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Women's writing (literary category)

The academic discipline of women's writing as a discrete area of conferences which focus mainly or exclusively on texts produced by women. The study of women's writing developed in the 1970s and since. The majority of English literature programmes offer courses on specific aspects of literature by women, and women's writing is generally considered an area of specialization in its own right.


  • Discussion on Women's writing being a distinct category 1
  • Rediscovering ignored works from the past 2
  • Distinctions in Women's Writing 3
    • In Academic Writing 3.1
    • In Children 3.2
    • In Creative Writing 3.3
    • In Coding 3.4
  • The "exemplary women" tradition 4
  • Resources 5
    • Series of republications 5.1
    • Web-based projects 5.2
    • Scholarly journals which publish research on women's writing mainly or exclusively 5.3
    • Literary and review journals of women's writing 5.4
  • See also 6
    • Lists 6.1
  • Endnotes 7

Discussion on Women's writing being a distinct category

The broader discussing women's cultural contributions as a separate category has a long history, but the specific study of women's writing as a separate category of scholarly interest is relatively recent. There are examples in the 18th century of exemplary catalogues of women writers, including John Duncombe's Feminiad, a catalogue of women writers, and the Biographium faemineum: the female worthies, or, Memoirs of the most illustrious ladies, of all ages and nations, who have been eminently distinguished for their magnanimity, learning, genius, virtue, piety, and other excellent endowments.[2] Similarly, women have been treated as a distinct category by misogynist writings, perhaps exemplified by Richard Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females, a critique in verse of women writers at the end of the 18th century with a particular focus on Mary Wollstonecraft and her circle.

Earlier discussion of women's broader cultural contribution can be found as far back as the 8th century BC, when Hesiod compiled Catalogue of Women (attr.), a list of heroines and goddesses. Plutarch listed heroic and artistic women in his Moralia. In the medieval period, Boccaccio used mythic and biblical women as moral exemplars in De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) (1361–1375), directly inspiring Christine de Pisan to write The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).

Women writers themselves have long been interested in tracing a "woman's tradition" in writing. Mary Scott's The Female Advocate: A Poem Occasioned by Reading Mr Duncombe's Feminead (1774) is one of the best known such works in the 18th century, a period that saw a burgeoning of women's publishing. In 1803, Mary Hays published the six volume Female Biography. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) exemplifies the impulse in the modern period to explore a tradition of women's writing. Woolf, however, sought to explain what she perceived as an absence; by the mid-century scholarly attention turned to finding and reclaiming "lost" writers.[3] And there were many to reclaim: it is common for the editors of dictionaries or anthologies of women's writing to refer to the difficulty in choosing from all the available material.[4]

Trade publishers have similarly focused on women's writing: since the 1970s there have been a number of literary periodicals such as Fireweed and Room of One's Own which are dedicated to publishing the creative work of women writers. There are a number of dedicated presses, such as the Second Story Press and the Women's Press. In addition, collections and anthologies of women's writing continue to be published by both trade and academic presses.

The question of whether or not there is a "women's tradition" remains vexed; some scholars and editors refer to a "women's canon" and women's "literary lineage," and seek to "identify the recurring themes and to trace the evolutionary and interconnecting patterns" in women's writing,[5] but the range of women's writing across time and place is so considerable that, according to some, it is inaccurate to speak of "women's writing" in a universal sense: Claire Buck calls "women's writing" an "unstable category."[6] Further, women writers cannot be considered apart from their male contemporaries and the larger literary tradition. Recent scholarship on race, class, and sexuality in literature further complicate the issue and militate against the impulse to posit one "women's tradition." Some scholars, such as Roger Lonsdale, maintain that something of a commonality exists and that "it is not unreasonable to consider" women writers "in some aspects as a special case, given their educational insecurities and the constricted notions of the properly 'feminine' in social and literary behaviour they faced.".[7] Using the term "women's writing" implies, then, the belief that women in some sense constitute a group, however diverse, who share a position of difference based on gender.

