Women and writing

This is the first of a series of essays on writing and literature where we deliberately set out to make you think – the consequences are that some of what you might read from us will be controversial – you won’t agree. That is good. Let us know if you agree or not and any other thoughts you have about the subject.

Written by David Dennis – edited by Isabel Dennis

When writing fact or fiction is there a special role for women that is not available to male writers? Could it be that women are better at discerning the emotional elements of a situation? Are women led by men into emulating them? Could a woman ever write a book without using the words, child, mother, sadness, father, love?  Do personal worries about their husband’s irritating habits, his shed and his possible lover, or that clever blonde from Cambridge University infiltrate the subliminal thoughts of our female authors?  Would a female writer write a book with no women in it?  Could a woman write solely about hacking CIA mainframes to discover which American hates the special relationship, or who killed the MI6 officer using starfish poison?

There is a great history of women’s involvement in early literature – and in Saxon times many women in nunneries – at Wilton for example, were involved in designing and producing the illuminated parchments and holy books that we so love to see and are in awe of nowadays.

Right back to the time of the first written sentence, in the Sumerian literature describing life in Mesopotamia, it is the woman Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Morning Star, who goes down to Hell and re-emerges – not some male Dante. Recent research into this ancient writing has revealed that Inanna’s descent into hell is really her own self-appraisal of her ‘dark side’.

Coming forward to the time of the Greeks, we find rapturous passion in the Dionysiac dances of women who waltz through the woodland glades tearing wild animals to pieces. Yet it was men who performed the part of women in the Greek plays and we are reminded of the attitudes of the day when Macaria, in the Heracleidae, states that:

‘for a woman, silence and self-control are best.’

The philosopher Xenophon thought females possessed the positive traits of ‘vigilance’ and ‘love for infants’. However, Xenophon reflects the Greek fear of these ‘others’, highlighting their irrationality, religious fervour and sexual passion.

Aristotle went further, stating that women were deformed, incomplete males, designed to be subservient to men. Whoops!

A wonderful Wikipedia quote suggests:

‘a Greek woman was viewed as a passive conduit of male fertility, on long term loan by her father’.

The woman is the active participant in many early tales and legends: The Lady of Shalott, Morgana Le Fey, Nimue, Guinevere (Gwenhafer). Male writers are more than happy to show females in desperately dangerous situations, overcoming all odds to survive. Nimue – one of the two ‘Ladies of the Lake’ is a good person who saves men (from themselves?) – in subtle ways, of course.

In the male psyche there is a deep respect for women’s toughness, although they are not happy to admit it publicly very often. Looking at the lives and deaths of women agents dropped into France during World War II, one wonders just where the courage came from that enabled them to make such magnificent sacrifices for others.

Early women writers show extensively in this list of notable women writers:
List of women writers

Aelia Eudocia was born in 401 AD, became an Empress and wrote epic poetry hexameters about St Cyprian – but here’s an example of her neglected poetry – from the Hammat Gader baths in Israel:

I have seen many wonders in my life, countless,
But who, noble Clibanus, however many his mouths, could proclaim
Your might, when born a worthless mortal? But rather
It is right for you to be called a new fiery ocean,
Paean and parent, provider of sweet streams.
From you the thousandfold swell is born, one here, one there,
On this side boiling-hot, on that side in turn icy-cold and tepid.
Into fountains four-fold four you pour out your beauty.
Indian and Matrona, Repentius, holy Elijah,
Antoninus the Good, Dewy Galatia, and
Hygieia herself, warm baths both large and small,
Pearl, ancient Clibanus, Indian and other
Matrona, Strong, Nun, and the Patriarch’s.
For those in pain your powerful might is always everlasting.
But I will sing of a god, renowned for wisdom
For the benefit of speaking mortals

To truly understand this short poem we have to invest ourselves in her life, her environment and beliefs. This is hard to do because history, like a comet approaching the sun, fragments into misty particles, masking the dark glass of time even further. The further back you go the harder it is to understand everything about the lives of women and even now, for males, it is almost impossible to truly understand what women feel or think or famously; want.

What do women themselves think, feminists or not, about writing? One woman who encapsulates almost every aspect of the trials of womanhood – except for childbirth – is Virginia Woolf.  Her famous book ‘A Room to Write’ sets out her heartfelt need to have a separate womb-place to mull the wraiths and angels of fictional ideas into something substantial, without interruptions.

Here is Virginia’s ‘Room’ in the garden at Monk’s House, Rodmell, painted inside and out by the other woman in Leonard Woolf’s life – Trekkie Parsons (Ritchie).

Virginia Woolf’s Room

At first Virginia was very keen, almost rampant, for men, but later she displayed an ambivalence in her sexuality and eventually loved Vita Sackville West, while her husband Leonard wrote about human rights and published novels in their Hogarth Press.

V-Woolf                                                                    Leonard-Woolf

How well can a man write about the deeply emotional complexity of human relationships, or is this the vast province of women writers only?

It would pay male writers to do what Ian McEwan did and find a woman who is prepared to talk about any aspect of human relationships whatsoever. But what would we get from such conversations – would we learn the truth or would we only learn what women think that men want to hear, because the honesty is damaged by the empathy?

Let us look at some writing by women and see what we can find as a pointer to our subject: Women and writing.

Here’s Hermione Lee in her book ‘Virginia Woolf’:

‘…For Virginia Woolf, a revolution in biography is also a sexual revolution. She is always writing to her women friends urging them to write their life-stories. She wants them to fill a gap: ‘Very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading.’

While she is writing her own memoirs in 1940 Lee says to Ethel Smyth (herself an inveterate autobiographer): ‘I was thinking the other night that there’s never been a ‘womans’ (sic) autobiography. Nothing compared to Rousseau. Chastity and modesty I suppose have been the reason.’

The inhibitions and censorship of women’s life-writing is one of Lee’s most urgent subjects. It is still possible for her to say, in 1927, out of her reading history and biography, ‘Very little is known about women.’

Virginia was trying to break the mould and be – and write – real stream of consciousness. In those days to break the mould it was necessary to shatter it in what may seem to be a stark and over-the-top way. You can see the difference between Virginia’s spoken word and her concern over women’s frankness in fiction. It suggests that she thought ‘you can be as rude as you like but don’t write it down.’

So can women who write literature – certainly not Fifty Shades of Grey – but fundamental thinking tomes, be seen as equal to or exceeding the quality of writing by men?  How many women have received the Nobel prize for Literature? Wikipedia soon tells us:

‘Fourteen women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, more than any other Nobel Prize with the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize.’

Wonderful we think, until we find out that 112 people have won it overall, which leaves women in the 12.5% minority. Why, Why, Why – Delilah?

So come on, let’s have some thundering writing from many more women like Doris Lessing. Put down the truth – tell us what life is really like in all its horror and triumph. Sit down right now – and write.

Editor’s note:  David’s initial draft of this article contained the very kind of writing that he suggests women are uncomfortable with.  By editing it I have confirmed his theory – that there are certain kinds of things women might think about, but would prefer not to have to write (or perhaps even read?) about.  But let us know what you think – am I in the minority?  Have I done my fellow female writers a disservice?



  1. I’d like to add that the very first known author of any work of literature – is a woman! She wrote poems and literature in 2400 BCE which is 4,416 years ago!
    She is: ENHEDUANNA
    meaning ‘high priestess adornment of the god’,
    the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad.

    See more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enheduanna

    • Thanks Dave, and what an amazing array of female authors have followed in her footsteps. I wonder if she imagined for a moment the influence she would have more than four thousand years later!

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