Usually when we speak of gender bias, the first thing that comes to mind is the literary feats of old dead white dudes still controlling the standards by which works of literature are measured today, regardless of the author’s race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Or we speak of the white guys who are still alive and kicking having an upper hand in getting grants, getting agents, getting published, getting attention, getting press, getting prizes, getting better grants, and round and round we go. But the gender bias I want to talk about is far more insidious. Those things I mentioned earlier certainly create a problem that needs to be addressed, but there is a pernicious undercurrent of another form of gender bias among writers that can potentially harm their efforts so early on that they will never get past the very early stages of publishing, let alone into the realm of real recognition, regardless of the depth of their talent. This gender bias has directly to do with the quagmire of questions that are: What does and what does not make a woman? What does and what does not make a man?
To take a sharp left turn: When I was about twenty and learning to play the violin, still sounding a lot like a cat caught in the spin cycle, my Hungarian teacher pounded his fist on the table and exclaimed, “You bow like a man!” He meant it as a serious compliment, and I took it that way, having not yet learned I was supposed to be offended about stuff like that.
I kept that compliment in my pocket for rainy days as I slowly but surely became the writer everybody said I was going to end up being, regardless of my wishes to do anything artistic but that. So the first time a female poet, many many many ranks above me told me I write like a man, I was thrilled. I remember distinctly being in her office, smiling, puffing my chest out when she said it, then her following with, “That wasn’t a compliment.” I was devastated. She then went on to explain that because I wrote in direct sequence, was incredibly devoted to punctuation (total nerd, I know), and crazy about craft, I was writing in a manly fashion that clearly signified I was not in touch with my own femininity in a deeper way and, because of this, I would never produce real art as a woman, nor would I be truly accepted among other women writers.
I write as I write, and had never even considered that there was some standard for woman-ness I was expected to meet lest my gender or the very soul of my gender be questioned.
I tried to brush her off as a cranky old so-and-so that was just jealous of my up-and-comer self and all that other BS we sell ourselves when our ego has taken a beating. But as I got more and more out into the world , I heard it again and again and again. My writing is too masculine for a woman. I write in straight lines. I am not emotionally centered so I am cold and mannish. It is mind-boggling.
I started developing a complex thinking this was just me, but the more networking with other poets I did, I found many other women poets who had experienced the same thing. A lot of “Me too. Me too,” which was both a breath of relief and a big problem. Again, they were being told that even though they were women, their work was not considered womanly enough that they be taken seriously as woman poets.
What kind of nonsense is that? What is this holy grail of literary femininity imposed by other women for which we are supposed to be striving? What does that even look like if not simply woman poet writes woman poetry?
Early on in college I took a literary theory class in which we studied French feminist literary theory. I hated it. I hated every last bit of it. The bit I hated worst was this thing about how women, by virtue of their essence, write long, flowing lines and are naturally more concerned with their emotions and senses in part because they have erogenous zones everywhere. (Now, it has been a long time, and that may not have all crystalized properly, but that erogenous zones everywhere thing, I remember that photographically.)
It’s something like. Sorry Muse, I can’t seem to write you an A to B to C poem today because somebody touched my elbow and got me all hot, made me cry, and doomed me to write in unpunctuated curlicues and unicorn shapes for at least the next eight hours, after which I plan on taking to my bed with the vapors. Why? Because I’m a woman and this is what other literary women tell me I must be and must do in order to be a proper literary woman like them.
Again, this is the kind of thing many women poets are bludgeoned with throughout their careers—trying to honor their own voices as women while suffering the disadvantages of not being a man in the literary world and, at the same time, being told they are not womanly enough to fit in with the women. Conform or be cast out. Write my way, or write rhyming billboards for the side of the highway.
In reacting to the male-dominated literary world, a good many women poets have created an equally exclusionary world of their own, bounded by what gender means to them in this context, which is in direct opposition to the dominant strain, and, as it is and maintains itself as direct opposition, is actually still being controlled by that dominant strain.
Woman poet writes woman poetry, regardless of her punctuation, the length of her lines, the centeredness of her emotions, or even the number of erogenous zones she has. Woman poet writes woman poetry. Woman poet writes women poetry. That’s all.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I am a woman
and I write like one too.