If I could give a book ten stars, I would give them to this book. Or maybe 20.
The entire book is quotable; it's difficult to pull out excerpts to illustrate how hammer-to-nail Spender is on so many issues. Even though she was, by 2000, a recognized authority on women's writing and women writers, none of my thesis readers had ever heard of her including the head of the women's studies department at ASU-West.
But here is just one example:
When I was doing my own research on language and sex, I was often perplexed by the way in which women's talk was categorized as "gossip" and dismissed frequently without a hearing. To satisfy my own curiosity, I did a content analysis of women's talk and compared it with men's talk on a number of occasions. When I realised that women could be talking philosophically about the rearing of the next generation while men were revealing a partisan preference for particular football teams -- and that the women's talk was dismissed as gossip while the men's was held to be more important and interesting -- I concluded that the values being ascribed were based on the sex and not the talk. The only sensible statement that I could make on the basis of my comparison was that when men "gossip" it is called something different.
The same thesis applies to the written word as well and has a distinct counterpart in the novel. Again, I have often been perplexed by the way women writers are undifferentiated and seen to write, en masse, the lowly form of romantic fiction. From Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland -- and despite all the dramatic diversity in between -- there is the implication that all women's writing is romance, in much the same way as all women's talk is gossip.
And a content analysis of the writing cannot possibly support such a classification scheme. Look at the domestic melodramas of Thomas Hardy, at the romances of D. H. Lawrence. Clearly when men write romance it's called something different. It is the sex and not the writing that is responsible for such judgement.
Italics are Spender's.
When I read that, in approximately 1994, I had to laugh at the pervasive discrimination as it had applied to me personally.
A couple of years earlier, I had been auditioning for a popular television game show. One of the questions posed to me and my two male fellow auditionees related to (American) football. When asked to name the professional football team located in the smallest host city, one of the guys answered Cleveland, the other I think said Detroit, both of which were wrong. The woman (!) conducting the audition then skipped to the next question, until I raised my hand and asked why she hadn't asked for my response. She actually told me she didn't think I'd know anything about football. Of course, I told her that the answer was Green Bay, Wisconsin. The two guys gave me dirty looks.
Another of my (many) favorite Spender quotes:
I have often wanted to place a D. H. Lawrence novel between the covers of Harlequin/Mills and Boon, and to test its status when seen in this light. And I am convinced that students would see the point of such an exercise and would not need to be persuaded about the importance of English studies in this context or the relevance of literature in life.
As a child, I read voraciously, and most of my reading was typical of the 1950s: Nancy Drew, Walter Farley's horse stories, Marguerite Henry's horse stories, and so on. After I read The Writing or the Sex, I looked back on my own childhood reading experiences in a very different light.
I never thought of Nancy Drew as a feminist, but of course she was, along with her two friends the slightly plump Bess and the slightly boyish George. I rarely saw the boyfriend Ned as the "hero," because I never saw Nancy as needing one.
I had also read just one of the Judy Bolton mysteries, The Unfinished House, many details of which I remember to this day.
Though the Black Stallion books featured a boy as the main character and so did many of Marguerite Henry's, one other book stood out in my memory from childhood: L. Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz. The main character, of course, was the intrepid Dorothy Gale of Kansas. Among Dorothy's allies in this novel was the equally intrepid yellow hen Billina. What a counter to the "chicken with its head cut off" Billina was! Of course I didn't know Baum's history then -- his mother-in-law was the ardent nineteenth century American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage -- but Dorothy and Billina were among my heroes, right alongside Nancy Drew.
So when I read Dale Spender, all those many years later, I knew exactly what she was talking about.
The friend who had recommended the book to me, a fellow romance writer, had done so because she said the book made her almost suicidal and she didn't want to be alone with those feelings. I read it in a day and called her back to tell her I'd never been so empowered. For the first time I understood why romance had been denigrated, and why women who wrote and read romance were dismissed.
It wasn't because of what we wrote and read. Rather, it was because we posed a challenge to the power of the men in power.
I've never looked back from that understanding.