I posted a comment the other day about leaving college with the belief that to be a woman poet I needed to wear a white dress and hang out in an attic. This was because, I said, the only female poet on the syllabus during four years at Grinnell College was, of course, Emily D.
Okay, you're saying, either you went to college in 1900 or you've got to be exaggerating. OOPS, I forgot: we did read the poems of one other female poet, and that would be none other than Sylvia Plath. Yep, there you have it: a kinda-bizarre hermit and a suicide. If we wanted to be female poets, these were our role models.
I didn't keep the syllabi from my English classes; I stopped using the big, giant Traditions of English Literature even as a doorstopper years ago, but let me break it down for youze:
1. In my freshman composition class, when we read Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour," the professor pointed out that the poem is dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, "Nautilus Island's hermit," but we read no poems by Elizabeth Bishop.
2. The required English major sequence was nicknamed Trads (after the book we had to read in full). It started with "The Twa Corbies" and ended in the early 20th Century. As far as I know, there were no women poets in this entire book, though I do recall reading a butt-load of white guys, some good and some pretty awful. As far as I could tell, British women did not write poetry at all. However, they did write novels--in a course titled The British Novel we read six novels, one of them by Elizabeth Austen. And in a freshman humanities course, Edith Warton held her own alongside Sartre, Camus, Zamayatin, and Orwell. The saddest part to me is that 3/4 of these courses were taught by women.
3. I seriously had to round out this ridiculously female-voice-deprived state of affairs by conducting my own personal course in women's letters. This took place in the dorm, cafeteria, and library, where I read Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, and all order of feminist manifestos, including The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, The Dialectic of Sex, and the like. To Grinnell's credit, I discovered Nikki Giovanni when she visited our campus for two days. Giovanni brought excitement and energy into our staling brains, blowing us away with her convocations, readings, and Q&As, then left us to trudge back into our rainbow-void classrooms.
Things changed soon after I graduated college. I missed, by about five minutes, the wave of multiculturalism that busted open the literary canon and brought not only females writers onto our nation's campuses, but writers of nearly every cultural and racial background. They arrived in droves not only for a 2-day visit but for the duration, embedded into the syllabi and the lists of required texts. And with that, as if by magic (but simply by virtue of having role models--examples of successful writers who looked like them), coeds of all shades and creeds began to work toward the goal of becoming accomplished writers, perhaps with a shot at landing their work in the next generation of The Norton Anthology of Literature.