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Women's writing as a discrete area of literary studies is based on the notion that the experience of women, historically, has been shaped by their gender, and so women writers by definition are a group worthy of separate study. "Their texts emerge from and intervene in conditions usually very different from those which produced most writing by men."[1] It is not a question of the subject matter or political stance of a particular author, but of her gender: her position as a woman within the literary marketplace. Women's writing, as a discrete area of literary studies and practice, is recognized explicitly by the numbers of dedicated journals, organizations, awards, and conferences which focus mainly or exclusively on texts produced by women. The majority of English literature programmes offer courses on specific aspects of literature by women, and women's writing is generally considered an area of specialization in its own right.


The exemplary tradition

The idea of discussing women's cultural contributions as a separate category has a long history. Lists of exemplary women can be found as far back as the 8th century BC, when Hesiod compiled Catalogue of Women (attr.), a list of heroines and goddesses. Plutarch listed heroic and artistic women in his Moralia. In the medieval period, Boccaccio used mythic and biblical women as moral exemplars in De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) (1361-1375), directly inspiring Christine de Pisan to write The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). British writers, as in so many other instances, embraced the classical models and made them their own. Some of the British catalogues were moral in tone but others focused on accomplishments as well as virtues. There are many examples in the eighteenth century of exemplary catalogues of women writers, including George Ballard's Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for their Writing or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences (1752), John Duncombe's Feminiad, a catalogue of women writers, and the Biographium faemineum: the female worthies, or, Memoirs of the most illustrious ladies, of all ages and nations, who have been eminently distinguished for their magnanimity, learning, genius, virtue, piety, and other excellent endowments.[2] And as long as there has been this laudatory trend there has been a counter-trend of misogynist writings, perhaps exemplified by Richard Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females, a critique in verse of women writers at the end of the eighteenth century with a particular focus on Mary Wollstonecraft and her circle.

Women writers themselves have long been interested in tracing a "woman's tradition" in writing. Mary Scott's The Female Advocate: A Poem Occasioned by Reading Mr Duncombe's Feminead (1774) is one of the best known such works in the eighteenth century, a period that saw a burgeoning of women's publishing. In 1803, Mary Hays published the six volume Female Biography. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) exemplifies the impulse in the modern period to explore a tradition of women's writing. Woolf, however, sought to explain what she perceived as an absence; by the mid-century scholarly attention turned to finding and reclaiming "lost" writers.[3] And there were many to reclaim: it is common for the editors of dictionaries or anthologies of women's writing to refer to the difficulty in choosing from all the available material.[4]


Women's writing came to exist as a separate category of scholarly interest relatively recently. In the West, the second wave of feminism prompted a general reevaluation of women's historical contributions, and various academic sub-disciplines, such as women's history and women's writing, developed in response to the belief that women's lives and contributions have been underrepresented as areas of scholarly interest. Virginia Blain et al. characterize the growth in interest since 1970 in women's writing as "powerful"[5]. Much of this early period of feminist literary scholarship was given over to the rediscovery and reclamation of texts written by women. Studies like Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel (1986) and Jane Spencer's The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986) were ground-breaking in their insistence that women have always been writing. Commensurate with this growth in scholarly interest, various presses began the task of reissuing long-out-of-print texts. Virago Press began to publish its large list of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century novels in 1975 and became one of the first commercial presses to join in the project of reclamation. In the 1980s Pandora Press, responsible for publishing Spender's study, issued a companion line of eighteenth-century novels by written by women.[6] More recently, Broadview Press continues to issue eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, many hitherto out of print, and the University of Kentucky has a series of republications of early women's novels. There has been commensurate growth in the area of biographical dictionaries of women writers due to a perception, according to one editor, that "[m]ost of our women are not represented in the 'standard' reference books in the field."[7].

Trade publishers have similarly focused on women's writing: since the 1970s there have been a number of literary periodicals such as Fireweed and Room of One's Own which are dedicated to publishing the creative work of women writers. There are a number of dedicated presses, such as the Second Story Press and the Women's Press. In addition, collections and anthologies of women's writing continue to be published by both trade and academic presses.

