Long ago, in the land of small metal curlers, of respectable white cotton garter-belts and panty-girdles with rubbery-smelling snap crotches, of stockings with seams, where condoms could not legally be displayed on pharmacy shelves, where we read Kotex ads to learn how to behave at proms and always wore our gloves when we went out, where cars had fins like fish and there was only one brand of tampon, women were told many things.
We were told: a happy marriage is the wife’s responsibility. We were told: learn to be a good listener.
We were told: don’t neck on the first date or the boy will not respect you. Home may be the man’s castle but the fluff-balls under the bed are the woman’s fault. Real women are bad at maths. To be fulfilled you have to have a baby. If you lead them on you’ll get what you deserve.
We were told: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Things that were not openly discussed: Abortion. Incest. Lesbians. Masturbation. Female orgasm. Menopause. Impotence. Anger.
Things we’d never heard of: Anorexia. Male-determined. Battered women. Metonymy. Housework is work. Bulimia. Herpes. Ecology. Equal pay. PMT. Surrogate motherhood. Faking it. Sisterhood is powerful. Dioxins. AIDS. The personal is political. A fish and a bicycle. Trashing.
Things we heard from men: Put a paper bag over their heads and they’re all the same. She’s just mad because she’s a woman. Nothing wrong with her that a good screw won’t fix. Bun in the oven. Up the stump. Frustrated old maid. Cock-teaser. Raving bitch.
We were told that there were certain ‘right’, ‘normal’ ways to be women, and other ways that were wrong. The right ways were limited in number. The wrong ways were endless.
We spent a lot of time wondering if we were ‘normal’. Some of us decided we weren’t. Ready-to-wear did not quite fit us. Neither did language.
Technology changed first. Big rollers. Home hair dryers. Pantyhose. The Pill.
Some of us made it through the minefield of high school to the minefield of university.
We read things. We read many things. We read Paradise Lost, about Eve’s Sin, which seemed to consist partly in having curly hair. We read the glorified rape scenes in Peyton Place and The Fountainhead, which proposed sexual assault as a kind of therapy. (For the woman. Leaves you with that radiant afterglow.) We read D. H. Lawrence and his nasty bloodsucking old spiderwomen, and his young girls melting like gelatin at the sight, thought or touch of a good man’s nicknamed appendage. We read Norman Mailer, who detailed the orgasmic thrill of strangling a bitchy wife. We read Ernest Hemingway, who preferred fishing. We read Playboy, and its promises of eternal babyhood for boys, in the playpen with the bunnies—well away from the washer-dryer in the suburbs and the gold-digging wife and her (not his) screaming kids. We read Kerouac, the Beat version of much the same thing. We read Robert Graves, in which man did and Woman Was; passivity was at an all-time high.
We read sex manuals that said a man should learn to play a woman like a violin. Nobody said a word about a woman learning to play a man like a flute.
We did some investigations of our own, and concluded that virgins were at a premium not because they were pure but because they were stupid. They made men feel smart by comparison. We realised we’d been well-groomed in the art of making men feel smart. We were disappointed that this was an art and not something inherent in nature: if men really were that smart, it shouldn’t take so much work.
Some of us wanted to be writers. If we were in Academia we concealed this. Respectable academics did not ‘write’, acceptable writers were safely dead. We did not want to be thought presumptuous. We were keeping our presumption for later.
We read writing by women. Our interest was not so much in technique or style or form or symbol or even content, although these were the things we wrote papers about. It was in something much more basic: we were curious about the lives of these women. How had they managed it? We knew about the problems; we wanted to know there were solutions. For instance, could you be a woman writer and happily married, with children, as well? It did not seem likely. (Emily Dickinson, recluse. George Eliot, childless. The Brontës, dead early. Jane Austen, spinster. Christina Rossetti, her wormholes, her shroud.)
It seemed likely that the husband’s demands and those of the art would clash. As a woman writer you would have to be a sort of nun, with the vocation and dedication but without the chastity, because of course you would have to Experience Life. You would have to Suffer. We read Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, suicides both. Novel-writing was safer. You could do that and live.
