Since I started high school a year and a half ago, I have been assigned nine books to read in English class—and all nine of them were written by men. Nine out of nine. One hundred percent.
This dramatic gender discrepancy among authors is, first off, a problem in principle. I have always thought that top-tier schools, PHS included, did their best to select top-tier books for their students, be it based off of pure quality, novelty, or relevance to society. So the fact that up until this point I have yet to be assigned a full book—not a short story or a poem—written by a female sends a lot of distorted, and potentially destructive, messages.
This issue, like many other modern, gender-related ones, stretches beyond principle as well. Having a woman’s name take the place of Homer’s on the cover of The Odyssey would not solve this problem. Penelope would still be her overly loyal, subservient self, weepily and woefully awaiting the return of her brave, strong, heroic husband. Pretending that Of Mice and Men was written by Johanna Steinbeck would prove equally ineffective. There would still be only one female character, and she would still be hypersexualized and referred to as “Curley’s wife,” defined by her relationship to a man, rather than as her own human being. Basically, it’s not just the author’s name that matters.
As it happens, male authors tend to write about male protagonists. Eight of the nine books I’ve been assigned have had male protagonists, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It being the exception. This book, which was ahead of its time in its focus on the fluidity of gender, in many ways captures why Shakespeare is seen as a literary master.
I am not suggesting that the nine books I’ve been assigned have not been interesting or worthwhile reads—many of them have been. However, this is independent of the fact that women have written amazing books, too, and they are clearly being valued less than those of their male counterparts.
Esquire magazine recently published a list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read.” Such a title first draws suspicion by suggesting that people should read different books depending on their own gender. Is this a list of the 80 best books, period? If so, then everyone should read them. Or, is this a list of the 80 most sexist books that would likely offend and humiliate any female readers? This seems much more likely, especially given that the list consisted of precisely 79 books written by men and one by a woman.
As feminist writer and activist Rebecca Solnit very aptly puts it, “There is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories … These are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.”
Whether it is because women write more authentically about womanhood, or whether it is because they write about it at all, or whether it is simply because they experience the world differently because of the patriarchy, we need to start reading just as many books by female authors as by male authors.
Women write substantive, interesting, beautiful, painful books, and I truly hope no one today is asinine enough to doubt that. We have gotten to a point in time when reading books by women should no longer be the progressive, ground-breaking thing to do. It should be expected.
We need to stop putting women on the bottom shelf.