Where Are All the Women in the Great Canon of Literature?

While I’ve been doing my “Every Dead Author” challenge – my attempt to read a small piece by every author ever published – I came across a glaring omission from the “Great Canon of Literature” – women. In fact, as soon as I started and drew up my list, I noticed the list was seriously lacking any female names. There were the usual suspects, of course – the Brontes, Jane Austen – but their scarcity of number merely highlighted their absence. There were others such as Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they would hardly be regarded in the same breath as Joyce or Dickens.

Now, one of the reasons often given for this is that – in those days – women simply didn’t write, or if they did, they kept it private. It’s known, for instance, that both the Brontes and Jane Austen published their books under pseudonyms because a woman writing just wasn’t socially acceptable. And this is fair enough as an explanation but the fact of the matter is, as I found out, women did publish.

For instance, a number of women were suggested to me: Katherine Mansfield, who I had already heard of, although hers wasn’t a name that wouldn’t have featured heavily in “The Canon”, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman who I had never heard of. Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was probably one of the best that I have read for the “Every Dead Author” challenge. So why is she not considered suitable for inclusion in “The Canon”? Is it because she’s a woman? Because these lists are compiled by men? Perhaps it’s naïve and oversimplification of things but I can’t help but feel that has to be an element in it. I have been told that Gilman’s story is often studied in “feminist” literature classes. If that story had been written by Kafka or Joyce, it would be regarded as a modern classic and would be read and studied everywhere.

Also, going back to the reason given, “in those days” is an awful broad term. If those days means the time of Queen Elizabeth or even of the Brontes, then yes, it’s true, many women simply didn’t write, or if they did, they were rarely taken seriously. But the books contained in “The Canon” date all the way up to present-day. For the purposes of my little experiment, I’m concentrating on “dead authors” but even these would include a lot of women. The hotbed of activity that was the modernist period dates from 1922 and there were certainly women writing and being taken very seriously prior to and subsequent to that date. So, again, where are they?

Having studied a degree in English Lit, I know these women exist and are covered on literature courses. But how many people who DON’T study literature could tell you who Marianne Moore or Kate Chopin or Virginia Wolff were? Certainly a lot less than could tell you who Jane Austen was. On the flip side, how many of those people will have heard of Joyce, or Hemingway or Kafka, these women’s contemporaries? Quite a lot more, I would imagine.

So, is there a gender bias in “The Canon”? Or is it that these women simply weren’t good enough writers? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.


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25 thoughts on “Where Are All the Women in the Great Canon of Literature?

  1. There’s a similar debate raging over women writers specifically in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

    When talking about mere ‘popularity’ I think it’s luck of the draw – people like what they like. But when we are talking about great writers, I find it difficult to believe that women simply weren’t any good.

    But if we take a step back from writing and consider life in general, it’s a fact that there is salary disparity between men and women, fewer career advancement opportunities for women, the ‘glass ceiling’, and disproportionate numbers of men in some professions over women.

    I suspect the reason for all those things is the same reason and I’m afraid that it is discrimination on the basis of gender. Equality exists in theory but alas it’s implementation in practice is still a work in progress.

    1. Thanks for the comment Ciara. Re: women authors in sci-fi/fantasy, I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that when a brilliant author like Margaret Atwood has a book of hers classified (rightly, I would argue) as Science Fiction, she goes out of her way to protest that it’s not!

  2. I have also studied literature (mainly European Literature), albeit from a philosophical and sociological background. I always found the idea of the ‘canon’ itself to be a suspect one (for example why is Shakespeare necessarliy any better than the writer of a popular soap opera? Can you imagine ‘Eastenders’ in the canon?).
    I feel that the answer to your question about the absence of women is simply that the ‘canon’ is a arbitrary list drawn up over the years by groups of ‘experts’ – who also happen to be male, white, upper or middle class who were, more often than not educated privately and went to the top universities (in the UK this means ‘Oxbridge’), and they were probably old too. Therefore it is unsurprising that the ‘canon’ is a reflection of the prejudices of these kinds of people. It is therefore probably a sexist list that also dispropotionately excludes working classes, ethnic minorities etc. Not so sure if it is biased in terms of age?
    I always felt it was also biased to a certain kind of ‘literature’ too – how much Science Fiction is there for example?
    This kind of thing happens throughout art/s, not just in literature, it is often characterised as a false debate about ‘High Culture’ and ‘Low Culture’ – as if some kinds of culture are inherently better than others…an idea as daft as the idea that male writers are somehow ‘better’ than females!