The widespread interest in women's writing developed alongside, influenced, and was influenced by, a general reassessment and expansion of the literary canon. Interest in post-colonial literatures, gay and lesbian literature, writing by people of colour, working people's writing, and the cultural productions of other historically marginalized groups has resulted in a whole scale expansion of what is considered "literature," and genres hitherto not regarded as "literary," such as children's writing, journals, letters, travel writing, and many others[8] are now the subjects of scholarly interest. Most genres and sub-genres have undergone a similar analysis, so that one now sees work on the "female gothic"[9] or women's science fiction, for example.

The question of whether or not there is a "women's tradition" remains vexed; some scholars and editors refer to a "women's canon" and women's "literary lineage," and seek to "identify the recurring themes and to trace the evolutionary and interconnecting patterns" in women's writing[10], but the range of women's writing across time and place is so considerable that, according to some, it is inaccurate to speak of "women's writing" in a universal sense: Claire Buck calls "women's writing" an "unstable category."[11] Further, women writers cannot be considered apart from their male contemporaries and the larger literary tradition. Recent scholarship on race, class, and sexuality in literature further complicate the issue and militate against the impulse to posit one "women's tradition." Some scholars maintain a commonality, however: editors Virginia Blain et al. argue that "the inter-nationality of the entries" in The Feminist Companion to Literature in English "confirms our sense both of a common literary inheritance differently managed in its several locations and of a tradition in women's writing based on common experience and spanning geographical and cultural boundaries."[12] More cautiously, Roger Lonsdale allows that "it is not unreasonable to consider" women writers "in some aspects as a special case, given their educational insecurities and the constricted notions of the properly 'feminine' in social and literary behaviour they faced."[13]. Using the term "women's writing" implies, then, the belief that women in some sense constitute a group, however diverse, who share a position of difference based on gender. Blain et al. lay out their determination to include "not only English women, but women writing in English in several national traditions, including African, American, Asian, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, New Zealand, South Pacific, the British Isles."[5] This approach implies that although gender dynamics vary from time and place, the dynamic of difference itself is persistent, and further, that those differences present opportunities for fruitful inquiry.

The "exemplary women" tradition

  • Hesiod, Catalogue of Women (attr.)
  • Plutarch, in Moralia
  • Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) (1361-1375)
  • Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405)
  • Osbern Bokenham, Legendys of hooly wummen (c.1430)
  • George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for their Writing or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences. Oxford: W. Jackson, 1752.
  • John Duncombe, Feminead (1754)
  • Anon., Biographium faemineum : the female worthies, or, Memoirs of the most illustrious ladies, of all ages and nations, who have been eminently distinguished for their magnanimity, learning, genius, virtue, piety, and other excellent endowments. London: Printed for S. Crowder, 1766. 2 vols.
  • Mary Scott, The Female Advocate: A Poem Occasioned by Reading Mr Duncombe's Feminead. London: Joseph Johnson, 1774.
  • Mary Hays, Female Biography (6 vols., 1803)
  • Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished women from the Creation to AD 1850 (1854)
  • Charlotte Mary Yonge, Biographies of Good Women (First Series, 1862; Second Series, 1865)
  • Julia Kavanagh, Woman in France during the Eighteenth Century (1850), Women of Christianity (1852), French Women of Letters (1862) and English Women of Letters (1862). These collective biographies "all argue against idealized, sentimental portrayals of female experience. She intended these biographies to provide a corrective to the silence of male historians on the topic of female influence in a variety of sphere beyond the domestic" (ODNB).
  • Helen C. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches. Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893.


