Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou – with such a wealth of brilliant women writers from past and present literary history, you’d have thought it would be easy for official school curriculums to do a fairly good job of including at least a few.
But, it turns out, that’s not always the case – at least not according to the many replies to this tweet from trainee English teacher Scott Wilson, anyway.
“Did anyone read novels / plays by female authors at school?” Wilson asked his Twitter followers. “I can only remember studying female poets - Lochhead, Duffy - but never playwrights or novelists.”
And the answers, by and large, were pretty bloody depressing.
“I’ve thought long and hard about this and I honestly don’t recall studying any female-authored novel until my second year of A Level when I got three at once - Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Angela Carter,” wrote one Twitter user. “Even the poems I did in school were mostly by men.”
“Jean Rhys & Emily Bronte were pretty much it until I hit Uni,” someone else replied; another said that they studied “female zero authors.” “Zero!” they said. “And I went to an all girl’s school!”. A current GCSE student wrote that “even now, in the new GCSE English Lit, we only study a few female poets, and no female playwrights or novelists”.
And another recent student said that in 2016 her class “didn’t study a single female author”.
“I loved Austen and the Brontës,” she wrote. “When I asked my teacher why, she said because boys don’t do as well in English, so we were deprived to keep the boys entertained. If we don’t learn the brilliance of women at school when will we?”.
The petition was launched after significant exam reforms changed the way GCSEs were structured – and For Books’ Sake said that they “had hoped that the boards would take this revision process as an opportunity to make a real, tangible commitment to equality and diversity”.
Instead, after analysing course specifications to work out a gender breakdown of set tests, they found that representation of women was only getting worse.
“With over 500,000 GCSEs students sitting exams annually, the texts set by the exam boards have a huge impact and influence,” they wrote at the time. “It’s becoming more and move heavily skewed towards white men, a demographic with a long-standing tradition of dominating past and present literary heritage, to the exclusion of women writers.”
And 2017’s annual Vida count, which each year analyses gender and racial representation in literature, painted an equally depressing picture of the current state of play. It found that white men still dominate the top jobs in literary criticism – leaving women and people of colour on the sidelines. The books reviewed by such literary journals, too, were overwhelmingly authored by men – meaning that women are unfairly underrepresented at every level.
Women are writing brilliant, visionary books – and always have been. And in 2018, we think it’s high time they were recognised for it.