Rediscovering ignored works from the past

In the West, the second wave of feminism prompted a general revelation of women's historical contributions, and various academic sub-disciplines, such as women's history and women's writing, developed in response to the belief that women's lives and contributions have been underrepresented as areas of scholarly interest. Much of this early period of feminist literary scholarship was given over to the rediscovery and reclamation of texts written by women. Studies like Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel (1986) and Jane Spencer's The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986) were ground-breaking in their insistence that women have always been writing. Commensurate with this growth in scholarly interest, various presses began the task of reissuing long-out-of-print texts. Virago Press began to publish its large list of 19th and early-20th-century novels in 1975 and became one of the first commercial presses to join in the project of reclamation. In the 1980s Pandora Press, responsible for publishing Spender's study, issued a companion line of 18th-century novels by written by women.[8] More recently, Broadview Press continues to issue 18th- and 19th-century novels, many hitherto out of print, and the University of Kentucky has a series of republications of early women's novels. There has been commensurate growth in the area of biographical dictionaries of women writers due to a perception, according to one editor, that "[m]ost of our women are not represented in the 'standard' reference books in the field."[9]

The widespread interest in women's writing developed alongside, influenced, and was influenced by, a general reassessment and expansion of the literary canon. Interest in post-colonial literatures, gay and lesbian literature, writing by people of colour, working people's writing, and the cultural productions of other historically marginalized groups has resulted in a whole scale expansion of what is considered "literature," and genres hitherto not regarded as "literary," such as children's writing, journals, letters, travel writing, and many others[10] are now the subjects of scholarly interest. Most genres and subgenres have undergone a similar analysis, so that one now sees work on the "female gothic"[11] or women's science fiction, for example.

Distinctions in Women's Writing

In Robert Silverberg’s introduction to James Tiptree Jr.’s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," he expressed the sentiment that the pseudonym must belong to a man, as the syntax and lexicon used in the short story were undeniably masculine. Silverberg compares Tiptree’s writing to that of Hemingway, saying that the masculinity is found in the fact that the writing was “simple, direct, and straightforward” and uses the style of “relying on dialog broken by bursts of stripped down exposition”.[12] He was later proven to be wrong, as Tiptree is actually Alice Sheldon, a female writer. This raises the question about whether or not male and female writers have definite difference in the way that they write, and if there are certain parameters that define “women’s writing.” In fact, multiple studies support the fact that there are dissimilarities that exist between the two.

In Academic Writing

In academic writing, there are marked differences between them in syntax and structure. Studying the differences between masters’ theses of men and women shows that their sentences often contain more components, meaning that they form more complicated ideas. By studying the number of T-units- the shortest phrase that can still be split into different components (often a sentence) - in comparison to the number of clauses, one can see that women use almost twice as many clauses as sentences. Men, on the other hand, only have a ratio of about .70 clauses per sentence, suggesting that they present just one idea per sentence. Similarly, women used about 21% more cohesive devices in their writing than men did, indicating that they carried ideas into multiple sentences or phrases more often, presenting a more complicated argument. Women also tended to use paraphrasing rather than direct quotation when integrating information from outside sources.[13]

In Children

In addition, the article, “Gender Differences in EFL Writing” states that "research on gender differences in writing have mostly been conducted among children. Punter and Burchell’s study (1996) on the GCSE English language exam in the UK primary school discovered that girls scored better in imaginative, reflective, and empathetic writing while boys scored better in argumentative and factual writing",[14] which provides evidence for the stance that there is an ingrained difference in the writing of men and women, one that starts very early on in life. This, however, is not the case for everybody, as shown by Alice Sheldon's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," which was believed to be written by a man based on the type of language used. Further evidence for the difference between written word of boys and girls is provided in Written Communication. Analysis of the assignments of eighth graders shows that the girls consistently scored higher on their assignments than the boys, even when the boys showed an increased or above average proclivity towards writing. The article even states that the writing behaviors of girls are “more desirable” in the public school setting.[15] The studies show that when all factors are the same, including learning behavior and attitude, girls are still more successful in writing classes.[16]

In Creative Writing

These “more desirable” traits extend on into adulthood, as study in the use of creative or emotional language in adults shows the same results. Examination on the differences in description of color shows that women have greater “emotionality” in regards to it. Women generally use more descriptive language than men. Men used less, and are referred to as having less "emotionality" overall. There is no correlation between emotionality and age for men, but there is for women. This supposed ingrained difference between men and women is supported further by the fact that there seems to be no difference in different countries/cultures. "Interestingly, such results have been reported across many cultures. Yang (2000) studied male and female Chinese speakers who were undergraduate English majors and found women possessed more color vocabulary (both in English and in Chinese), were more elaborate in the Chinese translations of the color words." While this may have something to do with the supposed superiority of women in identifying shades of color, it also shows that the language they use to describe it is more vivid and detailed with "emotionality," and this difference persists throughout races and cultures.[17]

