The Sisters Discuss: “Women Authors”

Are women authors held to different standards than men?

In 1849, to her critics, Charlotte Bronte wrote, “To you I am neither man nor woman—I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’

Martha: I woke up this morning thinking about a post I found on twitter @AdviceToWriters.  I thought, That’s right.  I want to be thought of as an author only.  But it occurred to me that it really isn’t up to me, is it?  
Jenny: Well, the fact is you—and Charlotte Bronte—are women writers and that’s a very good thing as far as I’m concerned. The problem is that because of historical devaluing of all things associated with the female, including writing, some do not take women who write as seriously as men who write. This prejudice was easily identifiable in Charlotte Bronte’s time. A woman’s writing was not only automatically considered of a lesser order by the status quo, legally she was not even allowed to keep any of her own earnings from her work. For us the question is more subtle, but one look at any table of contents in any issue of, say, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and you will see that though women write more than men, and read much more than men, they are still grossly underrepresented in print.     
I certainly don’t want to be a man, nor do I want to be just an “author” because that automatically implies in our world “male.” I want to be a woman who writes and is given equal opportunity to publish my work and have it fairly critically appraised.
Martha: Are both notions too ideal?  To be considered simply “an author,” or to be considered a woman who writes and who is given equal opportunity?  How do you suggest arriving at that standard and possibility?  And what do we do in the meantime — when, as you say, the question is more subtle today.  I also know that there are many people out there — men and women alike — who would say the opportunities are equal, flat out disagree, and believe that you’re whining while also undermining women.  What do you say to them?  And as the title question asks: Are women writers held to a different standard?  If so, what is it?

Jenny: We’re all heroes and we’re all whiners. I just want to be an equal opportunity hero or whiner. Yes, the notion that we be held to some sort of “equal” standard is ideal, but we’re fiction writers who trade in the ideal dressed up as the real. As for the title question, we’re all held most rigorously by ourselves to our own standards. I’m just asking the editors at magazines, the jury at Cannes (not one woman was selected this year to compete for the Palme D’Or), the board members of Fortune 500 companies (only 3% of CEOs of F500 companies are women) to think about their preconceptions of what a standard is before excluding from their pages, their competitions, their boardrooms, the female voice. Exclusivity is easy and natural. Inclusivity takes intelligence and courage.

Martha: And I certainly don’t want to be a man, but in hearing what you’re saying I’m reminded of the Old Boys’ Club.  We should be looking out for one another in our own way.  An old girls’ network.  Of course, this has been brought up many times by many women.  But has it truly taken hold?  How?  Where?
Jenny: The Bronte sisters might just have the solution. Watch This: Brontesaurus, Bronte Sisters Power Dolls 
We’d love to hear your thoughts.  Comment below. 
Up next week: Do women writers have to create characters who “behave?”

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6 thoughts on “The Sisters Discuss: “Women Authors”

  1. Re “looking out for one another in our own way. An old girls’ network. Of course, this has been brought up many times by many women. But has it truly taken hold? How? Where?”
    –Here’s an example (though the WHERE is in non-fiction/public opinion-making): “Op-ed page editors at major newspapers across the country say that 65 or 75 percent of unsolicited manuscripts, or more, come from men. .. Catherine Orenstein, an author, activist and occasional op-ed page contributor herself, [trains] women to submit essays” with support from Woodhull and from SheSource, an online database of women experts, financed by the White House Project, a women’s leadership organization, Fenton Communications and the Women’s Funding Network. [See

      1. That’s very interesting Abigail as it confirms the idea that women are hesitant about being heard, especially when it might bring upon them the usual criticism of being “whiney.” Men are “outspoken” and women are “whiney.” If we hadn’t been whiney, nay, downright belligerent, we would never have gotten the vote. And to take that thought even further, I love the Edna O’Brien quote: “The vote means nothing to women. We should be armed.”

  2. This is my favorite blog post yet. It connects to another interesting discussion on writing and identity. Langston Hughes refused to be called “an author” because he wanted to be known as “a black author.” He felt the former meant a kind of assimilation into the status quo, which was white and male–while being a “black author” meant holding writers and the canon to a higher standard, one that is inclusive enough to be authentic and universal. In the essay that changed my life, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes argued that being a black author meant embracing and creating a new status quo, one that reminded us that all writers and literary work are both culturally particular and universal. That is the tension of literature. With this in mind, I agree with Jenny. Let’s be women writers who embrace the contradictions, legacies, burdens, gifts and responsibilities of that mighty title. As the divine Virginia Woolf argued, having a room of one’s own isn’t about creating a girl’s club that would undoubtedly exclude certain more marginalized women. A Room of One’s Own is an honest acknowledgement that all our work is imbued with the stain of race, gender, age, class, dialect, sexual identities… That’s what makes literature worth reading and rereading.

    The is doing really exciting work to address the gender gap in oped writing. They offer women a ton of online and offline resources.

  3. I love it when someone agrees with me and so very eloquently. I will read that Langston Hughes essay. I love the poetry of your use of the word “stain” and I will read it positively as these stains are all blessings and what make us, as a species, so infinitely intriguing.

  4. A fantastic post. Let’s have more sister conversations.

    Two small points:

    – I just made a mix tape for my daughter’s birthday party and when it was done was upset to see that only 1 of 18 songs was written or performed by a woman or female group.

    – And this is old but I just read this and loved it:–why-romantic-comedies-suck

    That said I embrace the labels of “woman writer” and “Asian writer.” Maybe because the writing of Asian writers who reject those labels — I think primarily of Kazuo Ishiguro — I often find bloodless, and whether justly or no, I connect that lifelessness with their rejection of their very identities. I understand the struggle not to be limited to Asian (American) stories and AA characters, to be free to cast the net as far as one desires, but the Hughes essay sounds like the perfect answer to that question.

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