Telling (and Forgetting) Women’s Stories

As I revisit the beginning of my book and consider what makes the best sort of biographical opening, a friend suggests to me that maybe when you’re writing about a woman’s life, the family part is more important than if you were writing about a man. This has sent me back to Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life, first published in 1988, and Between Women, a collection of essays by women biographers first published in 1984. Both were written at a time when feminists were wrestling with the difficulties of writing truthfully about the lives of women, which have traditionally been cast as romance plots rather than quest plots. The latter, of course, make better biographies. And the lives of women of the past can’t be put into that mold very easily.

In the quest plot, the family of origin would need to be acknowledged but then quickly dismissed. For the male hero, the family is not much more than a jumping off point. In the romance plot, the emphasis would be on the young woman breaking away from her family as well. Woolson’s life fits into neither narrative arc. There was as romance, but it failed. She stayed at home, caring for her parents, until her father’s death. Then she became an author to support herself and her mother and they travelled all over the South, always in search of a climate to help extend her mother’s life. “So much for myself,” Woolson wrote once, of her continually thwarted desire to travel to Europe. Her mother came first. But after her mother’s death, she could put herself first. She could live independently as an artist.

When her mother died, when Woolson was thirty-nine, she should have felt liberated. Instead, she suffered a severe depression that I think was caused by more than grief. She was experiencing an identity crisis. She was no longer a daughter, her primary identity for almost forty years. Even though she was a famous author, she still didn’t think of herself in those terms. She defined herself by her relationship to others. From then on, she would cling to the identity of an aunt.

Since the eighties, there hasn’t been much written about what it means to write a woman’s life story, as opposed to a man’s. Writers have simply been doing it without reflecting on it too much, as far as I can tell. In the process, new narratives have been created, which I have written about before. While I am in full sympathy with the feminist narrative of thwarted power, I find myself more drawn to a narrative that recognizes the forgotten successes of women of the past. And to questions about why they have been forgotten. I wonder if by focusing on the insurmountable obstacles we have obscured the very real achievements that are part of the story as well.

In the process, we have resurrected a few women and left many languishing in obscurity. Emily Dickinson was the first 19th-century American woman writer to survive into the 20th century, perhaps because she had to be discovered in the first place. A few others since then have made it into literary immorality: Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and maybe, on a good day, Sarah Orne Jewett and Margaret Fuller. Those of us who teach American literature of the period know many more names, but the general public does not. When it comes to the 20th century, many, many more women writers are widely known. Yet dozens of earlier writers were popular and influential in their day. I wonder if their disappearance has anything to do with the narratives we tell of women’s lives. I’ll have to think more about that.

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