Booknotes: Writing Women’s Lives

Writing Women’s Lives is an anthology of autobiographical writing of fifty American women writers spanning the entire twentieth century — the first writer here was born in 1860 and the last in 1962.

Before we go further, a few words about Susan Cahill, the anthologist. She has anthologized several feminist volumes of writing by women and written several excellent travel books. I discovered her a decade or so ago through her classic ‘Women and Fiction‘ — a collection of short stories by some of the most well-known women writers of the twentieth century. That made me get this anthology.

In introducing us to these American women writers of the twentieth century, Cahill described how their cultural and socio-economic diversity makes them a pleasure to read while also busting many myths around the phenomenon of “woman writer”:

In all their hybrid voices — Chinese American, Japanese American, African American, Native American, Chicana American, Anglo-Saxon American, Jewish American, Irish American, Italian American, and many other mixings thereof — these women bear witness to lives far more complex than one-dimensional stories of gender experience.

. . .

One of the great pleasures of this collection is the panorama it presents of twentieth century cultural and political history from the perspective of engaged women writers, a sort of collective American life ranging across race, class, and generation.

Sure enough, we have life stories that span from first-generation immigrant accounts to the participating in the second wave of feminism and other minority rights movements. And, as complicated and varied as the stories of these fifty lives have been, the common thread running through all of them is, for me, that classic pioneering spirit that is widely identified as quintessentially American. As Natalie Kusz, the youngest of them here has written, “Adversity is the small, hard seed of courage.”

Courage is what each of these women demonstrates through her own life and writing over and over again — regardless of the age, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, region, or profession reflected in their narratives. That said, an important point to note is that the narratives are not all about difficulties and challenges — several of these selections are about grateful acceptance and joyful experiences, making the most of what one has or receives. And, the one striking aspect is how almost all these writers were actively influential within their communities.

Cahill aimed for both cultural and regional diversity and she also tried to ensure that emerging voices (at the time of publication) stood alongside established ones. So, naturally, some big voices of the twentieth centuries had to be left out. She chose to leave out those women writers who had already been widely anthologized or become canonical by the time of publication — e.g. Alice Walker and Margaret Mead.

That said, there were several writers here whose works I have loved and it was a joy to “hear” their distinctive voices here again: Tillie Olsen, Maya Angelou, Vivian Gornick, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Lillian Hellman, May Sarton, Audre Lorde, Joan Didion, bell hooks, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Dorothy Allison, and more.

There were also many whom I had heard of but never read and will definitely be seeking out soon enough: Mary Crow Dog, Mary McCarthy, M F K Fisher, Hortense Calisher, Annie Dillard, and more.

For me, the narratives followed an interesting arc. The early women writers described how they came to their love of reading and writing, or how they tried to work past the gendered expectations of families and communities, or how, if they were first-generation immigrants, they tried to assimilate into a new world. Another group of writers wrote more about issues related to mental and physical health, financial challenges, lack of education opportunities. And several writers focused more on self-confidence, sexuality, creativity, and self-identity aspects. So, in this, the narratives have certainly followed the arcs of political history and the women’s movement throughout the twentieth century as well. And, as with the women’s movement, many of the issues these writers faced in their times are still experienced by today’s writers, particularly those from minority groups that are still finding their voices.

As I read this book, I was reminded several times of the need for such anthologies because of something Virginia Woolf wrote in her seminal ‘A Room of One’s Own‘:

But what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

We, women writers of today, need our models to turn to from time to time — if not to emulate, then to see how we are or could be different. Benchmarks, if you will, that show us whether we have managed to move beyond the traditions set by our predecessors. We also need to know and appreciate the powerful sisterhood to whom we owe so much. So, while I was so grateful to Cahill for having put this anthology together, I was also disappointed that she had not included a single Indian-American writer. I was hoping to find Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, or Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni here. These three are the first names that come to me when considering twentieth-century Indian-American writing. While they may not have been as mainstream at the time the anthology was put together, they would surely have fit well within the “emerging” category. Mukherjee and Desai had already won or been shortlisted for prestigious international awards by the 1980s. And all of them have taught or are currently teaching creative writing at big-name institutions.

The writer who affected me the most here was Tillie Olsen. Her excerpt is taken from her first book of nonfiction, ‘Silences‘. In it, Olsen wrote about her own journey from silence to writing, after raising her family, holding down several jobs to pay the bills, and, finally, publishing her first book at age fifty. She wrote also about all the literature that had (and continues to, of course) gone unwritten by women and minorities because of their circumstances — class, color, sex, etc.

. . . How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft — but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

 

The leeching of belief, of will, the damaging of capacity begin so early. Sparse indeed is the literature on the way of denial to small girl children of the development of their endowment as born human: active, vigorous bodies; exercise of the power to do, to make, to investigate, to invent, to conquer obstacles; to resist violations of the self; to think, create, choose; to attain community, confidence in self. Little has been written on the harms of instilling constant concern with appearance; the need to please, to support; the training in acceptance, deferring. Little has been added in our century to George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss on the effect of the differing treatment — “the climate of expectation” — for boys and for girls.

These days, one might argue that social media, better access to education, and improved awareness of socio-cultural biases and prejudices have enabled freer voices and platforms for women writers all over the world. But, in the cacophony of voices — of men and women — that surrounds us 24/7, have we really gotten rid of the “differing treatment” and “climate of expectation” Olsen wrote of? Can women now choose freely, without the same old emotional and physical obstacles and sacrifices, to write with true conviction, confidence, and craft? I believe that, though vast improvements have taken place, we are still dealing with “silences” in the ways that Olsen and her generation had to.

I do not want to end on a negative thought. So let me share my biggest takeaway — overall, a positive one — from this anthology. All of the women writers here found ways to make their challenges into not just writing material but into superior works of art. Writing itself was a political act for them. And yet, rather than simply grasping at the opportunity to write and be heard, they dug deep inside themselves to understand why they had to write about something and whether they could say whatever they needed to say better than anyone had done before. Then they worked relentlessly at their craft to be able to do so. Every single writer included in this anthology has earned and deserved her hard-won stripes. As should the rest of us who stand on their shoulders.

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