    1. Hi Simon. As regards the bias towards a certain kind of ‘literature’, I agree. It’s like comedy at the Oscars. Despite the fact that many classic works of literature are sci-fi/fantasy/horror, they are consistently overlooked. And yet, those that compile the canon seem to think it’s okay to include Dracula, Frankenstein, The Time Machine, etc. Is this because they are all 19th century works and therefore somehow deserved of praise while Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, etc. aren’t?

      1. Things like SF and Romance are sometimes not taken seriously because they are often popular (not necessarily ‘populist’) and perhaps the literary ‘establishment’ regards as something not to be taken seriously (as if by definition they can’t possibly be well written). This myth is perpetuated by the media and popular opinion.
        It is interesting that SF ideas used in recent ‘literary’ novels have been praised as original and thought provoking, like Cormac McCarthy (The Road) and Ishiguro (Never let me go). Now these are fine well-written books, but I found them slightlly derivative as I have read a lot of SF, though I still liked them. The odd thing for me with those was that people I know who read and enjoyed them greatly wouldn’t normally touch SF with a barge-pole! How often do people say “Oh God, I hate SciFi,” when they haven’t ever read any!
        This is why I hate snobbishness in the arts and often wonder if ideas of ‘Genre’ and the canon are more trouble than they are worth…
        I know I have digressed from the topic of female writers, but I will say you are so right to have question it. I love that fact that you are experimenting with all kinds of books, stories and authors…challenging yourself to read widely is most admirable…
        Last thought…J.K. Rowling was advised to use her initials by her agent (rather than be ‘Joanne Rowling’) because they thought that young boys wouldn’t want to read a book by a female author…
        Does the gender of the readers make a difference to the gender of the author they choose to read? (Oh no, have I opened another can of worms?? Maybe I should put that question on my blog rather than cluttering up your one!)

    1. I don’t know who you are, but I certainly did read all the women mentioned in my liberal arts education (not lit major) and public school education! Please provide a link to this obviously defecit “Canon” you mention. Perhaps it should be shot.

      1. Hi Georganna. The point of my post is every simple: that women writers are woefully under-represented by the “Literary Canon”. The “Canon” of which I speak are the books from the past 2,000 years of Western Civilization that have been classified as “Great Literature” and are therefore taught in universities, etc. I have read and studied many brilliant female authors from many different centuries. You may have too. This does nothing to change the fact that they are NOT represented equally in the Literary Canon and they are NOT taught equally in classrooms (unless it is a subject such as “Feminist Theory”).

  3. Harold Bloom, in ‘The Western Canon’, takes aesthetic splendour as his only criterion for inclusion, and has no hesitation in declaring Dickinson the greatest American poet along with Whitman, and in including Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop alongside Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, etc. Among contemporary poets he names two of possible genius, one of them Anne Carson. He’s also suggested the first five books of the Bible might have been composed by a woman at Solomon’s court. There’s no doubt that many women of potential genius were prevented from expressing themselves by circumstance or cultural prejudice, so the numbers of men allowed to create freely were always going to be greater, with a concomitant male majority in the roster of ‘great’ authors. Perhaps that does lead many people (probably mostly men) to assume that male authors are better. The disparity is even greater in the ranks of painters and composers, but I don’t know enough about either field to speculate on why that might be.

    We all have our own list of overlooked ‘classics’. But is literary beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I think, unless you have genuinely steeped yourself in literature in all its forms over a long period, you can do nothing but declare a personal preference. I love Lord of the Rings to pieces but I wouldn’t argue with someone who told me Joyce was a greater writer than Tolkien, even though I’ve never been able to finish Ulysses. Joyce did something unprecedented and influenced nearly every subsequent writer; no one who has imitated or followed Tolkien has done anything remarkable. Stephen King is writer who clearly knows how to grip an audience, but I would personally say Ursula Le Guin is far superior writer, though a lot less popular. Bloom doesn’t discriminate against science fiction in his canon, either, including works by Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch and David Lindsay (it is a shame about Atwood’s stance, something surely brought about by the literary unrespectability of SF. At least Doris Lessing, recent recipient of the Nobel, has no shame about the genre!). But if questioned as to why there wasn’t more SF, Bloom’s response would no doubt be: ‘It isn’t good enough.’ And who is to gainsay him? James Blish was labelled ‘Science Fiction’s intellectual’, yet his prose barely rises above the level of a pulp magazine. I tried rereading ‘Dune’ a few years ago and was appalled at the standard of the writing – not that it’s actually awful, but it’s just not that good.

