The Place of Women in Autobiography and Memoir

At the end of every school term, we get pestered with email after email requesting the same thing: please fill out your course evaluations! Usually, unless allotted time during lectures, I do not take the ten minutes required to fill out the online survey filled with boring “scale of one to ten” questions. I’m all for making a change – voting, for example, is very important to me – but I generally don’t find enough faults within a class to prioritize the evaluation of it over end-of-term essays or exam revision that occupies my mind and my time during the evaluation window. Be that as it may, there is one major concern that has prompted me in the past, and again this term, to provide feedback on a course: a lack of female authors on a course reading list. UBC is generally competent when it comes to fulfilling a diversity quota regarding the readings in English classes, and unless the course specifically focuses on a male author, such as courses Chaucer or Shakespeare, one can usually guarantee that at least one female author will feature within the course. However, not every course has enough work written by women. This is a subjective view, of course, but when a class with a title as broad as ‘World Literature’ only has four works by female authors on a twenty-five-text reading list, it is pretty undeniable that something isn’t quite right.

Virginia Woolf

This term, I had the pleasure of studying abroad through the Go Global Program at King’s College London, in the United Kingdom. Although most of my classes were highly enjoyable, and many were even gynocentric (for example, I took a course exclusively on Virginia Woolf), I was unfortunately not surprised that at least one of my courses focused almost entirely on white male authors. The course was titled ‘Autobiography and Modern Self-Representation.’ The single text written by a female author in the entirety of the course was Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which shared it’s allotted week of the course (one lecture and one seminar per week) with James Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. The class was primarily female, with only three male students, although it was taught by a male lecturer and teaching assistant.

It was during our discussion of Stein and Joyce’s works that one of my (female) peers abruptly looked up from her notes and said, with a slightly horrified expression, “Is this the only text by a woman that we’ll be reading?” There was an uncomfortable silence as our TA nodded. “Why is that?” asked my classmate. The TA shrugged and replied that the most well known pieces of truly autobiographical work were written by men. He added that this was the reason why we were studying Stein’s work in the week devoted to texts that blur the lines between autobiography and fiction. “But how am I, a woman, supposed to learn about modern self-representation when we aren’t studying texts that have any female representation?” I thought to myself. I began to think about autobiographical texts by women that I had enjoyed. The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai topped my mental list. Yet the more texts I began to think of, the more I realized that my TA was right; the books that came to mind were better classified as memoirs than true autobiographies.

Gertrude Stein

The terms ‘autobiography’ and ‘memoir’ have been widely analyzed and defined by various literary critics over the years. Generally, it is agreed upon that the terms differ in the sense that autobiographies tell the story of the author’s life, usually in order to offer insight on who the author is and how they came to be that way, whereas a memoir is a more topical form of writing, and is used shed light on a problem, state of being, or time period through the author’s experiences with that topic. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots tells the story of his life, from his childhood into his adulthood as a writer, while Susan Juby’s Nice Recovery focuses on Juby’s experiences with addiction and recovery.

As I began to think more and more about the subject, I began to realize that all the seeming ‘autobiographies’ I had read by women were actually more fittingly categorized as memoirs. Even texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, a text that is commonly regarded as an autobiography, only covers the author’s formative years in Paris from 1929-1944, and focuses on specific themes of gender and relationships. I started to give some thought as to why this might be, and came up with a slightly radical but ostensibly accurate theory. Historically, society has been structured as a patriarchy, with a definite sense of androcentricity in most areas of life, including literature and education. My belief is that autobiographies in their purest form tend to be written primarily by men because for a long time women’s narratives were less valued, and therefore it was harder to have a self-representative text published and well-received as a woman, unless it was topical and therefore of interest to the general public. This is also why, in my opinion, ‘true autobiographies’ by women have only recently began to become a popular form, with celebrity autobiographies by the likes of Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling becoming renowned sensations. As society begins to become more embracing and interested in female narratives, the autobiographical works of women have begun to flourish.

Personally, I’m excited by the recent influx of autobiographies written by women. It’s given me a better sense of how to represent myself in my writing, as well as an appreciation for contemporary writers who I may have otherwise overlooked. I can only hope that by submitting a suggestion on a course evaluation, many more English students will have the opportunity to explore these works for themselves and gain their own sense of what it means to engage in modern self-representation, regardless of their gender.

Leah Girvitz is a Torontonian poet and topical writer, in her third undergraduate year at UBC. She is an English literature major and creative writing minor, and is currently studying abroad at King’s College London. Leah’s interests and aspirations include working in the field of entertainment law, and abolishing the patriarchy.

Images: public domain

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