Deceased Novelist’s writing impoverished by spinsterhood
I was just gonna bring it up as a quickie, but after thinking a bit and discussing the matter with my cat Demosthenes, I had to expand it. Amanda Craig, noted writer/gestator, wrote an article in the Telegraph, “If Maeve Binchy had been a Mother…” [ellipsis in original] arguing that a recently deceased Irish author, Maeve Binchy, had unwittingly fogged her window and clouded her view of the great safari of life via of her stubborn refusal to spawn.
The fact that Maeve Binchy was unable to have children was not one that Amanda Craig felt was important enough to look up.
More than once, Binchy uses the anachronistic phrase ‘women writers’ unironically. A woman writer!? That kind of ovary-shriveling foolishness just just pops my monocle. So I had two thoughts. The first: why don’t men writers face these problems?
I then pondered: wait, why is “men writers” so jarring to read? Oh, because a man writer is just called a writer! Duh! Unless, of course, he’s a writer specifically about men, like a sports writer writes about sports.
As Craig is herself a writer, I figure she’s familiar with the difference between adjectives and nouns. If she really wants to diminish women who write without looking like a total hack, she should try calling us “writresses”* instead.
Wait, she thinks she’s promoting reproduction?
Maybe I am not giving her enough credit. She could be a brilliant satirist. Craig, in defending motherhood, makes it sound absolutely horrible. Her description sounds so miserable that the only comparable experience I have is when my seventh-grade teacher told me there would be no roller coasters in heaven, but I wouldn’t mind because God would make it so I didn’t want to ride roller coasters anymore. It’s always disturbing when you realize descriptions of heaven sound indistinguishable from those of a 1960s asylum.
She really says this:
And all mothers born in the post-war years have experienced the shock of growing up with all the education and ambition once accorded only to men, then finding it hard even to remember times tables once you’ve had a baby.
What a waste, educating all those girls. All mothers born in her generation experienced the shock of forgetting 7×4. And this experience will make me a better writer because how?
…motherhood…which can bring out the worst in a person, in the form of vicarious rivalry, bitchiness, envy and even mental illness…
So have babies! So you might lose your mind and become a bitch. Big deal. At least you won’t woman-write about boring stuff like relationships with people who aren’t babies.
As a woman human, Craig argues, Binchy owed it to herself and to her audience to tend to a larval human and learn to put herself last. Oh, sure, shirking her feminine duty might have gotten her some stupid awards in her pathetically offspring-deficient twenties, thirties and forties for the writing she selfishly did while babies across the nation soiled themselves and demanded to be fed, but at what cost?!
What did she have to show for it? Stories about friendships between women? Novels about romantic relationships between adults? The satisfaction of a self well-actualized? Boring. She could have had A BABY! Now who will be there to tend to her grave?
Mothering, not parenting.
In case anyone wasn’t clear on the sexism of this theory that women need to parent in order to achieve fully-human status, Craig makes sure to exclude men from this requirement entirely:
These days, when even lesbian authors such as the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Emma Donoghue, writer of the Booker-nominated Room, have children, it is sufficiently rare to be remarked upon.
And you childfree heterosexu-gals don’t want to be weirder than lesbians, do you?
Her linear theory of universal womanhood leaves out a whole lot of women. Transwomen? Check. Intersex women? Check. Infertile women? Check.
Yet the above comment is revealing for leaving out a lot of parents. If it’s the bond between a parent and a child that makes the writer, why she didn’t shame straight male writers into reproducing by invoking gay dads?
The Moral of the Story
The thing ya gotta remember when encountering this argument is that the question “should women be this or that?” is almost always a distraction from the real message: women are open to scrutiny; men aren’t.
If any lingering prejudice against the female sex can be assumed to have vanished, which is debatable, there is no practical difference between a man and a woman writer when the latter has not had children.
Craig explains what an endless time-suck children are, noting that each child has a proposed theoretical opportunity cost of four – FOUR – books! It also, according to Craig, means abandoning the idea of any major awards before age 50. The second shift must be that ‘practical difference.’
Having children interrupts women’s writing, but apparently doesn’t do a thing to men writers. Instead, she takes granted that the men writers will have wives to handle that stuff.
I wonder what their wives would have written if they hadn’t been gaining keen insight into the human condition that only putting yourself last can provide.
I admit, I have an egg in this fallopian tube. I’m a woman; I write; I have birthed no babes. I do not intend to, as I called dibs on my food by eating it and would prefer not to share. I have friendships with men and women. I write about those friendships now.
Perhaps Craig is angry that she paid her dues to the patriarchy, worked the second shift, and left four books unwritten for every child. Perhaps her hand is out grasping in the dark for that promised cookie.
*The his/hers alternation between the suffixes “ter”or neutral/”tress” is common in English, e.g. waiter/waitress, actor/actress. Some examples have fallen out of use due to gender segregation, e.g., seamstress has the male counterpart “seamster” and teamster has the female counterpart “teamstress.” (The fact that the root words end in ‘m’ is what triggers the extra ‘s’ through a process called excrescence). I’m on a personal mission to bring the term ‘hipstress’ for a female hipster into vogue.
