Reading Women Across Time and Culture

Ignace Spiridon, "So Far From Home"

Ignace Spiridon, "So Far From Home"

Recently, various Internet campaigns have begun to give more attention to literature created by women, focusing on everything from people who made the decision to read only women writers for a year to those who put together reading clubs for the purpose. These initiatives did not discriminate and were found in both the English and Hispanic literary worlds.

The media has greeted this as something new, and people – usually men – have commented that gender does not matter when talking about "good literature" because both men and women can write great books. We do not wish to downplay the importance of male authors or to deny their books. We only want to recognize and make visible the work of great female authors, who little by little have been included in the "Classic Canon" but are still at a disadvantage. Ask yourself, how many women did you read during your studies? How many men?

I also believed that this was a new phenomenon, a product of the popularization of feminism and social media, but I was greatly surprised to learn while working on my undergraduate thesis that this was not the case. Focusing on reading women was far from a new phenomenon. My research was focused on the representation of women as readers in Familia(Family), a magazine produced for and by women during the Belle Époque in Chile. The magazine featured reading clubs that sought to increase women’s education, but I also found a section dedicated to female authors under the title of "Great contemporary women authors.”

At this point, I need to contextualize. During this period, the Chilean intellectual elite was related to European culture, especially French. Therefore, although there were a variety of women writers, this section was primarily devoted to European authors.

Both of the reviews I’m going to consider here were written by Angel Guerra. So, although our source is a women's magazine, these literary critiques were made by a man. One of the first authors reviewed was Selma Lagerlof, the first woman who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Said prize made her gain attention in Chile. The review published in January 1910 highlights the connection between her stories and the Scandinavian tradition, accompanied by her particular way of narrating.

The other commentary of interest is on a favorite author for many of us: Edith Wharton. It might seem strange that Wharton was reviewed in a women's magazine in a conservative and seemingly isolated country like Chile in 1911. Why then? In the article, Wharton is defined as one of the great modern writers, presenting The House of Mirthas a reflection of New York society through a sociological and artistic view. The review goes further and refers to particular issues addressed by Wharton, such as divorce – that only became legal here in 2004 – and the fear of loneliness faced by different women. The column emphasizes Wharton's approach to female characters and their relations with society and themselves.

The fact that women could read about divorce in a widely circulated magazine and learn about literature that addresses such issues, was thanks to the visualization and promotion of works written by female authors. The above is an example of why we find great importance in reading women. Not only does doing so allow us to know other worlds, but it also allows us to get closer to the lives of different women through time and space. Reading their work allows us to imagine the unimaginable, such as marrying for love or women’s right to divorce, a hundred years before it was common in Chile. In a more contemporary context, imagining and knowing about the life of Nigerian women in the USA, as when we read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, allows us to expand our worldview. Through female authors, we are able to get closer to other ways of being a woman and, in turn, to ourselves.

We can read and support women’s literature in so many different ways, ranging from our  personal readings, to enrolling in a book club, and if we have the opportunity, in our work. Inspired by the above, here is a short list of Latin American female authors. Through their work, you can appreciate the lives of women from different countries and times:

  • Gabriela Mistral, Chilean: Educator, diplomat, poet and the first Latin American to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy described her poetry as "inspired by powerful emotions.” The central themes in her work are mother's love, sorrow and recovery, and the mixture of Latin American identity.
  • Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan: The Inhabited Womanfollows two parallel stories: the first about indigenous resistance to the Spanish colonization and the second, the modern insurgency in Central America. Both stories share themes surrounding women’s emancipation.
  • Alejandra Pizarnik, Argentinian: Her poetry was influenced by many places, from French symbolism to Surrealism. Her work is rich in imagery and focused on loneliness, pain, and death. 
  • María Luisa Bombal, Chilean: One of the first Latin American novelists who broke away from realist fiction and wrote about subconscious themes.  This would lead her to incorporate the inner world of her women protagonists, who were mired in melancholy atmospheres and sombre roles.
  • Wendy Guerra, Cuban: In Everyone Leaves,the protagonist begins recording her life (and the politician background always important in Cuba) in the pages of the Diary that will become her friend and her home throughout her childhood and adolescence.

Nataly Ramírez Baeza studied History & Education. Her research focuses on the History of Reading and Women Readers. She has a Spanish blog named 'Vanidades Mundanas' and loves to watch period dramas.