Even so, combining marriage and art was a risky business. You could not be an empty vessel for two. The instructions were clear: one genie per bottle.
Then there was the Canadian complication. Could you be female, a writer, be good at it, get published, not commit suicide, and be Canadian too? Here the news was a little better. Canadian writers were for the most part not at all well-known, but if you dug around you could find them, and many of the best ones were women. Of these, none had committed suicide.
Around this time, I was reading: P.K. Page, Margaret Avison, Dorothy Roberts Jay Macpherson, Elizabeth Brewster, Gwen MacEwen, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Laurence, Ethel Wilson, Jane Rule, Miriam Waddington, Anne Wilkinson, Phyllis Webb, Colleen Thibideau, Sheila Watson, Dorothy Livesay, and Phyllis Gottlieb. (Alice Munro, Marian Engel and Audrey Thomas had not yet published books, and Mavis Gallant was unknown—to me, and to most—as a Canadian.)
It was comforting as well as exciting to read these writers. I was not thinking, however, about a special, female kind of writing. It was more like a laying on of hands, a feeling that you too could do it because, look, it could be done.
Still, it was taken for granted then that you had to work harder and be better to be a woman anything, so why not a woman writer? I felt that I was writing in the teeth of the odds; as all writers do, to be sure, but for women there were extra handicaps. I was writing anyway, I was writing nevertheless, I was writing despite.
Things that were said about writing by women:
- that it was weak, vapid and pastel, as in strong, ‘masculine’ rhymes and weak ‘feminine’ ones;
- that it was too subjective, solipsistic, narcissistic, autobiographical and confessional;
- that women lacked imagination and the power of invention and could only copy from their own (unimportant) lives and their own (limited, subjective) reality. They lacked the power to speak in other voices, or to make things up;
- that their writing was therefore limited in scope, petty, domestic and trivial;
- that good female writers transcended their gender, that bad ones embodied it;
- that writing was anyway a male preserve, and that women who invaded it felt guilty or wanted to be men;
- that men created because they couldn’t have babies; that it was unfair of women to do both; that they should just have the babies, thus confining themselves to their proper sphere of creativity.
The double bind: if women said nice things, they were being female, therefore weak, and therefore bad writers. If they didn’t say nice things they weren’t proper women. Much better not to say anything at all.
Any woman who began writing when I did, and managed to continue, did so by ignoring, as a writer, all her socialization about pleasing other people by being nice, and every theory then available about how she wrote or ought to write. The alternative was silence.
It was the mid-sixties. We began to read subversive books. We knew they were subversive because we read them in the bathroom with the door closed and did not admit to it. There were two of them: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. They weren’t about our generation, exactly, or about our country; still, some things fit. We didn’t know quite why we wished to conceal our knowledge of them, except that the implications were very disturbing. If you thought too much about them you got angry. Something might blow up.
I first became aware of the constellation of attitudes or wave of energy loosely known as The Women’s Movement’ in 1969, when I was living in Edmonton, Alberta. A friend of mine in New York sent me a copy of the now-famous ‘Housework Is Work’ piece. There were no feminist groups in my immediate vicinity that I could see. Not there, not then. After that I went to England: similarly none.
I’ve said from time to time that I pre-dated the women’s movement, didn’t create it, and didn’t even participate in its early stages. I feel that this was a modest—and accurate—attempt not to take credit where credit wasn’t due, but this has been interpreted by some as a kind of denial or repudiation. Why this pressure to lie about your real experience, squash it into the Procrustean bed of some sacrosanct Party Line? It seems, unfortunately, to be a characteristic of Party Lines.
Similarly, I’ve been under pressure to say I was discriminated against by sexist male publishers. But I wasn’t. However sexist they may have been in their private lives, in their professional behaviour towards me no male Canadian publishers were ever anything but encouraging, even when they didn’t publish my books (I’m quite prepared to believe that the experience of others has been different. But your own personal experience is supposed to count for something, and that was mine.) It’s true that my first collection of poems and my first novel were rejected, but, although this was hard on me at the time, it was in retrospect a good thing. These books were ‘promising’, but that’s all they were.
