Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Were All the Classics Written by Men?

Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Let's ignore Jane Austen and the Brontes for a minute and ask the question: why were all the classics written by men?

Many answers abound. I have never found the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory. I am also a firm believer in the fact that women are intellectually equal with men. So, why then? Why were all the classics written by men?

A few weeks ago, I ran across this excerpt from G. K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World?"
Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school-mistress, but not a competitive school-mistress; a house decorator, but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful.
Chesterton has hit upon something here. Women, though not limited in ability, are often limited in the extent to which they can pursue something because they are called to pursue so many different things.

This may not be true for all women, but I think that it is true for many, and I know that it is true for me. And, what is more, I enjoy this limitation. I revel in it.

I wouldn't care to write if it meant that I never got to bake. I wouldn't care to write if it meant that I never got to scrapbook. And, above all, I wouldn't care to write, if it meant that I never got to give my kids bubble baths, read them Goodnight Moon, take them for walks in the wagon, and make them pancakes with chocolate chips.

I don't want to just write historical fiction. I want to paint with watercolors, compose choral music, grow a vegetable garden, participate in church committees, and volunteer in community outreach. And if that means that all of those things, including my novels, end up being "second bests," then so be it. I'm too busy reading, singing, blogging, and living to worry too much about it.


  1. What a wonderful idea - I had never thought of it that way before (although I completely agree!). Thanks for sharing the quote!

  2. Such an interestin post! Thank you for sharing.
    You are right, we are called to so many different tasks each day, but if we do not excel , no alibi, it is not for that.
    The question with women writers like Jane Austen or the Brontes, who did excel, is that they refused to conform to the female stereotype of the age they lived in. They were brave and focused, not exactly competitive.
    For the majority of us, if we bake it is because we feel it is right,if we draw or paint watercolours it is because we like it, if we stay at home and play with our children it is because we married a man we loved and chose to create a family.
    Many women at the time of Jane Austen had to marry for convenience or not to starve, couldn't have money of their own nor a profession, their writing was thought improper and had to hide behind a male name. They were limited by law and conventions in a totally male-oriented society.
    There have been centuries in which women were educated to become good wives or accomplished ladies. No other role in society was meant for them. They could only learn what we today love doing as hobbies or part of our family life (gardening, drawing, sewing, take care of the house, look after their children).
    The fact we can choose now invalidate the alibi: if we don't excel nowadays, it is not for a lack of time or energies, or because we are expected to do the housework or taking care of our families. We can choose not to do it, we can share our tasks with our husbands, we can have a profession and the money to pay someone to substitute us in those chores.
    Second point, to get to write a great book you need talent with words, writing skills, sensitiveness, knowledge of the ways of world and of humankind.Last but least, something important/unique to tell. Not merely time, energies or the will to compete. Classic writers had all that. Women or men.
    And, by the way, I'll add Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Luoisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley to the names of classic writers. I'm sure I forgot many.

  3. I appreciated this post very much and decided to propose the discussion of the topic to my readers. I 've linked and quoted your piece at
    I hope you don't mind!

    1. Thanks, Maria! I enjoyed your response post as well. It's always great to have courteous discussion in the blogosphere.


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