Women as Literature: A Study

I know I purposefully steered my career away from education, but a lot of who I am at heart is based on academia (even my novel writing has some basis in my literary academic background). And sometimes, I find myself thinking about being a teacher.

Originally, I stayed away from becoming a teacher because people would always ask me what exactly I was going to do with an English degree. Be a teacher? And the way they would say it, well it just sounded full of skepticism, as if being a teacher wouldn’t be fantastic and isn’t important, as if that wasn’t an accomplishment and most significantly, that there’s nothing for you in the “real world” if you study literature.

And yes, teachers are important and accomplished and fantastic and I think I would have been very happy as a teacher. But, my indignant teenage/early 20s self decided to prove to people that there is so much that an English major could do working in the “real world,” whatever that means.

So, here I am in the “real world” working a job that I love, writing every day and making a difference for a nonprofit organization. I’m happy and content. I will say, I don’t meet very many literature majors in the business world. Lots of journalism and communications people, sure. But that’s completely different. It’s not literature. Over the course of my career, I can think of two other pure literature majors with whom I’ve worked. That’s not very many. Even though I’m working a very non-academic job, I still have a great admiration for teachers and sometimes I think about becoming a teacher sometime in the future when I get bored with the corporate world. I suppose that’s where my idea for a literature course came from.

One day, the idea for a  class just popped into my head: “Women in Literature.” This slowly transformed into “Women as Literature” after a conversation with a fellow writer who suggested the change. I’ve never created a class before. But, sometimes I’ll read a book or remember a past read and add it to my list for this class I’m inventing.

So, to take a break from all the writing advice I’ve been spouting lately, I wanted to share some of the ideas I’ve had for “Women as Literature”, of what we would read and a few snippets of what we would talk about if I were ever in fact in the position to teach such a course.

The conversations in this class would focus on the ways women are portrayed in literature, how the role of women changes over time in the literature world, and the concept of women AS literature. The concept of “the gaze” will likely come into play as does the concept of the death of the author and his or her influence on the reader.

Although I’ve been thinking about this class for close to six months, it seems to be particularly poignant right now with the #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaigns, as well as the women’s march that took place in response to the election last year. You could also bring in some things that are happening in film and television as well. While the course includes reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it would be interesting to discuss the timeliness of the show on Hulu. You could also discuss other things that appear on Hulu and other networks that are female centered and how they compare or contrast to the messages that this particular show spouts.

I should also note that my areas of greatest knowledge are British and American literature, so we would be constrained to these areas of the world. I do realize that this is rather limited in scope, but in literature studies, you focus on a particular era and area of the world and I happened to be sucked in by Gothic literature, so my focus stayed in the British and American literature realm.

Please note that the below reading/discussion list is a work in progress. I am still considering ideas for books that would showcase how a woman becomes the center of the story and achieves agency, particularly in genres that relate to the Gothic like Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. I’d probably start with a Tolkien book to show the lack of female focus (don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien, but it’s still a thing), and then share a later book from that same genre that is drastically different in this regard.

While I don’t anticipate having the opportunity to teach such a class in the near future, if you have other reading selections to share, I’d love to hear about them! Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

Reading List

  • Shakespeare’s sonnets and other poems that are blazons (describing a woman’s body)
  • The Lady of Shallot by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • The Probationer by AM Irvine
  • 1 Gothic Literature text to show how women were portrayed in this very cyclical storytelling style. Perhaps The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe or the very first Gothic text written: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  • Vindication on the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood (and discussing the TV show with supplemental viewings of the show – if this is a college level course)
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • Selections from Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


2 thoughts on “Women as Literature: A Study

  1. I’m an English major as well and I get asked the same question. I am studying Shakespeare literature as part of my degree. I have just finished studying Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 and wrote a fictional autobiography of a Florentine Merchants Wife, which I shared a few blogs back. I love renaissance and medieval and the reformation era.

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