In general, the Canadian publishers then were so desperate for any book they thought they could publish successfully that they wouldn’t have cared if the author were a newt. ‘Successfully’ is the operative word, Success in a publisher’s terms can be critical or financial, preferably both, which means an audience of some kind. This state of affairs militates—at the moment—against poetry, and against new, experimental and minority-group writing—writing that cannot promise to deliver an audience—which is also the reason why a great deal of such writing first sees the light through small presses and literary magazines. Many of these have been controlled by men with a distinct penchant for the buddy system, which in turn has led to the de facto exclusion of non-buddies, a good number of whom have been women. Or that’s my theory.
Finding that they were too new, offbeat or weird for what little ‘mainstream’ publishing there was, many writers of my generation started their own presses and magazines. This is hard work and drinks your blood, but for writers who feel excluded, it may be the only way to develop an audience. Sometimes the audience is already there and waiting, and the problem is to locate it, or enable it to locate you. Sometimes audience and writer will each other into being. But many, even those belonging to the supposedly automatically privileged white male middle class, never make it at all.
Being reviewed holds different perils. I’m quite happy to line up for a group spit on sexist reviewers, since over the years I’ve been on the receiving end of every bias in the book. She writes like a man, intended as a compliment. (I’ve always read it, ‘She writes. Like a man.’) She writes like a housewife. Witch, man-hater, man-freezing, Medusa, man-devouring monster. The Ice Goddess, the Snow Queen. One (woman) critic even did an analysis of my work based on my jacket photos: not enough smiles, in her opinion. Girls, like the peasants in eighteenth century genre paintings, are supposed to smile a lot. And Lord help you if you step outside your ‘proper’ sphere as a woman writer and comment on boy stuff like, say, politics. You want to see the heavy artillery come out? Try free trade.
Looking back on the women’s movement in the early and mid-seventies, I remember a grand fermentation of ideas, an exuberance in writing, a joy in uncovering taboos and in breaking them, a willingness to explore new channels of thought and feeling. I remember the setting-up of practical facilities such as Rape Crisis Centres and shelters for battered women. Doors were being opened. Language was being changed. Territory was being claimed. The unsaid was being said. Forms were fluid, genres were no longer locked boxes. There was a vitality, an urgency, in writing by women that surpassed anything men as a group were coming up with at the time. It was heady stuff.
Did all this affect my writing? How could it not? It affected everyone, in one way or another. It affected ways of looking, ways of feeling, ways of saying, the entire spectrum of assumption and perceived possibility.
But some people got hurt. Some men felt confused or excluded or despised, their roles questioned, their power base eroded. Some women felt excluded or despised or buried or marginalized or trashed. When you’ve devoted much time and energy to bringing up your beloved children, frequently single-handedly, it didn’t perk you up a lot to be called a dupe to men and a traitor to women. When you’d bucked the odds, worked your little fingers to the bone and achieved some form of success, it was not overjoying to be labelled a ‘token woman’. It wasn’t great to be told that your concern with race did not somehow fit into the women’s movement. it wasn’t any more fun being told you weren’t a real woman because you weren’t a lesbian than it had been for lesbians, earlier, to be squashed for their own sexual preferences.
But you weren’t supposed to complain. It seemed that some emotions were okay to express—for instance, negative emotions about men. Others were not okay—for instance, negative emotions about Woman. Mothers were an exception. It was okay to trash your mother. That aside, if you couldn’t say something nice about Woman, you weren’t supposed to say anything at all. But even saying that is saying something not nice. Right? So sit down and shut up.
Women can domineer over and infantilise women just as well as men can. They know exactly where to stick the knife. Also, they do great ambushes. From men you’re expecting it.