    Sorry, I’m banging on about this because it bothers me that people suggest Eastenders is equal to Shakespeare and Stephen King is as good as…whoever. These are popular works and there is no doubt considerable craft and even some art in them, but whether they will last, and influence other writing…? I doubt it.

    I prefer ‘Middlemarch’ to ‘War and Peace’, but I loathe ‘Wuthering Heights’. I have read almost all of Cormac McCarthy’s books (some of them twice) but was ultimately more gripped by ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ and ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’. I hope intelligent readers will continue to seek out the best books, in whatever genre or by whichever gender – and the internet does offer the chance to redress imbalances; Sigrid Undset’s ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ is gradually gaining ground and new readers. There are no doubt unconscious prejudices in all of us – but I think there is osmething that recognises quality, as well – and I hope that will ulitimately prevail.

    Apologies for length. Once I started, I couldn’t seem to stop…

    1. No apologies necessary, Tim. An extremely thought-provoking response and I agree with much of what you say. However, I have a serious problem with critics like Bloom who say Stephen King does not deserve the National Book Award simply because it is genre writing or populist. The fact is, Stephen King is a gifted storyteller and I believe his works will last. He has often been compared to Dickens and I believe the comparison holds. I would not say, however, that the numerous sub-par Stephen King wannabes should be included in the Canon. There is a major difference. Yes, Joyce changed the face of literature with his writing but so did King in his own way. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I wasn’t suggesting Eastenders is better than Shakespeare, it isn’t. Well, not in my opinion anyway. And that’s the point, it’s all about subjective opinion. You cannot judge ‘aesthetic splendour’ in any other way….
      Mind you, we have no idea how they will judge things in three hundred years, maybe they will study Eastenders in university in the same way they study Shakespeare now…if universities and reading still exists…

  4. I saw Danny Boyle’s play Frankenstein http://www.wordandfilm.com/2012/06/its-alive-danny-boyles-frankenstein-comes-to-us/last night as it was released in American theaters by film. I had a whole new respect for Mary Shelly in her book Frankenstein. Why isn’t it listed at the top?
    Her book creates a universal story like Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth-. The monster is really man and Frankenstein is really science gone out of control. See the movie. Fabulous and put Mary Shelly at the top of this gender based male best book list.

    1. Hi there. Mary Shelley is indeed mentioned in the post. However, she is only one of a handful of women represented by the Canon and she is there more so for “Frankenstein” than anything else. (Could anyone name any of her other works?) And I didn’t mean the post to come across as a “gender based male best book list”. I was making the point that this gender bias is EXACTLY the problem with the Literary Canon. Thanks for the comment.

  5. I’m shocked that as part of your English lit degree you did not read Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I read her short story during an American Lit and just a general literature course while studying for my BA in English. I also read her story during a women’s lit course in grad school. I would certainly argue that she is used as one of the greatest canonical examples of American women short story writers in college courses.

    1. Hi Jennifer. No, she was never even touched on in the BA (Hons) Degree I studied, which – to be fair – was an excellent course. Perhaps she’s better known in the US colleges. However, her inclusion would still not even out the gender imbalance!

  6. English Departments have at least progressed this far:

    – far more works are studied by the few women in the canon. For instance, instead of Charlotte Bronte being the author of only “Jane Eyre,” it is now possible to get copies of her other works and occasionally study them in class.

    – women once dismissed as minor, such Christina Rossetti, are now being viewed more seriously.

    – if you’re lucky, you may be able to study a handful of other female writers, like Ann Radcliffe or Elizabeth Gaskell or Aphra Behn.

    This isn’t nearly enough, of course. But it’s considerably better than the syllabuses of forty years ago.

    1. That’s very interesting (and encouraging) Bruce. I know there are many critics who think Christina Rosetti’s poetry is superior to her more well-known brother’s.

  7. It’s too early to say who will make it into the next chapter of the ‘cannon’ – Dickens probably wouldn’t have been put forward by his contemporaries and maybe some that would have been are now resting in obscurity. So there may be hope for King yet – and JK Rowling or even EL James which might even things up (just stirring now!).

    1. Ha! Stir away Julia 🙂 I was just replying to the mention of King but the fact is there are any number of modern male AND female writers I’d be happy to see added to the canon. Top of my female list would be Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx.

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