In Coding

The stylistic differences between the syntax and lexicon of men and women extends even beyond written communication. In other applications of communication the same rift exists. In coding, women are believed to write code that is more user-friendly, containing comments that explain how to use it, and easy to understand variables, while code written by men tends to be cryptic and obscure. Emma McGrattan, a programmer located in Silicon Valley, says she can accurately determine whether code was written by a man or a woman just by looking at it.[18] Women’s code may be different than men’s, but that does not make it feminist by nature. Feminist code does exist, mainly through the lens of its purpose. The online programming projects WWO and the Orlando project were feminist archive projects meant to collect the works of women throughout history. Women’s styles of writing have bled into the digital coding world, and emerged as feminist practices. Jacqueline Wernimont says of the archives, "Digital archives unite two historically gendered fields — computer and archival sciences. Literary scholars who depend on archival or rare book materials still confront, whether they acknowledge it or not, the legacy of an institutional form through which patriarchal power exercised the authority to determine value, classification, and access." Because men and their ways of addressing literature have been in charge for so long, women have to sort through to digitally archive what is most important in a feminist sense. The styles of men’s writing influence how they have viewed literature as the authority in the field, but as women have become more relevant, their styles and strategies of writing have come into the light.[19]

The "exemplary women" tradition


  • Abel, Elizabeth, Writing and Sexual Difference. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Allison, Dorothy. Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature. New York: Firebrand Books, 1994.
  • Ayres, Brenda, Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger Pub, 2003.
  • Backscheider, Paula R., and John Richetti, eds. Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Oxford: OUP, 1996.
  • Eagleton, Mary, ed., Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • Fetterley, Judith, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Figes, Eva,Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850. The Macmillan Press, 1982.
  • Ferguson, Mary Anne, [compiler]. Images of Women in Literature, 3rd Edition, Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1981. ISBN 0-395-29113-5
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-300-08458-7
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. London: Virago Press, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 Vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
  • Greer, Germaine, et al., eds. Kissing the Rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.
  • Hobby, Elaine, Virtue of Necessity: English women's writing 1649-1688. London: Virago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-86068-831-3
  • Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Moi, Toril, Sexual/ Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1987. ISBN 0-415-02974-0; ISBN 0-415-28012-5 (second edition).
  • Robertson, Fiona, ed. Women's Writing, 1778-1838. Oxford: OUP, 2001.
  • Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1983.
  • spender, dale, Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen. London and New York: Pandora, 1986. ISBN 0-86358-081-5
  • Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of their own: from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing. London: Virago Press, 1977.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer, The Female Imagination: A Literary and Psychological Investigation of women's writing. George Allen and Unwin, 1976.
  • Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. ISBN 0-631-13916-8
  • Todd, Janet, Feminist Literary History: A Defence. Cambridge: Polity Press / Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: women, writing and fiction, 1660-1800. London: Virago Press, 1989. ISBN 0-86068-576-4

Series of republications

  • Feminist Press: New York-based press which began reprinting books by American women in 1972
  • Virago Press since 1975 has republished over 500 post-1800 classics of women's literature (see their list and their timeline) in their series Virago Modern Classics.
  • Pandora Press "Mothers of the Novel" series:
  • American Women Writers Series, Rutgers University Press
  • Broadview Press republish modern editions of classic works of literature as Broadview Editions (listed alphabetically by title and chronologically): a high proportion are works by women writers
  • University of Kentucky series of Eighteenth-Century Novels by Women
  • Oxford University Press. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. 30 vols., Oxford University Press, 1988. A 10-volume Supplement was published in 1991.

Web-based projects

  • 17th Century Women Poets
  • Bibliography of Early Modern Women Writers That Are In Print
  • British Women Playwrights around 1800
  • British Women Romantic Poets, 1789 - 1832
  • The Brown University Women Writers Project
  • Canadian Women Poets
  • A Celebration of Women Writers
  • Chawton House Library
  • Corvey Women Writers on the Web
  • Early Modern Women's Poetry
  • Emory Women Writers Resource Project
  • ARTFL French Women Writers Project
  • Girlebooks: free ebooks by women writers
  • Internet Women's History Sourcebook
  • ARTFL Italian Women Writers Project
  • Links to Digitizing Projects of Women Writers
  • Medieval Women Writers in Latin
  • The Orlando Project: A History of Women's Writing in the British Isles
  • The Perdita Project
  • Project Electra, Oxford University (under construction)
  • Project Continua
  • The Victorian Women Writers Project
  • The Victorian Women Writers Letters Project
  • Voices from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color
  • Women Writers of Early Canada
  • Women Writers Project
  • Women Romantic-Era Writers
  • Women’s Travel Writing 1830-1930
  • The Women Writers Archive: Early Modern Women Writers Online
  • Women Writers Resource Project

