The Life-Changing Lesson I Learned From Women Writers

I spent an exhilarating month in a world of women writers.

It was a pretty ordinary Monday in early March of 2016 (insofar as any day in New York can be ordinary), and I was leaving the school where I taught. As I walked down the stairs, surrounded by the hubbub of preteen prattle, I noticed a poster announcing the celebration of Women’s History Month, thirty-one days set aside to pay tribute to the wonderfully rich, diverse accomplishments of over half the world’s population. To be honest, the whole idea of WHM has often struck me as the same kind of well-intentioned offensiveness offered to us by Black History Month in February.

Brushing my cynicism away, I continued towards the L train. A flood of thoughts about WHM followed me down the sidewalk and into the station, where I stood on the platform waiting. I pulled out the book I was reading to escape my frenzied rush-hour commute. “The Summer Before the Dark,” by Doris Lessing. Lessing has been one of my favorite authors ever since I stumbled upon another of her beautifully crafted novels in a used bookstore several years ago. At that moment, the act of looking at this book sparked an idea. It occurred to me that although celebrating all of the women in the world in only thirty-one days is impossible, I could at least take this month to appreciate at least a few women writers. By the time I arrived in Brooklyn, I’d decided that each week in March I would read a new book by an author who is a woman.

On that day, I couldn’t have known what literary prowess I was about to venture into, how these words would score my spirit and stop my breath. I also had no idea how many questions this would raise for me — as a woman, an artist, a writer, and a reader. I was about to spend the rest of my March days (and nights) wondering about, worrying about, loving, laughing, and crying with the protagonists of these stories.

***

All of my reading material was chosen at random – either by recommendation or because they happened to be lying around. The only criteria I set for the project were that the books had to have been written by a woman, had to be new to me, and had to be novels. I ended up reading, in this order: “The Summer Before the Dark,” by Doris Lessing (UK, 1973); “Borderlife,” by Dorit Rabinyan (Israel, 2014); “OUT,” by Natsuo Kirino (Japan, 1997); “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston (USA, 1937), and “Orlando: a Biography,” by Virginia Woolf (UK, 1928).

***

All of the protagonists were women, except in Woolf’s “Orlando,” where the protagonist’s gender is fluid. In a world where we are constantly inundated by the narratives of cis white men across various media, it struck me as noteworthy that this random selection had so many leading women. The women in these stories felt different than any I’d ever read – more tangible, relatable, well-developed, sensitive, and all around realistic. Lastly, and this was the most striking, the struggle they all faced was extremely similar — they were all striving to realize their full potential within the constraints set for them by patriarchal figures of power in their respective societies. All of them. I couldn’t help but feel that if the characters in these books could get a beer together they’d get along just fine.

I became captivated by two questions. Is there truly such a thing as women’s art? And, if there is, do all women share a natural bond? My head said no, that this was a narrow thought, but I knew I needed to hear other perspectives and opinions. To find these, I reached out to my social media networks. I found myself immersed in scores of conversations about gender in art. My friends (and their friends) had lots of insights to share. I was, and am, extremely moved by the personal stories and by the honest, thoughtful answers to my questions. In fact, I received so many in-depth responses that it took a while to reply and to sort them in a way that made some sense. I can’t say I have definitive truths — gender is a deeply personal and therefore indefinite matter. But I can offer some thoughts about the responses and what they may signify for the society that we live in.

***

Of the thirty responses I received, seventeen were from women, ten were from men, and three were from non-binary individuals. Ages ranged from twenty-four to sixty, but most were thirty-three and under.

Two things stood out to me when I looked at all the stories I’d compiled. The first was more obvious and had to do with the stark division when it came to how gender plays a part in the artist’s work. Of the women, fourteen of the seventeen told me that their gender had an influence on their creative endeavors, even if that influence was only one part of their whole being. All of the non-binary conforming individuals felt the same way. Among the men this was not nearly as common — only one of the ten felt that being a man had a definite impact on his work. One man said maybe, and all the rest responded with a resounding “no.” Predictably, all of the women and non-binary responders had been asked this question in the past and had given it thought, whereas only four of the men had ever been asked to think about it. The picture being painted here was very clear: among my immediate peers, those who are a gender that’s perceived as a minority are necessarily more aware and are making active decisions about whether or not this aspect of their identities should impact their creative selves.

***

The second point I noticed wasn’t as clear or expected. When I asked my friends whether they naturally bonded with people who share their gender only one of the women said “no,” and only three of the men said “yes.” Neither non-binary responder related to this question. I had previously held the opinion that these natural connections were a fallacy, invented to flatten the dimensions of humans into a single stereotype. Why, then, were the responses pointing in a different direction?