Spinster is an interesting exception to this rule. The feminine ‘spinstress’ exists, but it appears to be a relatively recent backformation, perhaps to fill the gap created by the pejoration and subsequent loss of the original meaning (that being, a woman who spins) of the word ‘spinster.’ “Spinster” has had the dual meaning of a woman who spins and an unmarried woman beyond the usual marriageable age for at least six hundred years.
[Edited to correct the author’s name]
“More than once, Binchy uses the anachronistic phrase ‘women writers’ unironically. A woman writer!?”
Of course! Why talk about the special problems patriarchal culture might present to certain classes of people when we can just erase their experiences and identities by refusing to talk about them! What an elegant solution…I’ll be sure to to stop teaching about women composers in my music history courses ASAP.
“I then pondered: wait, why is “men writers” so jarring to read? Oh, because a man writer is just called a writer!”
It is jarring and clunky for the same reason ‘woman writer’ might also be considered as such: it uses a noun as if it were an adjective. This is normally rendered as “male writer” (not jarring), but the equivalent formation “female writer” was avoided in certain circles because (if I remember correctly), it was perceived to dehumanize professional women by overemphasizing sex in a way that “woman writer,” despite being grammatically dubious, apparently does not. To her credit (if we give points for consistency), Craig does use “man writer,” at least in the phrase “men and women writers.”
I’m not saying Craig’s article is either good or insightful (it bothers me in many of the ways it bothers you), but to approach it from the position you did, i.e. that in our current culture there is no more use for phrases like “women writers,” especially in a context like childbearing where our culture still maintains unfair demands and double standards, seems off the mark and counterproductive.
I’m not sure this is the most charitable reading of Yessenia’s post.
I, for one, didn’t read it this way at all. I don’t think Yessenia is in any way advocating for people to stop teaching about women who have written or made music. The way I read it was that “women writers” is a linguistic phrasing that indicates that our culture values men over women in the position of “writer” such that when women fill that role it is something special that has to be marked linguistically. When men do it, it’s the norm (thus the unmarked “writer” for men and marked “women writer” for women”). And it’s jarring to see “men writers” because it’s marking the unmarked term with the gender that is considered the default for that term.
Okay, so then how do we talk about them and the special problems they face without marking them linguistically?
I’m not the one who actually wrote that we don’t need words for them…
Ok, I’ll put this as simply as I can:
Whether a writer is a woman is relevant when talking about how writers who happened to be women have had their writing marginalized because they were women.
Whether a writer is a woman is not at all relevant to how well a woman writes. Whether a woman has had a child is also not at all relevant to how well that woman writes.
If you mention something, your audience will infer it is somehow relevant. The fact that Maeve Binchy was a woman is completely irrelevant to the quality of her writing. The fact that Maeve Binchy was a woman would be exceptionally relevant in a class on writers who happened to be women. Unless you are teaching about any random female writer, the quality of her writing would be an independent determiner of whether Maeve Binchy makes the syllabus.
I’ve gone back and re-read the article, and I’m failing to see where Yessenia noted that we don’t need words for women who write. I do see where she said calling people “women writers” unironically (and, I am assuming this extends to “unthinkingly”) is old-fashioned.
If you’re talking about writers and their gender is important, then by all means talk about “women writers.” If you’re talking about “great American writers” and you feel the need to have a separate list of “great American women writers” and the first list is all men, then that’s where the problem is.
Such as, for example, discussing a double-standard when it comes to having children in a given profession?
I’m not sure which circles those were, but what I can’t get over is how you read an essay calling out a woman for taking several double standards* completely for granted, and concluded that I do not think double standards affecting women giving birth are an important thing to worry about.
*Specifically, the two big ones were: women need to have babies to write well, but men don’t; women will sacrifice decades of their writing life to tend to children, but men won’t.
I didn’t come to that conclusion, actually. But I think it’s important to consider the implications of getting rid of vocabulary that serves a purpose in discussing the problems of oppressed people.
I mean, isn’t it kind of the same as this?
I’m not a man and I’m not trying to eliminate the word ‘woman,’ so no. I don’t think it’s the same.
My feeling is that ‘female’ is only dehumanising if it’s used as a noun.
I mean, it is the Telegraph. What exactly did you expect?
But is comes off as “I’m so tired of hearing the phrase ‘women writers’ in contexts where gender is relevant (such as a discussion of double-standards in childbearing).” If you don’t mean it that way and I’m not being sufficiently charitable, fine.
But agree or not on this point, you might at least want to fix the fact that you repeatedly misstate the name of the article’s author (Craig not Paige). Someone might get the impression that you aren’t being sufficiently diligent in your criticism.
No, it doesn’t come off that way. You’re welcome to deliberately misinterpret it that way, but clearly, I am criticizing Craig’s failure question double standards. She takes them completely for granted and spends the rest of the article undermining women who made their bargain and chose to write instead of rear.
Fair point on the name, and congrats to someone for finally finding that nit.
Hilarious! Thanks for reading it for me, for I would have my bladder burst if I would have to have a read like that.
First I thought that a ‘women writer’ was a man that writes ‘women’, and then reads it to a woman since he forbade her to learn how to read. Thanks for clearing that one up as well. I do however still wonder why such works are still printed, when there are millions of greater thinkers or thinkresses that can’t find a decent agent.