The following contribution comes from Bailey Poland, author of Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (Potomac Books, 2016). Bailey Poland is a writer, feminist, and activist, as well as the creator of the literary journal Leaves and Flowers and is a regular contributor to numerous print and online journals, including Line Zero. She is the editor of Involution: Stories, Poems, and Essays from the First Two Years of “Line Zero”.
Her book is currently on sale in honor of Women’s History Month.
I have always been a writer. Since the time I learned how to read, I have needed to put pen to paper in order to make sense of the world. My first impulse, always, is to write about it—whatever “it” happens to be. As I reflect on how I want to celebrate Women’s History Month, I find myself thinking about how writing as a woman requires wrangling with the concept of vanity. Women have found ways to record our thoughts throughout history, and yet inevitably bump up against the idea that doing so is an unacceptable expression of ego.
In the book Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing, Timothy Laquintano writes, “The concern that writing and authorship are acts of vanity runs deep in the history of Western authorship.” This concern runs even deeper for women who write. The merest whiff of vanity or selfishness is seen as an indelible blot on a woman’s character—and what could be more vain than presuming we have thoughts worth recording and sharing with the world? Even as women have been at the forefront of literary innovation, we have also been forced to contend with the idea that writing is an inherently selfish, shallow act.
Despite the perception of writing as an exercise in selfishness, women have been trailblazers wherever writing happens. Priestesses were likely some of the first literate people on the planet; Enheduanna is one of the earliest poets we know by name. Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the first novel ever written. Margery Kempe, in medieval Europe, wrote the first autobiography in English. Mary Shelley started science fiction in its modern form when she was in her early 20s. Women’s writing spans centuries and continents, and yet women still navigate a world in which the very act of our writing is a transgression.
Women have reflected on this conundrum for as long as we have written. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote, in 1691, “How would I dare tackle these matters in my unworthy hands, since my sex, my age, and our customs are against it? So I confess that many times this fear has plucked my pen from my hand.” In the 1840s, the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans (better known as George Eliot) took on masculine pen names because, as Charlotte Brontë wrote, “Authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” In 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote of her battle with the Angel of the House, whose admonition to “Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter… Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own” would have “plucked the heart out of my writing.” In 2014, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “All literature is about love. When men do it, it’s a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it’s just a love story.” Women still expect that our writing will be pigeonholed, that we will be condemned and mocked or deliberately ignored, and so we try to disguise ourselves with pen names and initials or fear to pick up the pen at all.
Women’s voices still go unheard too often, in terms of who writes, who writes reviews of literature, whose work gets reviewed, and who wins awards for any of that writing. To be a woman who writes as a woman—and particularly about women’s experiences—is to be termed self-centered, asked how much of one’s fiction is autobiographical, presumed to care only about love stories and domesticity, and ignored. Nevertheless, we persist in our writing, because for many of us there is simply no other way to exist in the world.
Women’s History Month is a time to familiarize ourselves with the past, to trace our literary histories back through the many winding paths any such genealogy will take. It’s a time to read our shared histories and bring the lessons of our mothers and grandmothers into the present. It’s a time to reflect on our individual histories as well—where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what we have left to do. It’s a time to figure out how to break from stereotypes and fears about the vanity of writing, with the knowledge that we cannot unpack and reject the idea that our writing is vain if we don’t spend time exploring the rich traditions of women’s writing.
Finally, of course, it is time to write. The political climate now is one in which women are censured and silenced for persisting in sharing each other’s words and our own, and it is one in which our voices are more critical than ever. Silence, especially from those of us with institutional and cultural privileges, becomes complicity in the ongoing erasure of voices we already struggle to hear. And so, once we have looked to the past and within ourselves, it is time to turn our gazes forward and write.