Finding Role Models for Women Writers
I feel compelled to jump onto my feminist soapbox and wave my agro feather-duster whenever I think about Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. All three of whom have been celebrated as a kind of holy trinity in works such as Bowditch’s The Ophelia Project. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with celebrating these writers’ lives and I’m sure Rachel Bowditch had nothing but noble intentions.
But it’s been worrying me a lot lately that women writers who commit suicide seem to be afforded a special iconic status in society. Heck, we even have our own South African version of the tragic woman poet in the form of Ingrid Jonker. You know the story: sensitive woman writer can’t cope with this cruel world so she tops herself by walking into the sea. What’s disturbing is that women like these seem to draw a special kind of media adoration. And what’s the message then? Women are too weak to handle their own talent? Society will deify you as a woman writer if you first make reparation for your sex by destroying yourself? Hey, Shakespeare didn’t have to do that.
Yes, I know, if you want to blow this argument out of the water, so to say, you could sneakily mention Vincent van Gogh, who wrote poetry as well as painting irises and sunflowers. I can hear Don McLean strumming his guitar now: “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” And then there’s Ernest Hemingway of course. Still, with these women it seems to be their suicide that’s amplified, rather than the less grim details of their lives.
And I can’t help wondering why we don’t focus more on women writers like Vera Brittain or Leonora Carrington. Brittain nursed mutilated soldiers in the First World War, losing her fiancé and her beloved brother in the conflict. Judging from the symptoms she describes in her autobiography, she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her war experiences. But she went on to be a successful journalist and novelist, living to the age of 76. Carrington coped with mental illness, her lover’s arrest by the Nazis, and exile in a foreign country – and she managed to write, paint and sculpt. She died of pneumonia a few days ago at the grand age of 94. Now, there are good role models for women writers – with no stones in their pockets either.
Linda Ann Strang’s ‘Wedding Underwear for Mermaids‘ is out now, priced £6.99/$10.99.
Tags: anne sexton, feminism, feminist writers, Ingrid Jonker, las, leonora carrington, rachel bowditch, south african poetry, sylvia plath, the ophelia project, vera brittain, virginia woolf, women writers
I think the idea that genius and madness go hand in hand (for both sexes) is emphasized to the point of almost becoming a cliché. You are right, different role models would be refreshing. How about painter Georgia O’Keeffe?
Thank you for the response. Your comment has given me the idea of compiling a list of women writers and artists who lived exceptionally inspiring lives. I’ll work on it and try to post it on ‘Honest’, so watch this space. If you have any more role models in mind please share them with me. Geogia O’ Keeffe is a good one.
All the best