Writing and isms are two different things. Those who pledge their first loyalties to isms often hate and fear artists and their perverse loyalty to their art, because art is uncontrollable and has a habit of exploring the shadow side, the unspoken, the unthought. From the point of view of those who want a neatly ordered universe, writers are messy and undependable. They often see life as complex and mysterious, with ironies and loose ends, not as a tidy system of goodies and baddies usefully labelled. They frequently take the side of the underdog, that flea-blown house pet so unpopular with regimes in power. Plato excluded poets from the ideal republic. Modern dictators shoot them. And as the germination stage of any ism ends and it divides into cliques and solidifies into orthodoxies, writers—seized upon initially for their ability to upset apple carts—become suspect to the guardians of the ism for that very reason. Proscription becomes the order of the day. if Rousseau had survived to witness the French Revolution, he would have been guillotined.
I have supported women’s efforts to improve their shoddy lot in this world which is, globally, dangerous for women, biased against them, and at the moment, in a state of reaction against their efforts. But you pay for your support. The demands placed on those seen as spokespersons, either for women or for any other group under pressure, are frequently crushing: for every demand you satisfy, ten more come forward, and when you reach the breakdown point and say you just can’t do it, the demanders get angry. Women are socialized to please, to assuage pain, to give blood till they drop, to conciliate, to be selfless, to be helpful, to be Jesus Christ since men have given up on that role, to be perfect, and that load of luggage is still with us. This kind of insatiability is particularly damaging for women writers, who, like other writers, need private space and as women have a hard time getting any, and who are called by inner voices that may not coincide with the strictures of prevailing policy formulators. I think of a poem by the young Maori poet Roma Potiki, addressed to her own constituency: Death Is Too High a Price to Pay for Your Approval. Which about sums it up.
So—as a citizen, I do what I can while attempting to remain sane and functional, and if that sounds whiny and martyred it probably is. But as a writer—although it goes without saying that one’s areas of concern inform one’s work—I view with some alarm the attempts being made to dictate to women writers, on ideological grounds, various ‘acceptable’ modes of approach, style, form, language, subject or voice. Squeezing everyone into the same mould does not foster vitality, it merely discourages risks. In farming it would be monoculture.
In fiction, those who write from the abstract theory down, instead of from the specific earth up, all too often end by producing work that resembles a filled-in colouring book. Art created from a sense of obligation is likely to be static.
I think I am a writer, not a sort of tabula rasa for the Zeitgeist or a non-existent generator of ‘texts’. I think the examination of ‘language’ is something every good writer is engaged in by virtue of vocation. I write about women because they interest me, not because I think I ought to. Art created from a sense of obligation is bound to be static. Women are not Woman. They come in all shapes, sizes, colours, classes, ages, and degrees of moral rectitude. They don’t all behave, think or feel the same, any more than they all take Size Eight. All of them are real. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are awful. To deny them this is to deny them their humanity and to restrict their area of moral choice to the size of a teacup. To define women as by nature better than men is to ape the Victorians: ‘Woman’ was given ‘moral superiority’ by them because all other forms of superiority had been taken away.
There’s been a certain amount of talk lately about who has the right to write what, and about whom. Some have even claimed that a writer should not write about anyone other than herself, or someone so closely resembling her that it makes no nevermind. What was previously considered a weakness in women’s writing—solipsism, narcissism, the autobiographical—is now being touted as a requirement. Just for fun, here are a few woman writers who have written in voices ‘other’ than ‘their own’—those of other genders, nations, classes, ethnic groups, colours, other ages or stages of life, other times, and other life forms: Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Shelley, Kay Boyle, Adele Wiseman, Bharati Mukherjee, Marie-Claire Blais, Jane Urquhart, Marge Piercey, Louise Erdrich, Daphne Marlatt, Carolyn Chute, Toni Morrison, Audrey Thomas, Alice Munro, Nicole Brossard, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Hebert, Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Alice Walker, Anita Desai, Blanche D’Alpuget, Rita MacNeil, Sarah Sheard, Nayantara Sahgal, Katherine Govier, Nawal El Saadawi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Susan Swan, Anonymous, almost all playwrights, many crime writers, and all science-fiction writers. That’s just a few that spring to mind. There are lots more.
