Must do better: academia and women writers

The Long Gaze Back highlights that other anthologies’ exclusion of women writers is due to active or subliminal processes of silencing women

Balancing genders within any body of work for the sake of surface-level symmetry is anti-art and regressive, but that is not what The Long Gaze Back is doing. This work actively draws together quality writing and writers, deserving of popular and critical appreciation, in order to highlight that the exclusion of women writers within other anthologies is not down to any lack of women writers, but active and at times subliminal processes of silencing women, processes which in turn calcify hegemonic structures of value.

In 2016 I undertook an MPhil in Irish writing at Trinity College Dublin. The class was composed of 13 women and two men, not at all unusual for postgraduate MAs in English. Within a core class on the curriculum, Perspectives in Irish Writing, designed to trace the temporal arc of Irish literature, there was only one female Irish writer examined between 1590 and the 1940s: Maria Edgeworth. She was followed by Elizabeth Bowen, Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian and Eimear McBride as representative of the totality of Irish literature in this module. Distilling 400 years of national literature into 12 weeks is an unenviable prospect, and one that will inevitably fail to include work perceived by many as fundamental, but the academic precedence given to the work of men is clear and still pervasive.

Many other female writers were covered across the coursework, yet in a class designated to give a perspective on Irish literature, one must ask: is five women out of 26 authors an accurate portrayal? This was not out of the ordinary, with women making up roughly 20-30 per cent of authors on each module of the course, right up to the contemporary period. As Anne Enright noted about the gender balance of authors published by international publishing houses, in a recent piece for the London Review of Books, “After spending a long time looking at the figures, anything over 40 per cent feels like a miracle and anything under 30 per cent a crime”.

I spoke with Alyson Favilla, a member of my MPhil class, on this point and she noted: “My sense of the curriculum was that the inclusion of women was a concession (to us, a class comprised mainly of women, our female professors, or simply for the benefit of anyone auditing the course?). There was no serious attempt to reconfigure the hierarchy of the canon, at least in terms of influence. I totally understand the core authors they chose, and honestly I have no real complaints about how we were taught – I don’t want to seem overly critical in hindsight! We did have some valuable discussion in class about the place of women on the course list ... I imagine that if we had pressed, professors would have been open to revising the text selections. But, maybe we were all too willing to go along with the men whose names were more familiar because we were assured that they were who we needed to know to be proficient in the field.”


The preparatory reading list of 17 books for undergraduate English degree place holders at Kings College Cambridge includes only two women, Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. A similar list for the first year English literature degree at Balliol College, University of Oxford, within the remit of Victorian and modern literature, includes seven women and 24 men. University of Pennsylvania Department of English recommended reading lists: Twentieth Century American literature – 16 works by women out of 50. This is the systematic imbalance at its root; where the recommended texts, before any further consideration, are already under-representing women before students even begin their tutelage.

I am aware that these are only a very tiny representative cast of universities. However, Time magazine enacted a study of data compiled by the Open Syllabus Project, data based on 1.1 million college syllabi over the past 15 years, to assess the most prevalent women on university courses across the US, UK, Canada and Australia. The most frequently included female author was Kate L Turabian, author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, featuring on 3,998 courses. Time noted, however, that this presence was “dwarfed by the 20,124 syllabi featuring William Shakespeare, the most-read author by college students”. This Shakespearean prevalence comes as little shock to anyone, yet the study continues: “He’s followed by 16 other men, including Plato and Sigmund Freud, that precede the first female writer on the list. The next 99 most-read female authors are interspersed among 718 other male authors.” 13 per cent of the top 735 authors on college syllabi were women.

Seven of the authors in The Long Gaze Back were included on my curriculum. While the calcifying of critical appreciation and a body of critical work can be notoriously slow, this anthology is a sign of a changing canon, a broadening, as new artists stake their claim, and reappraisal of those gone before can facilitate a new perspective on the past. This collection brings these authors to readers beyond the strictures of academic process, beyond the often cloistered domain of critical reappraisal, and brings them into the hands of the broader reading public, a reading public which is incidentally composed in the majority by women.

