mean for my writing? I feel a difference in me personally having now understood what it means to be a feminist–to be a woman, rather. But I’m still trying to figure out what’s appropriate for my writing. I’m so used to looking up to men, writing with a masculine voice and generic identifiers like “he” and “men” rather than parsing the pronouns, just being all-around as traditional and equal as I’ve grown up studying. With the world changing, and me along with it, I have to wonder how much of tradition do I have to throw away to appease my inner self and my audience?