What is Women’s Literature?

Anna Zarra Aldrich, Blog Editor 

What is women’s literature? We have classes offered in it at UConn, one of which I am currently taking. While I am glad these classes are offered and I thoroughly enjoy the one I’m taking, I have been facing the question all semester of what does it mean to have “women’s literature” segmented off into a class unto itself.  

A lot can likely be attributed to the fact that women’s literature is not typically part of the traditional canon of “great” literature taught in middle and high schools. While I was being taught The Odyssey and Great Expectations during my freshman year, I was devouring the works of Dorothy Parker on the side.

This isn’t to say books that could be classified as women’s literature were never taught. Along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Hamlet, we read The Handmaid’s Tale and Pride and Prejudice. But at UConn I have the chance to take courses filled with “women’s literature” and I have to wonder how we are determining what falls into this category and what is excluded.

Pop “best women’s lit books” into google and the top results from Amazon’s best sellers list, Marie Claire’s “The Best Women’s Fiction of 2019 (So Far)” and Goodreads’ “Popular Women’s Lit Books” all have three things in common, they are: of women, by women, for women.

But this doesn’t quite fit the bill.

First of all, women’s literature is certainly not simply literature “of women.” There are plenty of books about women, or at least with prominent female characters, written by men. While some of these women are poorly written (think of George Orwell’s Julia who was only “a rebel from the waist down”), others are richly textured well-executed characters like Lady Macbeth or Gertrude–but even the plays those characters hail from are named for their husbands and sons.

Books by men where women are the undeniable protagonist like Madame Bovary or The Scarlet Letter are also not considered women’s literature (and, for the record, I don’t think it a coincidence both of these novels revolve around adultery plots).

Women’s literature cannot be easily defined as “literature by women” either. There are plenty of amazing works of literature written by women which are not considered “women’s literature.” Take, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird or Frankenstein. Sure, Scout is the narrator of Harper Lee’s story, but it is truly the struggles of Atticus Finch that make the book an American classic, and the book is taught as such regardless of the gender of the author that transcends the author’s gender. As for Mary Shelley’s inventive work, this insightful Gothic horror is certainly not “women’s literature.” The main characters are men and the content is not geared specifically toward women compared to novels like Jane Eyre or Mrs. Dalloway , which are consistently categorized as “women’s literature.” Shelley also didn’t publish the book under her name until the second edition, allowing it to be considered as a novel outside of the author’s identity. It would seem then that when a woman writes a book with wide appeal that has a place in the canon, it’s just literature, but when she writes about women and gender-specific issues, then it’s relegated to being “women’s literature.”

So that leaves us with “for women” which I find to be the most ridiculous measurement for classifying these works. Thinking of literature written for women brings to mind a term I hold in absolute contempt: “chick-lit.” Comparing a genre of books as something designed for baby chickens is inherently problematic (and referring to actual women as baby chickens isn’t much better). Sure, women readers can probably relate to books written about their experiences by women who have been in a similar position in a way men generally can’t. But branding entire swaths of literature as “women’s literature,” discourages men from engaging with these texts and learning from them. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that the women outnumber the men in my women’s literature class by a ratio or more than 10:1.

The classification of women’s literature is in one sense progressive. It highlights works that would have been traditionally kept out of the ranks of great literature and creates a space for them to be appreciated. But this classification also limits the discussion of these works as works that deal with women’s issues from a woman’s perspective speaking to an audience of women. This can also limit how people think about these works by exclusively applying a feminist theory lens to them.

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” 

Virginia Woolf once wrote: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Thankfully, women are able to claim possession of their literature now for the most part. Women’s literature as a category celebrates the fact that women create and have created great literature and expand the space for their work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving women a stage they don’t have to share with male authors who have had more than enough time in the limelight to themselves.

So, to answer my initial question, I think what should really constitute as “women’s literature” is simply work by women writing of whatever and whoever that want and for everyone.

To celebrate the breadth and depth of women’s literature, here are a few of my favorite works that happen to be written by women.

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This book was originally recommended to me by my high school Italian teacher and I loved it. The evolution and circularity of the plot make it something you just can’t put down until you get to the bottom of it alongside the narrator who is swept into a world whose dark past she is forced to uncover after she has entered it irrevocably. Don’t be turned off by the fact that this thrilling mystery is sometimes reduced to a “romance.”

  1. The Awakening Kate Chopin

I read this book my senior year of high school and was compelled by how sexless a book about a sexual awakening was, until I realized this book is so much more than that. Chopin tells Edna’s tragic story succinctly in this less-than-200-pages, but the metaphorical detail make it a deeply felt read set in late-19th-century Louisiana.

  1. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

I couldn’t not put Margaret Atwood on this list, but The Handmaid’s Tale felt a little too on the nose. Oryx and Crake is the first book in the Maddadam Trilogy which features an ensemble cast of (male and female) characters whose stories collide in a post-apocalyptic world following a breakdown brought on by an overzealous genetic engineering project. These books offer still-relevant critiques of violence in digital culture and the legal drug market wrapped up in a story about survival and human connections.   

  1. Laments for the Living, Dorothy Parker

I already mentioned how I became enthralled with Parker during my first year of high school. This was the first collection by her I read, before going through everything on my library’s bookshelves by her and then just buying her entire collected works. Since her collected works is a veritable brick, it would be a tall order to ask anyone to start with that. So as an appetizer, I recommend starting with this collection. The stories are sharp, witty, and observant. Even if you think her work is terrible, just remember your criticism will have to hold up against Parker’s own reviews: “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

“This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” 

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