An Intimate Conversation with Evan Roskos and Dana Harrison of Rowan’s Teaching Staff on Women in Literature

If I had asked you to name the great authors of history, who would pop into your mind? If you aren’t an English literature major, you may think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, etc., etc. You catch my drift, don’t you?

Women in the literature canon are underrepresented, and not taken as seriously as their male counter parts. Women’s literature is a genre that really took off in Victorian Era England, and since then we, as women, have been trying to push the boundaries of writing and telling stories. The phrase that is usually used to study women’s literature is feminist theory, which is similar to feminism, but a little different in the aspect that it is looking at a certain work of art through a lens to understand the underrepresented, ostracized, and just the plain differences in the gender scale. Feminist theory encapsulates any person who has never had a voice in literature, not just women.

Writing and feminism go hand in hand, seeing as the first wave of feminism brought out all of the great writers such as the Bronte sisters who are most famous for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote works such as Mary Barton and North and South, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was married to another poet, but even in her time she was more known than he was, George Eliot (yes, she is a female who wrote under a pen name), and Florence Nightingale, to name a few.

In America, women writers such as Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and more were focusing on their unhappiness and the limitations that were put on them by the patriarchal society.

The issues these females chose to write about were largely related to their own unsatisfactory life, and they knew the hypocrisies that existed between a male and a female, especially in the 1800’s. They were mostly focused on being allowed acceptance into public spaces, such as a voting booth to vote, or in a public office. This first wave of feminism shifted when women were granted the right to vote in 1920 for America, and 1918 for England.

The second wave of feminism was more or less about finding different traditions altogether. “The New Woman” was a phrase that was coined to describe the women in the 20’s who usually had short hair, wore flapper dresses, and smoked cigarettes. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes about women in this time, and although he does so well, it is not a women’s voice.

Zora Neale Hurston is important during this time, because not only is she writing about women in society, but she also writes about race and the problems women of color faced. According to Professor Roskos, “anything by Hurston really works and it’s because it doesn’t fall into a lot of tropes people expect from women’s literature.”

Gertrude Stein was an important name during this time, as well as Virginia Woolf, who Dr. Harrison and Professor Roskos both vehemently swear by.

The next wave of feminism, which is focused on the sexuality of women, brings out all of the writers such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, whose Beloved is considered a literary marvel, Julia Alvarez, who wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which is one of my favorite books, Maya Angelou, who is well known, but not necessarily well read, if you know what I’m saying.

Joyce Carol Oates writes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and although it is beautiful, Roskos says he hesitates to teach that, because “it is such a rape trigger,” and he finds that most people are hesitant to speak their opinions about it, or he has people who say things like, “Well I mean she just puts herself in that situation,” which, he says, is exactly why these kinds of conversations need to happen.

Women will always write, and some of you may not even know you’re reading a female author, as Dr. Harrison nicely puts, “the fact that if you use a man’s name over a woman’s name you still have a better shot at being published,” even today, at the end of 2015.

Women are just as talented and complex as male writers, and the face that they are not even as taken seriously today as they should be is exactly why feminism on a whole needs to exist.