Women's writing (literary category)

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The academic discipline of women's writing is a discrete area of literary studies which is based on the notion that the experience of women, historically, has been shaped by their sex, and so women writers by definition are a group worthy of separate study: "Their texts emerge from and intervene in conditions usually very different from those which produced most writing by men."[1] It is not a question of the subject matter or political stance of a particular author, but of her sex, i.e. her position as a woman within the literary world.

Women's writing, as a discrete area of literary studies and practice, is recognized explicitly by the numbers of dedicated journals, organizations, awards, and conferences which focus mainly or exclusively on texts produced by women. Women's writing as a recognized area of study has been developing since the 1970s. The majority of English and American literature programs offer courses on specific aspects of literature by women, and women's writing is generally considered an area of specialization in its own right.

Distinct category[edit]

Virginia Woolf

The broader discussion women's cultural contributions as a separate category has a long history, but the specific study of women's writing as a distinct category of scholarly interest is relatively recent. There are examples in the 18th century of catalogues of women writers, including George Ballard's Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for their Writing or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences (1752); John Duncombe's Feminiad, a catalogue of women writers; and the Biographium faemineum: the female worthies, or, Memoirs of the most illustrious ladies, of all ages and nations, who have been eminently distinguished for their magnanimity, learning, genius, virtue, piety, and other excellent endowments.[2] Similarly, women have been treated as a distinct category by various misogynist writings, perhaps best exemplified by Richard Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females, a critique in verse of women writers at the end of the 18th century with a particular focus on Mary Wollstonecraft and her circle.

Earlier discussion of women's broader cultural contributions can be found as far back as the 8th century BC, when Hesiod compiled Catalogue of Women (attr.), a list of heroines and goddesses. Plutarch listed heroic and artistic women in his Moralia. In the medieval period, Boccaccio used mythic and biblical women as moral exemplars in De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) (1361–1375), directly inspiring Christine de Pisan to write The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).

Women writers themselves have long been interested in tracing a "woman's tradition" in writing. Mary Scott's The Female Advocate: A Poem Occasioned by Reading Mr Duncombe's Feminead (1774) is one of the best known such works in the 18th century, a period that saw a burgeoning of women writers being published. In 1803, Mary Hays published the six volume Female Biography. And, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) exemplifies the impulse in the modern period to explore a tradition of women's writing. Woolf, however, sought to explain what she perceived as an absence; and by the mid-century scholarly attention turned to finding and reclaiming "lost" writers.[3] There were many to reclaim: it is common for the editors of dictionaries or anthologies of women's writing to refer to the difficulty in choosing from all the available material.[4][5]

Trade publishers have similarly focused on women's writing: since the 1970s there have been a number of literary periodicals (such as Fireweed and Room of One's Own) which are dedicated for publishing the creative work of women writers, and there are a number of dedicated presses as well, such as the Second Story Press and the Women's Press. In addition, collections and anthologies of women's writing continue to be published by both trade and academic presses.

The question of whether there a "women's tradition" remains vexing; some scholars and editors refer to a "women's canon" and women's "literary lineage," and seek to "identify the recurring themes and to trace the evolutionary and interconnecting patterns" in women's writing,[6] but the range of women's writing across time and place is so considerable that, according to some, it is inaccurate to speak of "women's writing" in a universal sense: Claire Buck calls "women's writing" an "unstable category."[7] Further, women writers cannot be considered apart from their male contemporaries and the larger literary tradition. Recent scholarship on race, class, and sexuality in literature further complicate the issue and militate against the impulse to posit one "women's tradition". Some scholars, such as Roger Lonsdale, mentions that something of a commonality exists and that "it is not unreasonable to consider" women writers" in some aspects as a special case, given their educational insecurities and the constricted notions of the properly 'feminine' in social and literary behaviour they faced."[8] Using the term "women's writing" implies, then, the belief that women in some sense constitute a group, however diverse, who share a position of difference based on gender.