  • Abel, Elizabeth, Writing and Sexual Difference. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Allison, Dorothy. Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature. New York: Firebrand Books, 1994.
  • Ayres, Brenda, Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger Pub, 2003.
  • Backscheider, Paula R., and John Richetti, eds. Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Oxford: OUP, 1996.
  • Eagleton, Mary, ed., Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • Fetterley, Judith, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Figes, Eva,Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850. The Macmillan Press, 1982.
  • Ferguson, Mary Anne, [compiler]. Images of Women in Literature, 3rd Edition, Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1981. ISBN 0-395-29113-5
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-300-08458-7
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. London: Virago Press, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 Vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
  • Greer, Germaine, et al., eds. Kissing the Rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1988.
  • Hobby, Elaine, Virtue of Necessity: English women's writing 1649-1688. London: Virago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-86068-831-3
  • Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Moi, Toril, Sexual/ Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1987. ISBN 0-415-02974-0; ISBN 0-415-28012-5 (second edition).
  • Robertson, Fiona, ed. Women's Writing, 1778-1838. Oxford: OUP, 2001.
  • Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1983.
  • spender, dale, Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen. London and New York: Pandora, 1986. ISBN 0863580815
  • Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of their own: from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing. London: Virago Press, 1977.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer, The Female Imagination: A Literary and Psychological Investigation of women's writing. George Allen and Unwin, 1976.
  • Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. ISBN 0-631-13916-8
  • Todd, Janet, Feminist Literary History: A Defence. Cambridge: Polity Press / Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: women, writing and fiction, 1660-1800. London: Virago Press, 1989. ISBN 0-86068-576-4

Series of republications

  • Feminist Press: New York-based press which began reprinting books by American women in 1972
  • Persephone Books : London-based press which "reprints forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial."
  • Virago Press since 1975 has republished over 500 post-1800 classics of women's literature (see list and timeline) in their series Virago Modern Classics.
  • Pandora Press "Mothers of the Novel" series:
Mary Brunton, Discipline. Orig. pub. 1815. 1986. ISBN 0863581056
Mary Brunton, Self-control. Orig. pub. 1810/11. 1986. ISBN 086358084X
Maria Edgeworth, Belinda. Orig. pub. 1801. 1986. ISBN 0863580742
Maria Edgeworth, Helen. Orig. pub. 1834. 1987. ISBN 0863581048
Maria Edgeworth, Patronage. Orig. pub. 1814. 1986. ISBN 0863581064
Eliza Fenwick, Secrecy, or The Ruin of the Rock. Orig. pub. 1795. 1988. ISBN 0863583075
Sarah Fielding, The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Orig. pub. 1749. 1987. ISBN 086358182X
Mary Hamilton, Munster Village. Orig. pub. 1778. 1987. ISBN 0863581331
Mary Hays, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney. Orig. pub. 1796. 1987. ISBN 0863581323
Eliza Haywood, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless. Orig. pub. 1751. 1986. ISBN 0863580904
Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story. Orig. pub. 1791. 1987. ISBN 0863581366
Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote, or the Adventures of Arabella. Orig. pub. 1752. 1986. ISBN 0863580807
Sydney Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl. Orig. pub. 1806. 1986. ISBN 0863580971
Amelia Opie, Adeline Mowbray, or The Mother and Daughter. Orig. pub. 1804. 1986. ISBN 0863580858
Frances Sheridan, Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. Orig. pub. 1761. 1987. ISBN 086358134X
Charlotte Turner Smith, The Old Manor House. Orig. pub. 1793. 1987. ISBN 0863581358

Web-based projects

Scholarly journals which publish research on women's writing mainly or exclusively

Literary and review journals of women's writing

See also



  1. ^ Blain, Virginia, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. viii-ix.
  2. ^ Todd, Janet, ed. British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. London: Routledge, 1989. xiii.
  3. ^ Buck, Claire, ed.The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. Prentice Hall, 1992. vix; Salzman, Paul. Introduction, Early Modern Women's Writing. Oxford UP, 2000. ix.
  4. ^ Blain et al. vii; Todd xv; Spender, Dale, and Janet Todd. Anthology of British Women Writers. Harper Collins, 1989. xiii; Buck ix-x.
  5. ^ a b Blain et al. vii.
  6. ^ Sandra M. Gilbert, "Paperbacks: From Our Mothers' Libraries: women who created the novel." New York Times, May 4, 1986.
  7. ^ Blain et al. viii.
  8. ^ Blain x; Buck x.
  9. ^ Term coined by Ellen Moers in Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1976). See also Juliann E. Fleenor, ed., The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983) and Gary Kelly, ed., Varieties of Female Gothic 6 Vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002).
  10. ^ Spender & Todd xiii.
  11. ^ Buck xi.
  12. ^ Blain et al. x.
  13. ^ Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. xliii.


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