Students and faculty reflect on women in literature during Women’s History Month

Jillian Holness

Professors and students of Kent State reflect on the importance of women in literature as the month of March celebrates women’s history.

Muriel Rukeyser, a female poet, once said, “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Well-developed female characters happened to be absent in early American literature.

“You may find in the occasional, early male literary figure of female characters, but a good many of them end up in types or tropes,” said Suzanne Holt, a women’s studies professor. “They don’t have any memorability to women.”

Holt said that female characters also had a certain stereotype portrayed.

“Tropes of women were the opposite of men. If a man was strong, a woman is vulnerable. Women were held to the notions of being or good,” Holt said.“If a woman was good, she was conforming to her expectations, marital status and sexual morality.”

 Julia Mandel, a senior English student, said that during the 1700s-1800s, female characters were expected to be the angel of the house.

“(A woman) was expected to look pretty, clean the house and take care of the children,” Mandel said. “It was almost like you were a porcelain doll. You weren’t really a person.”

There were some male authors, who later started to write stories with a female lead, such as Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders.

“I think there was a quantum leap forward when women started to write about women,” Holt said. “they do bring something that is tragically missing from (a) female character. That was the soul of the experience.”

Women started to tell their own stories through their writing during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Feminist writing came from poetry.

“Women typically wrote for women and children. Women writing for a mixed audience and having an authoritative voice, speaking to men was not culturally acceptable.”

Harrison said African American women first started to write American literature when they arrived in this country on slave ships.

Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved, young woman who was taught to read and write was the first person to be published on two continents, North America and Africa.

“She learned how to write in the classic way, white educated Americans would have written,” said Denise Harrison, a lecturer of English.

Harrison said Wheatley had to take an oral exam in front of the leaders of Boston to prove she wrote her own poetry.

Wheatley talked about how African Americans, being of a noble race wanted the taste of freedom. 

“There was abolitionist that embraced enslaved people telling their stories while others feared it,” Harrison said. “If you can read and write, couldn’t you write yourself out of the institution?”

Harrison also explained that African American females were not highly prominent as characters in literature. 

“African American female characters were hardly mentioned and when they were, they were written as tropes,” Harrison said.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, black women characters took on tropes such as the jezebel, mammy, the idiot and the tragic mulatto.

African American female characters became more positive during the Harlem Renaissance.

Some positive, influential characters were Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sula from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.

“They speak for themselves. They have their own vision,” Harrison said. “They reject the society’s control of them.”

African American women did have challenges to face in the literary world. One of them was finding a publisher and creating their own space in the feminist movement.

During the feminist movement, there was an exclusion of gay, poor and women of color. Black feminists published their work themselves or found small presses.

“It was a real celebration. Finally we see stories we connect with,” Harrison said. “We see a celebration of black women hood and black women in their fullness.”

Harrison said it’s important that children can have accessibility to books with characters that they can identify with.

“My bookshelf is going to be multiracial,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be strong in the voices of white women along with women of color.”

Shannon Allman, a sophomore integrated social studies student, said Rosemarie Hathaway from the Vampire Academy series is her favorite female literary character.

“She comes from a lot of adversity in her life and no matter what sets her back, she always finds a way to fight through it. Sometimes that makes her come up off as rude and arrogant type of person who’s nothing but trouble,” Allman said. “In the end she always has a reason to what she’s doing and she always come out on top proving that she can do it.”

Halle Neiderman, a Ph.D English student, is fond of the character Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.

“She was a strong willed young girl who made up her own mind about things,” Neiderman said.

Ashlee Woods, a senior organizational communications student, said the different representation of Betty Boop’s character intrigued her.

“She wasn’t like the norm. She acted very sexual, Woods said. “To me it was dope, it just wasn’t what you would expect from a character.”

There are many stories out there written by women, hundreds of years ago, that are being published and inspiring women writers even today.

“A quest in women’s literature is to be an archaeologist and dig up bones from the past,” Holt said.

Jillian Holness is the humanities reporter for The Kent Stater, contact her at [email protected]