There seems to be a prevailing issue whereby universities run MA courses specifically covering “women’s writing” alongside MA courses in English literature where quality women’s literature is wholly underrepresented. By underrepresentation I don’t simply mean a name on a list of optional texts, but female writers who are seen as canonical, so fundamental to an understanding of the national body of literature that they are mandatory reading.

Postgraduate degrees that focus specifically on the study of women’s literature are clearly a crucial move in a positive direction, yet there is a feeling that the need for such courses implicitly indicates the failure of undenominated English curricula to present and interact with the work of half the population in an integrated manner. Elizabeth McIntosh, another member of my class, highlighted this issue, noting “when writing my dissertation on Moya Cannon, I was advised to contextualise my argument. This, however, did not mean placing her among the other Northern writers who use a politicised landscape as their subject. It meant that I must align her within the loosely affiliated category of ‘Irish women writers’.”

If we digress outside academia for a moment, and consider the Guardian’s list of the 100 best novels written in English, compiled by Robert McCrum in 2015, only 21 were by women. The list itself led to significant critical and popular backlash (as these lists tend/are designed to do), which may have proven more productive than the initial list itself, and yet the recurrence of such lists, with such imbalances, seems slow to abate. As Rachel Cooke noted in a responding article in the same paper, “Even allowing for the fact that his list takes in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when women writers were relatively rare […]Sixty-seven of his titles belong to the 20th century […]and yet, only 15 of these are by women.”

Even taking for granted the paucity of women writers really up to the 20th century, there is still a pervasive underappreciation or lack of awareness of these titles. This perpetuation of silence is the core of what we need to counter when considering contemporary writing. This goes beyond ephemeral lists, to comprehensive and authoritative sources. This brings us in a sense, full circle, back to the authoritative position of academia in attributing merit, and academic publishing houses in creation of authoritative texts such as anthologies.

In the introduction to The Long Gaze Back, Sinéad Gleeson writes about how “nearly every anthology I opened – and I include books from all around the world – was heavily weighted towards male writers”. This imbalance is well noted, and people are no longer afraid to speak up, and act, when the issue persists. Numbers can be, in essence, abstract and ineffectual when it comes to art, yet clarification of this issue I feel is crucial. The following is a brief breakdown of important, and often authoritative anthologies that I grabbed from the shelf in a quick survey: Modern Irish Short Stories, selected by Frank O’Connor (1956); 20% of the stories by women. The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories II 1956-1975 (1976); 27.5%. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (1989); 18%. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (1992); 39%. The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998); 27%. The Oxford Book of French Short Stories (2002); 25%. The Scribner Anthology Of Contemporary Short Fiction: 50 North American Stories Since 1970 selected by Lex Williford and Michael Martone (2007); 42%. The Penguin Book Of The British Short Story: 1: From Daniel Defoe To John Buchan (2015); 27.7%. The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: 2: From PG Wodehouse to Zadie Smith (2015); 33.3%.

This is only a small sample, taking in under 60 years of anthologies, yet the figures are clear, and even anthologies which focus on modern and contemporary writing fail to proportionally represent. One would hope that academia can challenge this pervasive structure of thought, by affording the appropriate attention to the work of contemporary writers at the forefront of their craft.

This is not an excoriation of a course I was delighted and privileged to be a part of, the benefits of which I am deeply grateful for, but an attempt at assessing the structures of thought at play in my education, the subliminal emphases within an academic model of teaching that often inculcate and perpetuate the problem.

Hopefully what The Long Gaze Back signifies is a shift, where the contribution of contemporary women writers will not need to be unearthed and re-evaluated long after they are gone, but will become part of the firmament of a national literature alongside that of men, where preconceptions and prejudices can be dismantled and the contribution of our finest writers can be appraised indiscriminately of gender.

We are not living through a renaissance of women writers; we are achieving a glimpse, through the enormity of women’s contemporary contribution, at the possibilities missed, of the possible art that our culture is now deprived of, because of the opportunities our society denied women in the past. We cannot afford any more denials.

Stephen Reid holds an MPhil in Irish Writing from Trinity College. Originally from Westmeath, he lives in Dublin, where he works for New Island Books