.::. 1-27-11 .::. Women’s Literature Eng. 241 .::. Abigail Morris .::.
Screaming In Ink: The Evolution of Literature by Women
Virginia Woolf wrote “A Room of One’s Own” in England 1929, and bell hooks wrote “Talking Back” sixty years later (1989) in America; though separated by generations and the Atlantic, both women shared not only the need to write in general, but also the opportunity to share their insights on the plight of their sex as workers, writers, and individuals with a world of other women brimming with potential and sympathetic men eager for change. Each woman, in her own way, offers her audience the tragic tale of beings, noble and brilliant as any male members of their species, suffering the indignities of coerced silence and the imposition of the “right speech of womanhood” (hooks 73). The women of both periods had been bred to be obedient and keep out of men’s affairs—including, but not limited to, writing anything more rousing than a simple letter or speaking with a voice meant to be heard by all. Even when men had allowed women to persist in obtaining a voice (written or spoken), they played off the accomplishment as only slightly better than worthless and absolutely foolish. This disparagingly low opinion of a woman’s intellectual worth was so consistently upheld by the most influential men in society that it spread like poison through the minds of one generation of girls after another. Even in bell hook’s time, a woman or girl whose literary ambitions had been discovered was turned on and berated by others of her own sex since “there was no ‘calling’ for talking girls” (hooks 74).
In Woolf’s age, female writers were compared to dogs by supposedly brilliant men of great note. She informs us of the gender-centric and overly-critical words of Mr. Oscar Browning: “’Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all,’” and Mr. Greg: “the ‘essentials of a woman’s being are that they are supported by, and they minister to men’” (Woolf 42). Woolf believed that such adamancy of the intellectual inferiority of women by men had greatly contributed to the lack of belief women had in their abilities to do or be anything more than servants at the heels of men. She believed that one’s social class could and did play an important part in the establishment of great female writers because it was only once a woman had attained a certain degree of independence and self-sustained security—financial and otherwise—that she would be capable of finding more than the most modest of opportunities to flourish as a poet, playwright, essayist, etc. It is, of course, worth noting that in this period of history a female could find some employment as a writer which could provide a shred of respect for her from society since, by the standards established under the still patriarchal order , “money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for” (Woolf 47). Woolf also holds that a great writer would only achieve true greatness in the eyes of others if she let go of the anger, resentment and bitterness that accompanied her sex as part of the baggage born from the bullish nature of men who insisted on their positions of absolute master within all domains, rendering her an androgynous writer. Such aspects seem to reflect her wonderful ability to comprehend the complicated differences between writing as a woman, writing about women, and writing for women.
The language between the two essays may be quite different, but both are written as feminist propaganda designed with three rather noble intentions: to expound the virtues of those who have come before and already furthered the goal, to illuminate the tethers which have and continue to bind the hands and tongues of women, and to inspire those hiding behind the curtain of what has always been for fear of being the first to tread a new path on a man’s road. As a woman of the present century, one can only imagine how incredibly powerful “[t]he fear of exposure, the fear that one’s deepest emotions and innermost thoughts” being “dismissed as mere nonsense” (hooks 74) or fear that she, as a writer, would be dismissed as nothing more than a “blue-stocking with an itch for scribbling” (Woolf 45) would have been. For these reasons and many more no doubt, even the best of such women felt the need to wear a man’s mask and sign their lovingly crafted work with a man’s title, or, in hooks case, under the name of a woman who had come before and helped to pave the way with a strength of will and character which defied the gender restrictions that had previously been imposed upon those deemed to be the softer sex.
I personally am unfailingly grateful for Virginia Woolf and bell hooks and all the hundreds of other women who chose to write rather than be “crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to” (Woolf 39) as well as those who wrote and were destroyed in the process. Women have absolutely come an exceptionally long way in our desire, ability, and opportunity to contribute to the literature of the ages thanks to those courageous literary lionesses that came before and carved a woman’s path up a man’s mountain screaming in ink all the way to the top. In this age, my age, women are as free to write as their male counterparts always have been, if not even more so. Unfortunately, we are still regarded by both genders as little better than “women with an itch for scribbling.”