Jamie Smith

His Literary Sexism

“Every dog has his day.” – A man

“The more man meditates on good thoughts, the better will be his world.” – Another man

“All men are created equal.” – A group of men

 

A few days ago, I experienced something that women and girls must put up with throughout their lives. I began reading a book and noticed that the author was unexpectedly and constantly referring to people as ‘she’ and ‘her’. All indefinite pronouns and almost all pronouns were female. Instead of writing “For a person to succeed, they should” or “… one should”, the author was writing “…she should.”

At first, I considered this confusing. The book was a self-help book with no obvious focus on women and no gendered material in adverts, reviews or the books covers and introduction. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I was told what many women like me do. I did some research on the internet and found nothing saying the book was aimed at women, so I remained confused. 

I began to find the constant, almost exclusive references to women alienating, like the book wasn’t for me or my gender. Like I was an intruder in pages that weren’t written for me.

Then I realised the unfamiliar feeling of having my gender unceremoniously cast out by an author was something all too familiar to women. 

For centuries, would ‘maketh the MAN’ and every dog would ‘have HIS day’, but the woman was rarely written about in literature and her day often remained a mystery. Indeed, women and their days were considered objects of unimportance to those ‘men of learning who read the contents of books’. Unfortunately overpowering patriarchy meant women of learning were few and far between, which meant there was little to rebalance the contents of the books or the patriarchy that created them.

Although attitudes have changed over the last century or so, we’re still burdened with reams and reams of books devoted to the MAN and HIS small steps and giant leaps. Too many of the literary culprits are important and well-known, from the bible and the US Declaration of Independence downward, for anyone to avoid completely. So intelligent girls are tasked with learning their way into intelligent womanhood through vast tracts of literature that doesn’t relate to their gender and acres of writing that refers to everyone alive as man, or him. Virginia Woolf decried this in A Room of One’s Own in 1929, quoting the tongue-in-cheek poetry of another inspiring female author of the 17th century:

 

 

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,

Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,

The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.

They tell us we mistake our sex and way;

Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,

Are the accomplishments we should desire;

To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,

Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,

And interrupt the conquests of our prime.

 

Lady Winchilsea, late 17th century