Literature and Gender

Key terms: gender, gender roles, femininity, gendered approaches, readership, authorship, publishing, gender and genre, women’s concerns, restriction, double standards, feminist criticism, revision of the literary canon


For centuries, human societies have tended to assign different roles, codes of behaviour and morality, and even different feelings and thoughts to men and women. By doing so, they used the biological distinction of sex (between male and female) to construct and enforce the social distinction of gender (between masculine and feminine). For instance, according to 18th and 19th century English standards of femininity, middle and upper class women — as opposed to men — were supposed to devote themselves almost exclusively to the domestic sphere of “hearth and home” as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers caring for fathers, brothers, husbands and children. They were expected to adopt a suitably modest behaviour and a moral code of sexual purity and self-sacrifice, and avoid having strong desires and strong opinions, especially in opposition to the men who were seen as their ‘guardians’. Such differences of gender roles, by affecting access to factors like education, experience, time and financial support, have had their influence on the ways in which men and women could participate in literature as writers, readers, critics, and arguably even as characters. The heroine of Jane Austen’s last complete novel Persuasion (1818), Anne Elliot says, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands,” and indeed until a few decades ago political, economic and cultural power rested overwhelmingly with men in the English-speaking world (and in many other cultures). Therefore, gendered approaches to literature have often sought to counterbalance the male focus that this involved by concentrating more strongly on women’s perspectives.

It is rather easy to see how education, socially acceptable experience, leisure time and financial background are factors that determine the readership of literature. As far as education is concerned, even upper and middle class women had serious disadvantages, not being admitted until the late 19th century to the schools and universities which represented the highest intellectual standards. Instead, they typically had to content themselves with a rather more limited education concentrating on moral virtues, modern languages and the social graces of music, singing, drawing, dancing and polite conversation. At the more basic level of literacy, women were at first similarly handicapped in comparison with men. Female literacy levels were lower then male ones in 18th and 19th century England and Wales, although by the 1840s more than half, and by 1900 almost all women in England and Wales could sign their names in marriage registers. In addition, by the 18th and especially the 19th century, women from not only the upper class but also of the middle classes tended to have significant free time, as well as the financial means to get access to literature through the relatively affordable options of circulating libraries or serial publications. This resulted in an extension of the readership of literature also among women, so that by the 1870s novelist Anthony Trollope could declare, “Novels are in the hands of us all; from the Prime Minister down to the last-appointed scullery maid. We have them in our library, our drawing-rooms, our bed-rooms, our kitchens – and in our nurseries.” This increasing readership, which included large amounts of women (such as Trollope’s “scullery maids”) with little or no classical education, an ostensibly limited experience and delicate sexual modesty, in turn had its influence on what kind of literature could seek wide popularity.

Gender distinctions in education and experience have influenced the lives and works of women authors as well. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) famously described successful playwright and novelist (and thus his literary rival) Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) as if her writing proceeded not from an educated and well-regulated mind (like his own) but the ignorance and dull animality of a woman with “cow-like udders and with ox-like eyes”. Several decades later, Jane Austen (1775-1817), who spent less than two years in a school for young women (while two of her brothers went to Oxford), was ironically playing with the well-established image of the ignorant female “scribbler” when she rejected advice on what books she should write. Lack of a solid classical education, she suggested, deprived her of proper knowledge of “science and philosophy” as well the “quotations and allusions” that were the privilege of masculine erudition. As certain genres were more dependent on a formal education than others, genre and gender could be seen to be connected. Indeed, one could argue – as George Eliot did in the 1850s – that women authors could successfully turn to novel writing precisely because this genre, as opposed to genres like the epic, was relatively new, with few formal rules and a short tradition almost entirely accessible in English

There was often also much suspicion about the moral consequences that could arise from the treatment of certain subject matters as well as the publicity and financial benefits involved in female writing. Alexander Pope applies moral double standards when he expresses special outrage at “those shameless scribblers” who not only write “libellous Memoirs and Novels” but are also “for the most part of That sex, which ought least to be capable to such malice or impudence” — that is, women. The image of the immoral female author who capitalizes on stories of (sexual) scandal – and thus earns an independent living which gives her a dangerous potential for licentious behaviour – was the legacy of early 18th century writings like Delarivière (or Mary de la Rivière) Manley’s highly popular satires of sexual and political corruption (The Secret History of Queen Zarah, 1705, The New Atlantis, 1709) or Eliza Haywood’s explorations of power games between genders in works like Fantomina (1725). As a reaction to such images of ‘immodestly’ public women writers, later female authors wishing at least formally to conform to ideals of private domestic femininity often opted for publishing anonymously and largely refrained from to the public exposure involved in drama. The late 18th century novelist Frances Burney (1752-1840) was expressly banned by her father from having her plays produced on stage, although she had spent months working on her first one. The father advised instead that ‘In the Novel way, there is no danger’, which was all the more true that Burney — like Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe and many other female writers — published several novels anonymously.

