A guest blog from Tai Carmen of Parallax. www.taicarmen.com Parallax: exploring the architecture of human perception….
Someone will remember us [. . .] even in another time. ~ Sappho
When Medieval French court poet Christine de Pisan took it upon herself to defend womankind with the sword and shield of the written word, she had no female literary tradition from which to draw. So she constructed her own foremothers for company and counsel—Lady Reason, Lady Justice and Lady Rectitude—in The Book of the City of Ladies.
Through the guidance of Lady Reason, Pisan populated her allegorical city with women she considered of greatness and note—from mythical goddesses to real-life queens—defining “lady” as one who is noble, not of birth, but of spirit . . .
Widely considered the first woman to make her living as a writer, Pisan was widowed at a young age. Left as the sole care-taker of her mother and children, she dared solicit her skills to the French court as a poet—for trinkets, jewels and gold—as before only male poets had done. She was not only accepted as a court wordsmith, highly successful in her field, but also went on to become a celebrated (if controversial) voice in French intellectual society.
In the poem, Letter of the God of Love, written in 1402, Pisan tells us that “complaints have come” before her court from “all of womankind”—noble ladies, maidens, and merchants’ wives—who humbly ask for intervention. Failing help, Pisan worries that her gender will be “completely shorn of every shred of dignity,” detailing:
The ladies mentioned here above complain
Of damage done, of blame and blemished name […]
Endured each day from those disloyal men
Who blame and shame, defame and deceive them.
Simone de Beauvoir credits Pisan’s writing as, “The first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Urging towards education of girls, Pisan encourages others to follow suit:
Now I want you to bring forth new books which [ . . . ] will present your memory.
Today, thanks to women like Christine de Pisan, we are luckier—rich in women’s literary tradition, from Sappho to Sapphire. And we’re still stretching our wings—going from just three women writers listed in the NY Times Top Ten Books of 2008, to tipping the scales with six women writers in 2010. Does this mean—after struggling for centuries to have our voices heard —we, as women writers, have finally arrived?
I must admit, despite a heartfelt sense of solidarity with my fellow female authors, I find the phrase “woman writer” vaguely disquieting. Like saying “girl-musician” instead of just “musician,” as if her gender ads a caveat. I wonder if the very separatism of the phrase doesn’t create more of what it seeks to destroy. Am I a woman writing or a woman writer—and what, exactly, is the difference?
My friend, writer Alissa Nielsen, articulates this ambivalence, musing: “I am a woman who writes. It’s an action, not a noun. But if someone else defines me as a “woman writer,” then I’ve been classified; lumped into a category with other women writers who may or may not be like me. In many ways it diminishes one writer’s unique voice.”
Virginia Woolf, too, warns against letting gender inform narrative. Woolf famously advocated the “androgynous mind” (a balance of both masculine and feminine creative impulses) as having the most potential for unleashing genius. In A Room of Ones Own she tells us: “It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.”
“Is it always in the feminist interest to read women writers as women writers?” asks Toril Moi, professor and author of Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. In her lecture entitled ‘I Am Not a Woman Writer: On Feminism, Theory and Aesthetics,’ Moi concludes, “I prefer simply to say that I write as the woman I am.”
Though I’m inclined to share Moi’s take on the question of “women’s literature,” I would never deny the importance of my own personal community of fellow women writers—or the impact they’ve had on my spirit and work. Without the tireless encouragement, feedback, and emotional support of these women, I doubt I would have finished my first (working draft) novel. Political semantics aside, I’m deeply grateful to have the rich history of all the irrepressible sister-writers who have come before—their courage, creativity and tenacity have made it possible for us to thrive. Whether we identify as “women writers” or simply as “writers,” our predecessors have enabled us to partake in the ongoing dialogue of humanity—no small feat, considering where we began.