Worth Less? Some thoughts on the devaluation of writing by women

This piece was first broadcast on Arena (RTÉ Radio One) on 27th October 2015


Recently I asked a friend what she thinks about anthologies of writing by women. Wouldn’t they be worth less than other anthologies? was her – very interesting – response.

There’s a lot of chat at the minute about women’s writing and whether it tends to get overlooked. In a recent experiment, Catherine Nichols sent a book proposal to several literary agents under two different names, half as herself and half as a man called George. George got 8 times more expressions of interest than Catherine did. In one spectacular case an agent who ignored Catherine was excited by George’s – identical – idea.

If you look at what’s happening in Irish writing today there’s little evidence of this. A healthy proportion of our dynamic young and emerging writers are women. Our first Laureate for Fiction is a woman. But the tireless Sarah Davis-Goff, one half of the publishing partnership that is Tramp Press, says that writers can be slow to acknowledge female influences, not because the influence isn’t there but because they’re not seen as authoritative.

Key male writers get name-checked automatically, almost out of habit, the way we tend to wear the socks we keep at the front of the drawer, the ones we washed and put back yesterday, instead of rummaging for a better pair down the back.

Champions of women-only anthologies, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize and the Read Women hashtag say we need affirmative action, to overcome the unconscious bias that undermines the reception of women’s writing. We all agree that the bias is unconscious, don’t we?

Don’t we?

So where does it come from?

Turns out, there’s a clue in the language we use every day.dale spender MML

In her book Man Made Language first published 35 years ago but still depressingly relevant, Australian theorist Dale Spender suggests that words are devalued as they move across the gender divide from a masculine to a feminine context.

One example is what happens when a boy’s name becomes popular for girls. As names like Leslie, Hilary, Evelyn are adopted for girls, they’re not given to boys any more. The reverse is far from true: Girls’ names that abbreviate to a masculine form – Sam, Alex – are still in use.

Gender-specific words with the same meaning have positive or negative value depending on whether they refer to men or to women. Look at ‘spinster’ or ‘bachelor’, for example. Both refer to unmarried adults, but one is seen as positive and attracts approval while the other implies failure.

Or: look at the difference in status between a governor and a governess.

There’s being dogged in pursuit of a goal and there’s the pointlessness of being bitchy.

Then there’s the infantilising effect. A hen is a hen and a cock is a cock, but a chick is always female.

Spender says the devaluation often has sexual connotations. Don’t laugh.

Take ‘master’, for example. Then: ‘mistress’. An Old Master is one thing, but an old mistress is something else entirely (note those capitals).

I’m only saying. Think about it. And while you’re thinking, watch your language.


You can listen to the podcast here

The-Long-Gaze-BackI’ll be talking to Sinéad Gleeson and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne about the recent anthology of short stories by Irish women The Long Gaze Back (New Island) at the DLR Readers’ Day on 7th November. More information here and here; booking here 

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5 Responses to Worth Less? Some thoughts on the devaluation of writing by women

  1. Pingback: The Long Gaze Back: Press round-up, Irish Blog Awards, Events - Sinéad Gleeson

  2. Jay says:

    Interesting article . Though some of the examples are a little weak. On the subject of names for instance, ‘Sam’ and ‘Alex’ are clearly diminutives of the female ‘Samantha’ and ‘alexandra’ and aren’t inherently ‘masculine’ in their diminutive form. Conversely, men have historically been named with traditionally feminine names eg John Wayne’s original name was famously ‘marion’ -though it is true that such examples were often greeted with mirth in a way that would have been less true in the reverse. Apart from these slightly weak examples and others such as ‘governess’, which speak more of their context than the use of language itself, there is a huge amount to be said for the inherent bias embedded in our use of language (particularly in how we coin words that come to relate to one sex only, such as ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, to describe behaviour that is undertaken by both sexes but castigated in only one) and within our view of ‘women’s writing’. Of primary importance is what is expected of writing by women and how those expectations feed into what publishers choose to publish from amongst the fiction submitted by women – this would go a long way to explaining why women’s writing is frequently ghettoised and partitioned as if it were a ‘genre’ rather than the contribution of half the population. Definitely worth further examination.

    • libranwriter says:

      You make some good points, although I’d argue that ‘Marion’ is another name that’s fallen out of favour precisely because Marian is a popular name for girls and women, and that Samantha and Alexandra may be popular because of their shortened form. Charlotte is another example. The lack of expectation of a powerful/administrative context for a governess speaks for itself, I think. I’ll grant that it’s old-fashioned, but Spender’s study is 35 years old so we have to make allowances. Your ‘slut’ observation is a good one, as is the idea of expectations of women’s writing. Not to mention marketing, promotion etc. Thanks for your comments.

  3. medea999 says:

    Lia, this is just great. Much needed. A great deal of work that was done on the way we use language has generally unravelled. I see it all the time when women insist on allowing themselves to be referred to as ‘Chairman’ instead of ‘Chairwoman’. And that’s the tip of the iceberg, as you’ve pointed out.

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