Banned Books and Women

Banned Books weeks is happening right now and as I was browsing all your posts and Tweets, I realized that there is a close connection between banned books, feminism and women, and after Emma Watson’s speech (‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’) I realized it was high time I wrote about it. Because I cannot even imagine what it is to be banned from reading books, or getting an education or reading stories about women who transgressed social rules, defying what was expected of them and being banned by society.

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So, to start, let’s look at what banned books are. It certainly sounds like something from the past, right? As with gender equality, it is still an issue even though some people choose to think otherwise. The Banned Books Week Website explains the origins of the week and goes on to challenge the supposed freedom we enjoy nowadays regarding books and narratives:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 307 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2013, and many more go unreported.

So, are almost 12,000 banned books in the last 32 years enough to make us question our freedom as readers and writers? And what did women have to do with all this? The Banned Books Website also lists the 10 most challenged titles of 2013, four of which were written by women: Toni Morrison, Suzanne Collins. E.L. James and Tanya Lee Stone. Not a bad percentage, but quite high when compared to the number of women writers reviewed in some newspapers I would rather not name. So, why is this?

Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women's education in 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (1792).
Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women’s education in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), since women were banned from getting an education.

Women have historically been linked to restrictions. For centuries, women were subjected to the patriarchal system embodied mainly – but not exclusively – by their male relatives, the church and the state. This resulted in women being banned from accessing the knowledge that would stop limiting them to their roles as wives and mothers. I am not a historian, so I cannot dwell on how women were restricted and banned from accessing knowledge in depth. However, Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) is a marvellous example of this, a must-read to understand why and how women have been subjected to the system of patriarchy. Need one example? Lerner explores how female sexuality has been constructed so as to subject women and ban them from the public sphere: “For women, sexual exploitation marked the very definition of enslavement, as it did not for men” […] women has been the very mark of women’s class oppression” [Chapter IV].

But, women’s exclusion from knowledge has been overt and it has also been pseudo-scientifically proved. The University of Cambridge allowed women to access higher education for the first time in 1869, however, these women were not taught the same subjects as their male counterparts. Such an old and conservative institution only started to accept women in the very same degrees men were getting in the second half of the 20th century, which is probably the same period when many of you were born (and so was I). The University of Oxford is proud to dedicate three paragraphs to the question ‘Who was the first woman graduate?’. They admit they cannot answer this question, because before 1920 women were allowed to attend lectures but were not given any kind of degree. After 1920, women were admitted. However, all this information begs the question: What kind of women were able to enjoy this? The quick, easy answer is upper-class women belonging to liberal families, since studying was even thought to dry up the ovaries – because all the blood went to the brain – and leave them useless, that is, useless as wives and mothers. If you are interested in this period of women’s history and the role British sufragettes played,  Lyndsey Jenkins is your woman. To include someone from my home country, Spanish writer Concepción Arenal disobeyed her parents and entered law lessons  as an unregistered student at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1841. She will later on become a specialist in law, a writer and an activist for women’s right to education. For a long time, it was rumored she dressed up as a man in order to be allowed into law lessons. However, this idea has been challenged and questioned in the last years.

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Spanish writer, lawyer and activist Concepción Arenal.

So, what about banned books by women? Well, I would say there are two categories of banned books by women. Can you name a female mathematician? Or a more than three female philosophers? And what about a female scientist that is not Marie Curie? As you can see, women and their works have been banned from entering the field of knowledge. Of course, they were first banned to learn, so the number of female thinkers is not the same as the number of male thinkers, but there were still many and they are famous for not being included on education curricula. The following are some examples that have stuck with me:

  • Hildergard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was a German composer, philosopher and abbess, and the author of some very progressive medicinal and scientific writings.
  • Katharina Von-Bora (1499 – 1552), Luther’s wife, played a key role on her husband’s religious enterprise.
  • Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596 -1662) exchanged letters with philosopher Descartes and he wrote Passions of the Soul (1649) as a consequence of their dialogue.
  • Émilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749) was a French physicist and mathematician who introduced Newton’s ideas in France.

