Some people may ask why women’s writing exists as a tradition when there is no such thing as ‘men’s writing’. It’s an understandable question. Women’s writing isn’t just writing by women. It’s something more than that – and it can be difficult to define. From Virginia Woolf to Maya Angelou, the tradition of women’s writing is as diverse as it is impressive. A seemingly endless canon of writers, tied together through one fundamental shared experience – the experience of being a woman.
Perhaps women’s writing exists in a way that men’s writing doesn’t because there is not a particular male urge to define and explore one’s gender in the way that women writers often seem compelled to do. This is, of course, speculation. But I feel that Simone de Beauvoir’s thoughts on this desire for self definition can support this suggestion:
‘A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: “I am a woman.”’ (The Second Sex).
Women have, for centuries, been socially, politically and culturally defined by their gender. Whether laced into corsets, kept in the home or forced to smash repeatedly into the glass ceiling, women, as a group, have a shared historical experience. We have not yet achieved complete equality. Even in the UK, where we study in the same way as men, have similar career opportunities and consider ourselves to be social equals, the advertising industry sells our bodies by plastering them over commercials. Magazines tell us we are too fat, too pale, or too hairy. We often earn less for doing the same jobs. And we are warned – as if we would bring trouble on ourselves – not to walk home alone late at night.
Women are still, in some ways, separate. We are the Other. And for centuries, women have used writing and literature as a way of sharing their experiences. To name just a few, Mary Wollstonecraft presented the abused and imprisoned Maria; Charlotte Perkins Gilman entwined us in the patterns of the yellow wallpaper; Virginia Woolf played with gender and sexuality as Orlando surfed the centuries. More recently Angela Carter caricatured the male gaze with the female freakshow in Nights at the Circus, and Sarah Hall created the intense sisterhood of the Carhullan Army.
Even with this impressive list of powerful writers, even with their own specialised genre of writing, women remain marginalised in the world of literature. In the 400 year tradition of Poets Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, appointed in 2009, was the first woman. In the 44 years of the Man Booker Prize, there have been 14 female winners. Any suggestion that the existence of their own genre gives women writers some kind of advantage over their male counterparts is easy to dismiss. It seems clear that we are still, to some extent, defined by our experience as women. And women’s writing is an effective and powerful way to record, explore and share that experience.