The last few years have seen us, as English teachers, deluged in pre-20th century literature and non-fiction texts. Simultaneously in the 21st century we have been seriously exploring the treatment of women in society – pay gaps and sexual harassment have been major issues – and rightly so.
So how can the male dominance of – and within – the texts we present to students possibly be justified? We are over-run with pre-20th century literature written by men and frequently presenting few, if any, positive female characterisations. Some students will be doing Journey’s End, Jekyll and Hyde and Macbeth. In this scenario, apart from the poetry (and even then only 5 out of 15 poems are by women in one of the clusters!), all the texts are essentially ‘male’ – written by men with Lady Macbeth as the only major female character, appearing in a handful of scenes. Yes, she challenges the stereotype – but in a very negative way. This is 2018! Are women still either invisible, manipulative, mad or witchy?
It can be argued that more men were published ‘back then’ and so there is little opportunity to present texts by women. Sadly, it is true that we have almost forgotten the idea of gender balance in the light of so many 19th century male authors – but there are set texts by women. Despite this, schools usually choose Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol over Silas Marner, Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Other arguments suggest – fairly – that we have been cornered: these text choices are shorter and more manageable for less able students; they are the texts we can afford because we already have them in the cupboards. But in the current climate are these arguments good enough? Why aren’t we pressing for the funding for new texts if this means we can ‘balance the books’. At the very least, why not substitute Macbeth with Romeo and Juliet (usually plentiful in any cupboard) which has a female lead and enables students to explore the way in which Juliet tries to govern her own life? Admittedly, like LM, she takes her own life but at least she makes a statement about breaking free from patriarchal expectations and getting what she wants. And she features in the title.
When Literature set texts move into the arena of ‘modern novels and drama’, some boards offer no ‘modern drama’ by women at all. Many schools choose An Inspector Calls or Journey’s End, both by men. Within the former, it can be argued that there are strong and interesting women: it is Sheila who first works out what the Inspector is trying to show her family and it is she who is desperate to generate some change; it is Eva Smith who represents the struggle for self-respect and morality. In this play Priestley presents one female who is able to take responsibility for her actions and another who works very hard to improve her life and uphold her values against all the odds. I quite like that. By contrast, the only woman we hear of in Journey’s End is Madge – symbolic of the view back then that women should keep the home fires burning and make their men feel worthless if they happened to find the trenches a little disturbing. Madge is merely a device used to inform our understanding of Stanhope.
My real question is this -– why aren’t we pressing to change the canon, to move away from pre-20th texts and into the 20th century? This would at least provide some opportunity to begin to address the gender page gap.
However, in the light of a situation unlikely to change in the near future, here are some ideas for beginning to address the gap with students.
- Firstly, make sure your students notice the absence of women amongst our ‘great’ writers and explore the reasons for this. Use this angle to extend their knowledge of context too. Talk about 19th-century pen names and why some women felt they needed to pretend to be male in order to get published (Currer Bell, George Eliot being prime examples). Discuss whether this still happens (JK Rowling , Lionel Shriver) and why.
- Develop range of interpretation and student’s understanding by asking: Would this be the same if it were written by a woman? Would the characters be presented differently? How might the plot / setting / themes differ?
- Ask students to identify the writer they think is most ‘in touch with his feminine side’ and explain why. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the consequences of male posturing and the conventions of a patriarchal society could make him top contender. Stevenson and Sherriff are unlikely to win any awards in this department – students could explore why.
- For language exam work, choose texts by women: there is more 19th century non-fiction by women than you might think. Check out Octavia Hill, for example – the woman who founded the National Trust. For 20th / 21st century fiction extracts, you’ll be lost for choice. Pick an authoress you love to read and have a field day.
- Consider the balance of your literature texts at GCSE – not just in terms of authors (you will have little choice there) but in terms of characters and characterisation as well.
- Think carefully about your KS3 curriculum and make sure you offer students plenty of female writers at this stage to help counteract what may come later.