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I chose these four examples because I think they are the most relevant, meaning they were women close to very important historical moments and/or people, yet their names are quite difficult to find. Luckily, as women were allowed to access higher education, they were able to see their works being influential, even though this happened little by little.

The second category of banned books by women is, as the name literally indicates, those works that were written by women and banned when they were written. The reasons were many and varied, but most of them appealed to the general’s public sanity and morals. These women writers were seen as corrupters of the established order and they were criminalized. Obviously, the reason their texts were banned are directly linked to the ideas the text contained, so that was easier for an extreme liberal woman to see her work banned when published. Two favourites of mine have been banned and I can see why. Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963 (why she needed to use a pseudonym is already a clue) and the book has been banned several times ever since. For the Love of Words has a great post about the book and why it has been banned. I can only add that Esther’s doubts regarding which path to take on her life – motherhood or a professional career – easily resonate with modern readers. Her suicidal attempts when feeling the suffocation of the patriarchy, telling her to stay at home and become a mother and a wife, and her own desire to break free were certainly key motives for the book to be banned in the most conservative historical periods following its publication.

But, my personal favourite is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) which you can find free at Project Gutenberg.

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This book was banned right after being published and, later on, censored. Chopin’s main character, Edna Pontellier, is a complex and realistic female character. She belongs to the upper-middle class of Louisiana and sees herself trapped in a marriage where she is not happy and with so many children that she feels suffocated. She later on feels a sexual attraction to a local and younger man, the starting point of Edna’s fall into disgrace in the conservative Southern society. She even leaves her husband and children to live alone while trying to live out the life she could have had as a single, childless woman. However, society bans her behavior and Edna’s only way out – as it was custom for this women – was suicide. This ending was applauded by conservative audiences, but it did a lot to portray the socially cul-de-sac women were forced to live in as wives and mothers. I read this book when I was only 21, but it changed my life because it showed me that life as a wife and as a mother is not everyone’s dream, and that was fine. The Awakening is not a book on the horrors of being a mother and a wife, but more an experiment on the possibility of choosing whether to get married and have children or not. For Kate Chopin’s contemporaries, this possibility was still a dream and Chopin chose to use literature to both experiment a what if and to inscribe women’s silenced sexuality and lack of options in life.

So, women have long been related to banned books and banned knowledge. However, as time goes by and gender equality starts to resonate with everyone – see Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations if you have not – I hope that this connection disappears. Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that by not reviewing women’s books, they are being banned. By talking about ‘chick-lit’ or ‘women’s books’ we are being banned from entering the so-called ‘general literature’ world. If you are interested in joining the talk about banned books, here are some resources:

Banned Books Shortlist 2013 – 2014

Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st century

Worried about your library? Check this Challenges to Library to make sure you are not being censored.

Join the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to make sure women authors get the attention and praise they deserve.

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4 thoughts on “Banned Books and Women

  1. Interesting post – thank you! I recently read John Guy’s book ‘The Children of Henry VIII’ which highlighted the difference in male and female access to education and books in general even at the top of society at that time. He showed how royal Princes were educated in public speaking and other things that would fit them to be rulers, whereas Princesses, even in the line of succession, were trained up to be marriage prizes. Interestingly, he suggests that Elizabeth’s supporters secretly made sure she had access to education beyond the accepted female boundaries, enabling her to become the successful ruler she was. But of course she was unable ever to marry because then her husband would have automatically become her master…

    It’s fascinating to think that it’s only in the last few years that female children now have an equal right to succeed to the throne in the UK. Equality finally achieved at just about the time the whole institution is seen as outmoded…

  2. This is a fascinating post. Thanks for writing it. I think a lot of women (myself included) still struggle with the career/motherhood divide and it is ridiculous that this should be so but the societal set up of working life has not sufficiently moved on from the patriarchal line of thinking. The common response that it is so because women are the natural incubators of children for the first 9 months is, to my mind, no excuse at all. I have never read Chopin’s book but your post has me intrigued.

  3. Interesting post, thanks Elena. I’ve had quite a lot of stuff in my FB news feed about it being banned books week. I should have paid more attention!

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