When I wrote a paper on Mary Shelley last year, I got a red squiggly line underneath my very first sentence because I had (accurately, in my opinion) described her as a ‘woman writer’. In the opinion of my professor, the word ‘woman’ was redundant in the sentence, since the name ‘Mary’ already made it clear that the subject of my paper was female. Now, while I generally get along really well with my English Lit professor, I think she misunderstood me here. Because when I wrote about Mary Shelley as a ‘woman writer’, I didn’t merely see the ‘woman’ as an indication of gender. Describing Mary Shelley as a ‘woman writer’ is not the same as describing her as a ‘female writer’—it’s the latter statement which would be silly on account of superfluity. But not the first. Because being a ‘woman writer’ is more, so much more, than being a writer who also happens to be female.
‘Bluestocking’, according to my dictionary, often carries a derogatory connotation, and refers to ‘an intellectual or literary woman’. The word finds its roots in 18th century England, where, in 1750, a certain Elizabeth Montagu founded a literary salon based on the Parisian model, which encouraged intellectual discussion instead of card games. Though the salon was primarily a female affair, one of the regular attendants was Benjamin Stillingfleet, a botanist, author and translator. The story goes that Stillingfleet, not being rich enough to afford formal dress, attended the meetings in blue worsted stockings, instead of gentleman’s black silk stockings. As such, the term ‘bluestocking’ was first laughingly used in reference to the man himself and his helpful contributions to the conversation, but later came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis of conversation over fashion. Ironically, none of the women at the salon ever wore blue stockings, but because most of the attendants were female, the word ‘bluestocking’ came to denote a learned, literary woman, and what was originally the contribution of Stillingfleet has all but been forgotten. I would, though, hereby like to thank him for bringing this marvelous word into existence. Benjamin, I salute you.
I would like to think that I am a bluestocking. I am taking a study in humanities, and though my conversations with my peers rarely have an exclusively intellectual tenor, they can, and often do, inspire me in delightfully literary ways; several of these blog posts have actually been prompted by a conversation with one of them, so what you read here is often the product of so much more than just my brain. What’s more, several of them (and indeed, most of them) I would like to think of as bluestockings as well, since most of them are academically gifted, literarily engaged, and intellectual in many, many ways. What’s even more, most of my friends appear to be female. I did not decide this consciously, but there does appear to be a predominance of females in the humanities, which I personally don’t mind, but it does create a certain reputation for the humanities as ‘soft’ and ‘female’. Which, of course, is ridiculous; if you are even a little bit acquainted with academia, you know that you have to be tough as nails if you want to function there. In this sense, being called a bluestocking is anything but derogatory—rather an indication of badass.
But I wanted to write about women writers. Because while feminism has already performed miracles in emancipation for women, in the literary scene women still don’t get the recognition they deserve. A case in point: I am currently collecting poems for a little project (I will tell you about it some other time), and I am feeling increasingly frustrated by the lack of women in my list. From the 20th century onward things start getting better, but before that time female writers—and certainly female poets—were few and far between. And though on the one hand this means that I, as a bluestocking and woman writer, still have a lot of work to get done, and thus stuff to look forward to, it also presents me with the tricky question of quota. We see it often today: many literary prizes strive to keep a balance between awarding both men and women, and thankfully, there are enough women writers—and several of them really brilliant—they can choose from. But if, as a literary institution, you are taking gender into account as a criterion, isn’t that cheating a little? If you actively strive to keep a balance between awarding both men and women, are you really treating women equally? Shouldn’t quality be the first criterion, and gender not an issue at all? That’s what we’re aiming at, right? For gender to become completely irrelevant in reference to literary accomplishment?
As stated, it’s a tricky question, and as a self-declared bluestocking, I can’t say I know the answer. If we are being really honest, we see that there is still a big gap between where women writers are right now, and where we need to be. At the moment there still are more male writers than female ones who have gained literary acclaim, and in terms of literary history, we are still far away from claiming our portion of the canon, which for the most part still belongs to the DWEMs (‘dead white European males’). So the question is what will help us reach this goal: strive for actual equality and judge women writers by the quality of their work rather than their gender, or consciously—in reference to literary awards—try to balance out the male and female writers, so gender is a criterion, but might lead to equal results (which the first option might not do)? The thing is, the literary world doesn’t live in a vacuum. Even if you would try to—admirably—make gender not a criterion in your criticism, for most of the world gender still is an issue, and to ignore that would be foolish. The simple truth is that if you are writing as a woman, you are making a statement, whether you want to or not. Being a ‘woman writer’, as I described Mary Shelley a little over a year ago, is in itself a huge thing, while being a male one is not really that big of a deal.
Is this equality? No, it isn’t. But to reach equality, ‘equal treatment’ is not going to work. Because what would seem like ‘equal treatment’ to us is actually still culturally biased. Not making exceptions for women means continuing a mostly patriarchal model of society, which we, because we have been living in it for so long, may not always be aware of. In my predominantly female environment, I can almost forget it sometimes. But women and men aren’t treated equally, and what ostensibly looks like ‘making exceptions’ for women, would be actual equal treatment. And finally, ‘equality’ is how you define it. In America, they will tell you that ‘all men are created equal’, which, in fact, we are not. Not everyone was born with the same capacities. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to walk, talk, go to school and write, as I have the privilege to do. What ‘equality’ means is not that everyone should get ‘equal treatment’, but that everyone should get equal opportunities to flourish. And to get those opportunities, some of us will need some more help than others. We are not born equal, but we do have an equal right to be here and claim our place in society. As for women, I obviously believe that our capacities can compete with men’s, but we sadly don’t live in a society which unanimously agrees on this. Which means that, in our battle for equality, it is not nature, but culture we need to fight. Using quota to keep the balance between the genders is, in my opinion, for now a necessary evil, until we can say that nobody gives a crap anymore whether, in reference to your capacities, you are male or female. But to achieve this, it is immensely important that women also actively claim their place in society, because quota themselves aren’t going to do it. And this is why, my dearest reader, I am a bluestocking. As a writer, I love writing for its own sake, but as a woman, I see how important it is that I keep doing it. And so, I am a bluestocking. How about you?