Rediscovering ignored works from the past[edit]

In the West, the second wave of feminism prompted a general revelation of women's historical contributions, and various academic sub-disciplines, such as women's history and women's writing, developed in response to the belief that women's lives and contributions have been underrepresented as areas of scholarly interest. Much of this early period of feminist literary scholarship was given over to the rediscovery and reclamation of texts written by women. Studies like Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel (1986) and Jane Spencer's The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986) were ground-breaking in their insistence that women have always been writing. Commensurate with this growth in scholarly interest, various presses began the task of reissuing long-out-of-print texts. Virago Press began to publish its large list of 19th and early-20th-century novels in 1975, and became one of the first commercial presses to join in the project of reclamation. In the 1980s Pandora Press, responsible for publishing Spender's study, issued a companion line of 18th-century novels by written by women.[9] More recently, Broadview Press continues to issue 18th- and 19th-century novels, many hitherto out of print, and the University of Kentucky has a series of republications of early women's novels. There has been commensurate growth in the area of biographical dictionaries of women writers due to a perception, according to one editor, that "[m]ost of our women are not represented in the 'standard' reference books in the field."[10]

Elaine V. Bellin's book, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, mentions the lack of female representation in renaissance literature, and explores the idea of missing evidence of female writers of that period.[11] The widespread interest in women's writing developed alongside, and was influenced by, a general reassessment and expansion of the literary canon. Interest in post-colonial literature, gay and lesbian literature, writing by people of colour, working people's writing, and the cultural productions of other historically marginalized groups has resulted in a whole-scale expansion of what is considered "literature," and genres hitherto not regarded as "literary," (such as children's writing, journals, letters, and travel writing, among many others)[12] are now the subjects of scholarly interest. Most genres and sub-genres have undergone a similar analysis, so that one now sees work on the "female gothic"[13] or women's science fiction, for example.

"Exemplary women" tradition[edit]


  • Abel, Elizabeth, Writing and Sexual Difference. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Allison, Dorothy. Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature. New York: Firebrand Books, 1994.
  • Ayres, Brenda, Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger Pub, 2003.
  • Backscheider, Paula R., and John Richetti, eds. Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Oxford: OUP, 1996.
  • Busby, Margaret (ed.). Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. Jonathan Cape, 1992.
  • Eagleton, Mary, ed., Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • Fetterley, Judith, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Figes, Eva,Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850. The Macmillan Press, 1982.
  • Ferguson, Mary Anne, [compiler]. Images of Women in Literature, 3rd Edition, Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1981. ISBN 0-395-29113-5
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-300-08458-7
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. London: Virago Press, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 Vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
  • Greer, Germaine, et al., eds. Kissing the Rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.
  • Hobby, Elaine, Virtue of Necessity: English women's writing 1649-1688. London: Virago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-86068-831-3
  • Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Moi, Toril, Sexual/ Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1987. ISBN 0-415-02974-0; ISBN 0-415-28012-5 (second edition).
  • Robertson, Fiona, ed. Women's Writing, 1778-1838. Oxford: OUP, 2001.
  • Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1983.
  • spender, dale, Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen. London and New York: Pandora, 1986. ISBN 0-86358-081-5
  • Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of their own: from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing. London: Virago Press, 1977.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer, The Female Imagination: A Literary and Psychological Investigation of women's writing. George Allen and Unwin, 1976.
  • Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. ISBN 0-631-13916-8
  • Todd, Janet, Feminist Literary History: A Defence. Cambridge: Polity Press / Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: women, writing and fiction, 1660-1800. London: Virago Press, 1989. ISBN 0-86068-576-4

Series of republications[edit]

Web-based projects[edit]

Scholarly journals[edit]

The following journals publish research on women's writing mainly or exclusively:

Literary and review journals of women's writing[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Blain, Virginia, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. viii-ix.
  2. ^ Todd, Janet, ed. British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. London: Routledge, 1989. xiii.
  3. ^ Buck, Claire, ed.The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. Prentice Hall, 1992. vix; Salzman, Paul. Introduction, Early Modern Women's Writing. Oxford UP, 2000. ix.
  4. ^ Blain et al. vii; Todd xv; Spender, Dale, and Janet Todd. Anthology of British Women Writers. Harper Collins, 1989. xiii; Buck ix-x.
  5. ^ Busby, Margaret, ed. Daughters of Africa, Cape, 1992, p. xxx.
  6. ^ Spender & Todd xiii.
  7. ^ Buck xi.
  8. ^ Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. xiii.
  9. ^ Sandra M. Gilbert, "Paperbacks: From Our Mothers' Libraries: women who created the novel." New York Times, May 4, 1986.
  10. ^ Blain et al. viii.
  11. ^ V. Bellin, Elaine (1987). Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  12. ^ Blain x; Buck x.
  13. ^ Term coined by Ellen Moers in Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1976). See also Juliann E. Fleenor, ed., The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983) and Gary Kelly, ed., Varieties of Female Gothic, 6 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002).
  14. ^ Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893. Digital copy at Internet Archive

External links[edit]