Scholarly journals which publish research on women's writing mainly or exclusively

  • ABO:Interactive Journal for Women in Arts, 1640-1830
  • Atlantis
  • Camera Obscura. Duke UP. ISSN: 0270-5346
  • Contemporary Women's Writing Oxford University Press ISSN: 1754-1476
  • Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture
  • differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies. Duke UP. ISSN: 1040-7391
  • Feminist Europa. Review of Books
  • Feminist Studies
  • Femspec: speculative fiction
  • Frontiers: a journal of women studies. U of Nebraska P. ISSN: 0160-9009
  • Genders
  • Hecate: A Women's Interdisciplinary Journal (Australian)
  • International Journal of Women's Studies (1978–1985)
  • Irish Feminist Review
  • The Korean Society for Feminist Studies in English Literature
  • Legacy. U of Nebraska P. ISSN: 0748-4321
  • Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies
  • Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 1975–present.
  • Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature ISSN: 07327730
  • WILLA: The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly of The National Council of Teachers of English
  • Women in the Arts
  • Women's Review of Books
  • Women Writers ISSN: 1535-8402535-8402
  • Women's Writing ISSN: 0969-9082 / ISSN: 1747-5848

Literary and review journals of women's writing

  • Australian Women's Book Review
  • BlueStockings Journal (Seitô-sha), founded in 1911
  • (1976-)Calyx
  • Fireweed (1977–)
  • Kalliope, a journal of women's literature & art
  • PMS poemmemoirstory (formerly Astarte, 1989–2000)
  • Room of One's Own (1975–)
  • So to Speak
  • Tiger Lily (1986–)
  • Women's Review of Books (1983–)

See also



  1. ^ Blain, Virginia, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. viii-ix.
  2. ^ Todd, Janet, ed. British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. London: Routledge, 1989. xiii.
  3. ^ Buck, Claire, ed.The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. Prentice Hall, 1992. vix; Salzman, Paul. Introduction, Early Modern Women's Writing. Oxford UP, 2000. ix.
  4. ^ Blain et al. vii; Todd xv; Spender, Dale, and Janet Todd. Anthology of British Women Writers. Harper Collins, 1989. xiii; Buck ix-x.
  5. ^ Spender & Todd xiii.
  6. ^ Buck xi.
  7. ^ Lonsdale, Roger ed. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. xliii.
  8. ^ Sandra M. Gilbert, "Paperbacks: From Our Mothers' Libraries: women who created the novel." New York Times, May 4, 1986.
  9. ^ Blain et al. viii.
  10. ^ Blain x; Buck x.
  11. ^ Term coined by Ellen Moers in Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1976). See also Juliann E. Fleenor, ed., The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983) and Gary Kelly, ed., Varieties of Female Gothic 6 Vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002).
  12. ^ Tiptree Jr., James; Silverberg, Robert (1975). Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New Yor: Ballatine. p. xii. 
  13. ^ Shirzad, F.; Musavi, Kh.; Atmani, S.; Azizeh, Kh.; Ahranjani; Iraji, S. (2013). "Gender Differences in EFL Academic Writing". International Journal of Academic Research Part B 5 (4): 79–87.  See p. 86.
  14. ^ Shirzad, F.; Musavi, Kh.; Atmani, S.; Azizeh, Kh.; Ahranjani; Iraji, S. (2013). "Gender Differences in EFL Writing". International Journal of Academic Research Part B 5 (4): 79–87.  See p. 79.
  15. ^ Lee, Jihyun (2013). "Can Writing Attitude and Learning Behavior Overcome Gender Difference in Writing?". Written Communication 30 (2): 164–193.  See p. 170.
  16. ^ Lee, Jihyun (2013). "Can Writing Attitude and Learning Behavior Overcome Gender Difference in Writing?". Written Communication 30 (2): 164–193.  See p. 176.
  17. ^ Arthur, Heather; Johnson, Gail; Young, Adena (2007). "Gender Differences in Color: Content and Emotion of Written Description". Social Behavior and Personality 35 (6): 827–835.  See p. 829.
  18. ^ Bair, Bettina. "Do Women Write Better Code?". Wall Street Journal Blogs. 
  19. ^ Wernimont, Jacqueline (2013). "Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives". Digital Humanties Quarterly 7 (1). 
  20. ^ Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893. Digital copy at Internet Archive
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