Books Magazine

Why Were All the Classics Written by Men?

By Mariagrazia @SMaryG

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN? What I manage  to do the least while blogging is being a regular reader at other blogs or sites and I apologize. It is definitely not for a lack of interest. I manage to go on writing my three blogs, though with no fix schedules and especially not daily,  but I'm not very good at socializing or using social networks, mainly for a constant lack of time. I post my stuff and I'm off, if I want to go on reading, watching, working and living!  As you know,  I have to divide my spare time among my several interests -  and I must underline the words my spare time - because I've got an engaging profession (teaching English as a foreign language and its literature) and I take care of my family and house with no "external" help. Nonetheless, when I bump into something interesting or stimulating on line, I can't resist reading and commenting. This is what I did with a thought-provoking  post by writer Rosanne E. Lortz at her website . My premise is somehow connected to the theme she proposes and I am going to discuss here at FLY HIGH! : women and the reason why few of them excel/emerge in some fields, i.e. as writers of classics. Do you feel like  joining the discussion?
She opens the piece asking:   

Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Let's ignore Jane Austen and the Brontes for a minute and ask the question: why were all the classics written by men?
Many answers abound. I have never found the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory. I am also a firm believer in the fact that women are intellectually equal with men. So, why then? Why were all the classics written by men?

Then she quotes from G. K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World?" 

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN? Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school-mistress, but not a competitive school-mistress; a house decorator, but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful.

Rosanne E. Lortz comments: 

Chesterton has hit upon something here. Women, though not limited in ability, are often limited in the extent to which they can pursue something because they are called to pursue so many different things. (Read the whole post by Rosanne E. Lortz  HERE)

I'm afraid I can't agree with her not finding the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory but,  of course,  I'm like her sure that women are intellectually equal with men. But I hate generalizations and sterotypes, too. When it comes to this question, that is , why most writers and painters and memorable artists are men, I must agree with  Virginia Woolf and what she wrote in her essay  about "Shakespeare's sister" (chapter three from A Room of One's Own):

It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN?  Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably - his mother was an heiress - to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin - Ovid, Virgin and Horace - and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practicing his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen.

Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter - indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theater. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager - a fat, loose-lipped man - guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting - no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted - you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last - for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same gray eyes and rounded brows - at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? - killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

 That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare's day had had Shakespeare's genius.

But for my part, I agree with the deceased bishop, if such he was - it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had Shakespeare's genius. For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom? Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, on the length of the winter's night.
This may be true or it may be false - who can say? - but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare's sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational - for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons - but were none the less inevitable. Chastity has then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was a poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned. That refuge she would have sought certainly. It was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century. Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. Thus they did homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them, that publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood....

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN? So the fact that few women instead succeeded in becoming classic writers   - let's just think of Jane Austen or the Brontes - and that they did excel at writing is due to their refusal to conform to the female stereotype of the age they lived in. They were brave and focused, though not exactly competitive. For the majority of us, if we bake it is because we feel it is right, if we draw or paint watercolours it is because we like it, if we stay at home and play with our children it is because we married a man we loved and chose to create a family.
Many women at the time of Jane Austen had to marry for convenience or not to starve, couldn't have money of their own nor a profession, their writing was thought improper and had to hide behind a male name. They were limited by law and conventions in a totally male-oriented society. Jane Austen decided not to marry and to live on her writing. Do we really have to ask why so few tried and succeeded?
There have been centuries in which women were educated only to become wives or accomplished ladies. No other role in society was meant for them. They could only learn what we today love doing as hobbies or part of our family life (gardening, drawing, sewing, take care of the house, look after their children). Do we still wonder why they couldn't excel as artists or intellectuals?

SOME BLOGGING AT LAST - WHY WERE ALL THE CLASSICS WRITTEN BY MEN? If we think about nowadays and modern careers we can wonder why women are still socially less competitive than men, because that is true. Few women get to the highest positions in society, economics,  finance, politics, science, industry, banking system and so on. 
We can all agree it is not because they are not brilliant or smart,  or less than their male equivalent. We can even agree that for many men  it is still difficult to overcome certain old stereotypes hence our society is still latently and hypocritically male-oriented. However,  women are more and more competent and successful in so many fields. 
Why are there still so few in the positions which count? Their psychology? I mean, their tendency to put affections and feelings first or their being ready to self-sacrifice?  Their  being not too ambitious nor greedy?  But these are also generalizations, which is something I really can't bear. What do you think? 

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