It was trying to answer this question that led me straight into the jaws of a saber-tooth tiger.

***

During one late night conversation about gender in art, a friend told me about a theory called convergent evolution. When I looked it up, the writings I found gave me an interesting perspective on the answers I had collected. The New World Encyclopedia defines convergent evolution as:

“…the independent development of similar structures, forms, physiology, or behavior in organisms that are not closely related; that is, the evolution of a similar trait in diverse organisms that is attributed to a reason(s) other than sharing the trait in a common ancestor.”

In other words, even if we’re distinctly different in all ways, we can develop the same traits if our environments demand a similar reaction. Apparently, this happens all the time in paleontology. According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), a good example of two species that developed in this way is the Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger) and the Hoplophoneus (saber-toothed cat). They lived 20 million years apart yet they both developed the conspicuous teeth we associate with them. The UCMP site states, “The saber-tooth morphology is an excellent example of convergent evolution as it appeared in several evolutionary lineages independently. We present two saber-tooths, both classified in the order Carnivora, from different geological periods.”

So, theoretically speaking, we could be from very different cultures and still develop logical reactions over long periods of time to similar or identical societal and cultural constraints. Over enough years, maybe that reaction could develop itself into what we call “women’s culture.” Maybe it could be even perceived as a universal sisterhood.

This idea sounds great, and for a moment there I thought I’d solved it. But it’s not realistic to apply a theory of physical evolution to a cultural phenomenon without further research, and I’m not audacious enough to conflate the two here. Besides, this idea didn’t fit with all the responses. There were many responses from people who believed that gender was a factor, but it was one of numerous parts that make up their being. I only received a smattering of responses with unequivocally positive answers. Phoebe Potts, author and graphic artist of “Good Eggs” (Harper, 2010), replied that her gender “totally and emphatically” impacts her work. On the other hand, I received many middle-stream answers. One such response came from Eden Rayz, a Boston based cellist and composer who said, “Gender impacts my music as much as all of the attributes of my identity. Gender, in my perspective, is just one of infinitely many attributes of a human.” I began to ask myself what wisdom could be garnered from my search?

The answer seemed to be a chronological one. When I looked at people’s responses they began to tilt on an axis of age, with generally older respondents feeling a more powerful impact of their gender. This makes sense to me. The society in which we currently define our gender, or are socialized to do so, is vastly different than the one the generation before us lived in. Add to that the acceleration of change in some regions, albeit not even close to everywhere, and there’s bound to be some cultural fallout. The shackles of gender may not yet be cut from our wrists, but they are looser, in some ways, than they have been. With the increasing liberty to use our limbs, our universal experience may be evolving as well. It’s not outrageous to consider that people who grew up grappling with tighter bonds may be more aware of their relative freedom and thus connect more easily to those who have fought a similar battle.

***

We’re witnessing a significant shift in history, a moment in which we can truly see change occurring in our lifetime. We can both speak to and understand people whose work was perceived as gendered even when it wasn’t intended to be so and listen to others speak about how their gender is part of their whole being or who disregard its impact entirely. This may allow us a unique glimpse at the arc of history.

I believe that the next generation of artists will deal with different themes than the ones championed by those who preceded them. I believe that, increasingly, men will become aware of their gender as one of many defining factors. New disparities will continue to surface, and we will grow new teeth with which to defend and define ourselves. We may all figure out that with a such a dizzying richness of humanity out there, a gender binary isn’t nearly sufficient.

***

Women’s History Month certainly led me down a new trail of thought and sparked opportunities for me and my peers to reassess what we create, and why. My hope is that in the future we’re able to create a society that’s capable of appreciating diverse histories and cultures all year long. One day history and culture will be looked at as tales of the trials and accomplishments of all humans. That will be the day that we’re able to look at each other and see multifaceted beings, with an abundance of experience informed by the whole of our three-dimensional selves.

I’m grateful for the poster that started it all; without it I would never have spent an exhilarating month in a world of women writers and their stories. My experiment has given me a heightened awareness to the authors behind my reading material. It’s also led me to continuously ask questions about my creative work and that which I consume. Truly, I just don’t see things in the same light anymore. So, with that in mind, I’ll endeavor to make this Women’s History Month similarly fruitful. Let’s dive into the worlds of all kinds of women and their stories, think critically about the space we inhabit as creators and consumers, and change the status quo.

This piece originally appeared in Entropy Magazine under the title “Changing our Stripes Why Women Artists may be like Saber-Tooth Tigers.”


What Do You Think?