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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Back in the Days of the Token-Female Syllabus

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.


Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

I wasn't an English major as an undergrad, but I will say that the only female author we read in my twelve years (of otherwise excellent) public education was Anne Frank—yeah, I don't even remember reading Emily.

In college I went out of my way to find female authors on my own and take multi-cultural classes through various departments at the UW. It helped that my future husband was a cultural anthro major, and that I was a voracious reader.

Like you, I never cared for the suicides. What was the point of that? Also, I did not feel that my father's life was the more interesting one as many women of my generation seemed to; I rode that early wave of feminism believing we are people first. It made a lot of things easier for me. The reality, however, was that as a woman I was never going to be admitted to the School of Architecture in 1970 and I wasn't savvy enough to figure out a way around that glass ceiling. (Did you have a mother who believed you should be able to type so that you'd have a "skill to fall back on"? I'd rather land on my butt.)

It's been frustrating to watch my students fail to appreciate what feminism has done for them—those opportunities that simply were not there when I was in school. Too many still change their names when they marry, don't find a true partnership in marriage, name babies with their non-husband's last name, deny that they are feminists. And they're right.

Sorry, I rant.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for commenting, Jan. I can't imagine the obstacles you faced just ten years earlier than my so-called tough times of the early 1980s.

My mother didn't suggesting typing, but I took a course called "Personal Use Typing" in 7th grade. Bad move, very bad move. I spent 10 years typing as a legal secretary before I threw the dictaphone against the wall and enrolled in the MFA program at UW.

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Kristin said...

In 1984, I bought the Norton Anthologies of British Lit as an undergrad--two volumes scanning all of recorded time. In the early one there were no, NO, females, and in the later one (1798-present) there were maybe 4. Maybe only 2.

I wish I still had these volumes because people don't believe me when I tell them, but alas, I lost them in the great aquarium accident of 1992.

Martha Silano said...


I sorta wish I saved those old Nortons, too. Gawd, were they barren of the female voice.

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David Graham said...

I"ve often told this story: when I was in graduate school, in around 1978 or 1979, a professor proposed a syllabus in Modern Poetry that was devoid of female poets. I emphasize: GRADUATE school. He seemed surprised and puzzled when students objected, and (reluctantly, as I recall) added some attention to Marianne Moore. It wasn't that he was unaware of other female poets; it was that it seemed obvious to him that none of them were at the same level as Williams, Pound, Eliot, et al.

The sea change has been great, just in my short academic life. When I was an undergrad, it wasn't at all uncommon for anthologies to be all-white, and for the only contemporary female poets to be Emily Dickinson and maybe Sylvia Plath.

I often bring into the opening class of my early American lit course a huge critical survey of American poetry thatI used as an undergrad. Not a single black poet, not even Gwendolyn Brooks or Langston Hughes, is considered. Etc. etc. etc.