Female writers continued to experience restrictions in subject matter as to what aspects of life they were supposed to portray or even be aware of. Many critics of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), unaided by the gender-ambiguous pen names of Acton and Ellis Bell under which the novels were published, were unwilling to suppose that such scenes of brutal violence as depicted in these novels could have been even familiar to ‘lady’ writers. A few years later, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth (1853), dealing with the social neglect and injustice involved in the tragic story of an unmarried mother, was banned as dangerous by her husband from her own house and symbolically burned by some of her male acquaintances.

In addition to limitations of schooling and socially acceptable experience, women authors often also had to labour under economic and legal disadvantages. To start with, as Virginia Woolf was to write later, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. A comparison of the output of 18th and 19th century female novelists with those of their male contemporaries suggests that many women writers (like Elizabeth Gaskell) found it difficult to reconcile the demands of serious writing with their ‘normal’ household duties, to the detriment of the former. Although as yet unmarried, Frances Burney wrote her first novel Evelina (1778) in stolen hours, and delayed revealing the publication of her book to her father until critical and popular success were already certain. (This success then helped her to become a semi-professional writer who received considerable sums of money by subscription and for the copy rights of her three subsequent novels.) As an added difficulty, married women writers in the late 18th and early 19th century (like Ann Radcliffe, 1764-1823) could not enter into legal contracts or have control over their earnings, both of which were the exclusive right of the husband.

Considering the manifold limitations that women writers and readers experienced, it is little surprise to find that related themes would have found their way into the writing of and about women. Restriction did, in fact, become one of the most enduring motifs of English fiction dealing with women’s lives, manifesting itself in various disguises as the abduction and incarceration of women characters by male ones in carriages, castles, madhouses, brothels and seemingly comfortable homes. Such motifs run through works as various as Aphra Behn’s  The Unfortunate Happy Lady (1698), Mary Davys’s The Reformed Coquet (1724), Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), or American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1891), and even works by male authors like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) or Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860). The effects of the social restrictions were often symbolically represented in fiction as the mental anguish and even madness that many female characters were made to undergo from the heroine of Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782) through the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) – rewritten as the heroine of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) – to the main character of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Women writers of the past three centuries have been at the forefront of trying to remedy the disadvantage of earlier centuries, when, in the words of the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the pen has been in the hands of men, that is, literature — as most institutionalised aspects of culture — was overwhelmingly under the control of men. By taking the pen in their own hands, increasing numbers of women writers have been giving voice to women’s experiences and concerns. Such concerns included inadequate education (e. g. in Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote, 1752), insufficient useful activity (e. g. in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, 1871-2), economic dependence (e. g. in Frances Burney’s Cecilia, 1782, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, 1811), legal disempowerment (e. g. in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848), moral double standards (e. g. in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, 1853), and many more. In addition to thematising specifically female experiences, women writers have also been taking active part in public discourse on more general social issues such as the importance of responsible leadership in Ireland (e. g. in Maria Edgeworth’s novels The Absentee, 1812, and Ormond, 1817) or the living and working conditions of the urban labouring classes (e. g. in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, 1855).

As literary production, so literary criticism was also for centuries dominated by men who had a virtual monopoly over the necessary education and intellectual authority. This did not always help the recognition of female talent: double standards were often applied to measure men’s and women’s literary output as they were to measure their sexual behaviour. As Charlotte Brontë explained in retrospect, she and her sisters chose to ‘veil’ their identities under the ambiguous names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because ‘without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.’ Similar considerations induced Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans (1819-80) to publish her first fiction under the male pseudonym George Eliot, and contemporary critical opinions that the author may be an elderly clergyman only served to strengthen her resolution to use the same name for all her subsequent novels.

Although such double standards have by now become largely impossible to apply explicitly, the revaluation of literary history and the revision of the literary canon to recognise significant contributions by women still take a long time. Feminist criticism has long been instrumental in revaluating parts of literary history by completing and complicating the “orthodox” narratives. Thus, medieval female authors like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (who, illiterate, were exceptionally lucky that their visions and stories were committed to writing at all) are now included in histories of English literature. In addition, women writers and their texts have been claiming recognition in some of the “post-colonial” literary canons in English, as Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) and Sidney Owenson (Lady Morgan, 1776?-1859) did in the case of Irish literature. More fundamentally, accounts of literary processes have been revised. For instance, the 18th century ‘rise of the novel’, often presented as the exclusive achievement of male authors like Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding (as in Ian Watt’s classic study), has been recently reinterpreted to include the contribution of female pioneers of the genre, such as the popular and inventive female fiction writers Aphra Behn (1640?-1689), Delarivière Manley (c. 1672-1724), Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) and Mary Davys (1674-1732). Similarly, genres (such as courtship romances and Gothic fiction) which were formerly regarded as female-dominated genres and (therefore) neglected by mainstream criticism and literary history have been receiving serious attention as expressions of various legitimate social and psychological concerns. As a corollary, publishers as well as specialist internet sites have made many women writers’ texts accessible – often works that had been out of print for decades or even centuries.

Excercises