From the start, women writers have had to endure an unending slew of sexist attitudes and commentary. Pick a writer and she’ll tell you about comments claiming women aren’t serious writers, that they don’t write “important” works, and aren’t worthy of awards or acclaim. Women writers can tell you about how there is a constant assumption that they must write romance or “chick lit,” that they don’t write anything a man would want to read, that they can’t write certain genres, or that women’s fiction is fluffy and sentimental. We can tell you about how we’re questioned in a way male authors never are about work-life balance, how we can possibly work and take care of our children and homes and partners. The list goes on. And when we dare complain about any of it, we’re accused of being “whiny” and “privileged.”
Sci-fi author Gérard Klein about Ursula K. Le Guin: ” … her art is the product of ‘a happily resolved childhood, an active feminine genitality, and her intellectual indebtedness to her historian husband.'”
Audience member at a reading, to Julia Fierro: “Who is taking care of your children?”
A reader, commenting about The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris: “The novel is ‘capitalising on the fandom of Tom Hiddleston.'”
Author David Gilmour, on not teaching women authors in his class at the University of Toronto: “I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”
Author V.S. Naipaul about Diana Athill: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not… My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
Interviewer to Victoria A. Brownworth: “I don’t think women should be writing about this kind of violence.”
A lecture attendee to Joanne Freeman: “How does your husband handle your wit?”
A one-time boss of hers, about Clarice Lispector: “She was ‘a smart girl, an excellent reporter, and, in contrast to almost all women, actually knows how to write.'”
Random people, to Lis Harris: “Oh, you’re a serious writer? But you’re so pretty!”
N.S. Willis, to his sister, Fanny Fern: “[…he stated that] her writing was ‘too vulgar’ and she should continue with her needlework instead.”
To these I’ll add a quote from Charlotte Brontë, which she wrote in response to harsh reviews. This is (or should be) the unofficial motto of women writers everywhere:
“It would take a great deal to crush me.”
The problem of sexism in publishing is improving–the fact that it’s finally being acknowledged is an important first step. Will it be solved anytime soon? As with other forms of inequality, probably not in my lifetime (although I live in hope). But there are things everyone can do to help get us there:
Read books by women (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, comic books, essays, articles…)
Review books by women (whether on a book site, store site, social media, or your own blog)
Buy books by women (let publishers know what you want to read)
If you want to start right now, you can download my free story Blood Magic. One reviewer wrote about it: “A sign of the times, this short story should be folded up, put inside an envelope, and slid inside the goody bags ready for the male attendees of the next Golden Globe Awards.”
Happy International Women’s Day. Show your support by reading more women.
It’s Valentine’s Day, the romantic holiday with pagan roots. Although love may be grand, it’s not all sunshine and roses (sometimes it’s rejection and hard time). Here are 5 love stories from history that are equal parts romance and tragedy…
Cleopatra and Marc Antony
She was Queen of Egypt, he was co-ruler of the Roman Empire. He envisioned himself as Dionysus, Greek God of wine (and drama), and she captured his heart by presenting herself as Aphrodite, Goddess of love. Their relationship was based on passion and ambition, and it reached mythic proportions. Their twins were named Alexander Helios (the Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (the Moon). Circumstances kept them apart much of the time, and Antony was even forced to marry his rival Octavian’s sister, but Antony and Cleopatra met when they could and celebrated triumphs (and failures) together. Unfortunately, their actions led to war, invasion, and ultimately, defeat. Anthony fell on his sword in an honourable suicide. Cleopatra, knowing she would be paraded through the streets of Rome in humiliation, arranged to have an asp (an Egyptian symbol of divine royalty) smuggled to her. With a bite from the snake she committed what is possibly the world’s most famous suicide, while at the same time attaining immortality for her and her love.
Héloïse and Abélard
In 12th century Paris, an intelligent, inquisitive young woman named Héloïse was introduced to Abélard, a philosopher and teacher enlisted by Héloïse’s uncle to tutor her. Their intellectual bond soon deepened into love. Héloïse became pregnant, and to avoid a scandal they secretly married after she had the baby (a son named Astrolabe, which goes to show that geeks have always existed). Unfortunately, scandal found them anyway (mostly thanks to her infuriated uncle). Héloïse was sent to a convent, while Abélard was viciously attacked and forcibly castrated. He went on to become a monk, and she a nun. Although they never saw each other again, they did resume a correspondence, and their letters stand as testament to their feelings. After they died, their bones were moved so that they could finally be together (there’s a dispute as to whether they’re buried at The Oratory of the Paraclete, or in their famous tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery).
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Lord Alfred, or ‘Bosie,’ as he was known, was Wilde’s love and muse at a time when LGBTQ rights were not only nonexistent, homosexuality was illegal. Their relationship was tempestuous, and marked by arguments, separations, and reunions (the latter, thanks mostly to a forgiving Wilde). Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry), angry about the relationship, denounced Wilde publicly. When Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquess failed, he was arrested and ultimately sentenced to two years of hard labour for “gross indecency.” Wilde and Bosie were reunited after Wilde was released, but it should be no surprise that their friends and families forced them apart. Then again, Bosie was a selfish and reckless person, and it’s debatable how much he really returned Wilde’s feelings. Interestingly, the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” was coined by Bosie, not Wilde, as most people believe. Maybe a better love story was the one between Wilde and Robert Ross, who was possibly his first male lover and also a lifelong friend. Ross was with Wilde at his deathbed, and later commissioned Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Ross asked the artist to include a small compartment in the tomb for his own ashes, which were transferred there in 1950.
Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley
Sometimes genuinely loving someone isn’t enough. Elizabeth and Dudley’s story is a complex one, further complicated by rumours that have persisted through centuries. Dudley earned Elizabeth’s love early in her life, when he stood by her at a time when she was in trouble and it would have been easy to abandon her. Although Dudley wanted to marry her for many years, she could never allow it. As Queen, Elizabeth was averse to marriage, not least because marrying would have transferred her power as monarch to her husband, while she would have been relegated to quietly producing heirs. But even if she had wanted to marry, she couldn’t have married Dudley. There was no strategic political advantage to marrying him, he was generally unpopular, and he was a commoner (whatever position he had in society was directly thanks to her). He was also already married. After his wife died under mysterious circumstances, he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, but belief persisted among many that he’d had her killed. Eventually, Dudley accepted that Elizabeth would never marry him, but since he wanted heirs he went on to (secretly) marry twice more, for which Elizabeth never entirely forgave him. Still, he was her clear favourite and she gave him titles, prestige, and power; in turn, he gave her companionship, support, and devotion. They shared an emotional bond that even most married couples at that time could only dream of.
Dante and Beatrice
Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari’s story is one of unrequited love. Dante claimed he fell in love when he met Beatrice at the age of 9 (she was 8). Despite his intense feelings for Beatrice, Dante married Gemma Donati when he was around 20, while Beatrice married Simone de Bardi when she was 21. She died three years later. Although they barely knew each other and met only a handful of times, Beatrice would be Dante’s idealized love and muse for the rest of his life. She was his inspiration for Vita Nuova, and his guide to heaven in his Divine Comedy. Despite the lack of any real relationship between the two, the love Dante had for Beatrice has sparked imaginations to this day. There are paintings of the pair and poems written about them, references in books and on TV, and even an asteroid named after Beatrice.
Some of these stories may be more bitter than sweet, but perhaps that’s why they continue to inspire. Love isn’t love without a touch of the tragic. Or as the immortal Shakespeare put it, the course of true love never did run smooth.
What do you think? Do you have a favourite historical couple? Share in the comments. And happy Valentine’s day ❤