Having said all this, I’ll say that if you do choose to write from the point of view of an ‘other’ group, you’d better pay very close attention, because you’ll be subject to extra scrutinies and resentments. I’ll add that in my opinion the best writing about such a group is most likely to come from within that group—not because those outside it are more likely to vilify it, but because they are likely, these days and out of well-meaning liberalism, to simplify and sentimentalize it, or to get the textures and vocabulary and symbolism wrong. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s easier to write from a different-gender point of view within your own group than from a same-gender point of view from a different group.) Also, writers from outside a group are less likely to be able to do the tough, unpleasant, complex bits without attracting charges of racism, sexism, and so forth. Picture Toni Morrison’s Beloved written by a white person and you’ll see what I mean.
But to make such a judgement in advance, to make it on the basis of the race, sex, age, nationality, class or jacket photo of the writer instead of on the quality of the writing itself, is to be guilty of prejudice in the original meaning of the word, which is pre-judgement. This is why, when I judge writing contests of any kind, I prefer to do it blind. Recently I gave first prize in a short-story-collection contest to Reginald McKnight, a writer of great verve and energy, who turned out to be Black, male, and American. One of the stories was written from the point of view of a bigoted white Southern male. Should this have disqualified my writer—that he was not writing with ‘his own’ voice?
To lend support to an emerging literature does not mean you have to silence yourself. Being a good listener is not the same as not talking. The best thing you can do for a writer from a group in the process of finding its voices is to form part of a receptive climate. That is, buy the work and read it, as intelligently and sensitively as you can. If there’s something new and valuable to be learned about form, symbol, or belief system, learn it. But don’t condescend. And never call anyone from such a group a token. For a writer, that’s a big insult; it implies she can’t really write.
Surely in the final analysis critical evaluation should be based on performance. I didn’t give first prize to Reginald McKnight’s Mousiapha’s Eclipse because the author was Black, but because it was the best.
For me, the dangers of dictatorship by ism are largely metaphorical: I don’t have a job, so no-one has the power to fire me. But for some members of what I now geriatrically refer to as the younger generation, things are otherwise. When younger women writers come to me, at parties or under cover of night, to whisper stories about how they’ve been worked over—critically, professionally, or personally—by women in positions of power, because they haven’t toed some stylistic or ideological line or other, I deduct the mandatory fifteen points for writerly paranoia. Then I get mad.
Over the years I’ve built up a good deal of resistance to such manipulations; in any case, those likely to be doing them probably think of me as the Goodyear Blimp, floating around up there in an overinflated and irrelevant way—just the Establishment, you know, like, who cares? But other, younger woman writers, especially those with academic jobs, are not so lucky. An accusation of Thought Crime, for them, can have damaging practical consequences.
If the women’s movement is not an open door but a closed book, reserved for some right-thinking elite, then I’ve been misled. Are we being told yet once again that there are certain ‘right’ ways of being a woman writer, and that all other ways are wrong?
Sorry, but that’s where I came in. Women of my generation were told not to fly or run, only to hobble, with our high heels and our panty-girdles on. We were told endlessly: thou shalt not. We don’t need to hear it again, and especially not from women. Feminism has done many good things for women writers, but surely the most important has been the permission to say the unsaid, to encourage women to claim their full humanity, which means acknowledging the shadows as well as the lights.
Any knife can cut two ways. Theory is a positive force when it vitalizes and enables, but a negative one when it is used to amputate and repress, to create a batch of self-righteous rules and regulations, to foster nail-biting self-consciousness to the point of total block. Women are particularly subject to such squeeze-plays, because they are (still) heavily socialized to please. It’s easy to make them feel guilty, about almost anything.
The fear that dares not speak its name, for some women these days, is a fear of other women. But you aren’t supposed to talk about that; if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
There are many strong voices; there are many kinds of strong voices. Surely there should be room for all.
Does it make sense to silence women in the name of Woman? We can’t afford this silencing, or this fear.
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada best-known writers. She is a novelist, poet and critic. This essay was originally published in The Language in her Eye, Coachhouse Press, 1990 and is reprinted by permission of the author.