Back To School: The Missing Women

10th Sep 2012

Doris Day at a blackboard

The New York Times recently published an article claiming new research shows that stories actively ‘stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.’ Since the beginning of our development, stories have been crucial in furthering our understanding of the human condition.

As such, it’s important that we don’t learn about the world and its stories predominantly through one gender’s perspective. Whilst female novelists are slowly and painstakingly gaining visibility in the English Literature syllabus for GCSE and A Level, they still only make up approximately 30%. Women need much more representation in the educational system.

There are so many talented women writers to choose from that selection is no easy task, but let’s start with Daphne du Maurier.

Du Maurier wrote fifteen novels, two plays, twelve non-fiction works and approximately six short story collections. She’s most famous for her novel Rebecca, and her work has received numerous television and film adaptations.

Yet du Maurier often suffers at the hands of literary critics, resulting in academic exclusion. She spent her life trying to defy her categorisation as a romantic novelist, but couldn’t always achieve acceptance as one of the ‘intellectual heavyweights’ of our literary heritage.

Du Maurier’s writing style is intense, simultaneously humorous and devastating, and displays an incredible command of narrative craft. Her plots are focused and her characters full of psychological depth.

Unlike romantic novelists, she rarely opts for the conventional happy ending. Thematically, she voyages deep into key facets of the literature syllabus – love, relationships, gender, class. So why not du Maurier?

Well, there’s no question that she exposes the complexity of relationships between men and women in a raw form. Her short story The Doll explores the sexual freedom a woman encounters with a futuristic sex doll, favouring this object over its human (male) counterpart.

It exposes a possessive male protagonist losing his mind over an unobtainable woman. It’s not a raunchy read – perfectly suitable for secondary level – but it’s a read that’s deeply rooted in feminist values.

In My Cousin Rachel, the male narrator destroys his life through a flawed interpretation of female behaviour. It’s an unrelenting, beautifully crafted story of a young man who so buys into societal myths about women that he destroys his hope of ever finding happiness. The writing is flawless but again, like so much of her work, it’s deeply rooted in feminist perspective. Is that the problem?

Then there’s Sarah Waters. A hugely popular, award-winning writer whose work has received film and television adaptation, but again lacks academic recognition.

Such an astounding command of plot and structure, such complex protagonists, and such expertly crafted language isn’t born from an average literary mind. She’s one of the greats.

The exploration of love, sexuality, class, relationships romantic, platonic and cross-generational, all under the most meticulously detailed historical back-drop come together to form the beauty of her style. The detailed world of the prison she creates in Affinity is one of the most arresting visual descriptions I’ve ever read.

The male narrator in The Little Stranger is utterly compelling, guiding us through the newly-faced economic distress of the upper classes in a changing society, with a wonderful collection of fascinating female characters offering diversity and valour. Again, all of Sarah Waters’ work feels deep-rooted in feminist perspective.

Finally, the wonderful Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield does receive a brief mention in English Literary Heritage academia, but she’s by no means a set text and, in my experience, it’s rare that teachers choose her for study.

Mansfield is often credited with the revolution of the short story in England. In her Journals, John Middleton Murry states ‘Many writers have tried to carry on her work; not one has come within a measurable distance of success […] and of the many critics who have tried to define the quality of her work which makes it so inimitable, everyone has been compelled to give up the attempt in despair.’ She’s certainly a woman who deserves more attention in the academic arena.

So, as the literature syllabus displays a keen interest in the thematic content masterfully explored by these three writers, and their success is marked by their considerable readership, why aren’t they included?

It would seem that the feminist nuances of the Brontës’ work is a safer bet. Their place on the syllabus is entirely deserved, but I can’t help feeling that feminism feels safer when you have a few centuries’ distance to keep it at arms’ length.

Without a solid, consistent and real presence from some of our greatest women writers, we’re in danger of denying our next generation a diverse and inclusive literary education.

And finally, if you haven’t yet devoured the works of these three, you’ve got treats in store. Who would you love to see on a future GCSE, A Level or university syllubus? Who is ignored and why?

Kate Kerrow

(Image via velvettangerine)


  • Jane Bradley says:

    I was very lucky to study Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as part of my degree – all books (and authors) that have since become all-time favourites, and getting to talk about and analyse them in detail were some of the most enjoyable parts of the course.

    I always felt so privileged that authors like Sylvia Plath, Michele Roberts and Carol Ann Duffy were included in my GCSE English anthology. Definitely made me want to explore more of their work, and a great cross-section of both classic and contemporary poetry and prose. And studying Frankenstein at secondary school was a brilliant in-depth introduction to Mary Shelley too.

    As for someone I’d like to see more of, I’m always sad that I didn’t discover Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle until adulthood – I’d love to see that being taught in schools. It’s so accessible to young adults, and there’d be so much to talk about in terms of class, character, mood and more.

  • Abbi De Carteret says:

    I studied all of the above during my degree. I also studied a lot of Margaret Atwood (four or five books I think). There was a lot of emphasis across all our modules on the female writer and feminist perspectives.

    • June Hughes says:

      I think it’s much better at degree level – the article discusses GCSE and A Level which are sadly more problematic.

      • Abbi De Carteret says:

        I’m so old now I can’t actually remember what I studied at GCSE except for Romeo and Juliet. I know I studied Alice Walker at A-level but yes aside from that it was a lot of dead white men, but my teachers at A-level were hardly radical so probably not surprising. (I did my degree as an mature student).

  • Claire says:

    I’d love to see more Rebecca West on the syllabus. A fantastic novelist, journalist and travel writer who’s strangely neglected as far as I’m concerned.

  • Abbi De Carteret says:

    And to add I hated A-level English – it nearly destroyed my love for the subject completely.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Me too. John Donne and John Webster were some of my most hated texts ever.

      • Jess says:

        I loved John Donne!
        I think the biggest problem is our overdependence on Shakespeare. Through the exclusion of a female alternative to the plays section we learn that literature is essentially deemed ‘male’ if it is any good. We need to reclaim some female playwrites. I was lucky enough to be doing Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Pyschosis for Drama GCSE at the same time, but I can’t think of one female play we did otherwise.
        Poetry for me for completly equally spilt between genders in GCSE and A Level, and as for books, I studied Lord of the Flies for GSE, but for A Level I did Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I also got to choose two novels to compare and did The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (written by a man, but about as feminist a piece of fiction as you can get) and The Color Purple.

  • June Hughes says:

    ‘I really enjoyed reading the women writers I read at school – issue is there weren’t enough of them and it’s still at around 30% for prose, though more equal for poetry with Duffy as Poet Laureate. Be nice to see equal representation across the board though. It’s a long time in coming.’

  • Jess says:

    What I’d like to see- I Caputure The Castle but also Dear Octopus the play. I also think it is important to understand that many writers had to pretend to be men to get published, this could further understand the ingrained prejudice against women’s writing stemming from Victorian times. I’d also like to see more analysis on the oral tradition and fairy stories, and examination into how these stories developed and where they came from.