If I asked you to name a significant writer from history, who springs to mind?
Let’s ask Google:
Ain’t no ladies or a single person of colour in that line-up.
You can edit the search query quite a bit before you see Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, but, overwhelmingly, you’re greeted with white men.
For it to survive, patriarchy must reinforce male dominance. In the Western world, it must establish that (white) male significance, (white) male success and (white) male achievement are not only the norm, but they are natural. (White) men are just better at certain things, it tells us, and that’s why we remember them.
But if we take our patriarchy-tinted glasses off for a minute, the story that emerges isn’t history at all. It’s hers and it ain’t white.
Enheduanna: The First Named Author and Poet In History
Until recently, I'd never heard of Enheduanna, but I should have. Enheduanna was an ancient Sumerian princess and high priestess. More importantly, she was the first named author and poet in history. Her poetry is dedicated to the goddess, Inanna.
It was in your service
That I first entered
The holy temple,
The high priestess,
I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Enheduanna was hugely influential and popular during her lifetime and for centuries afterwards.
This image of Enheduanna was uncovered in 1926.
Murasaki Shikibu: The First Novelist in History
Written around 1010, The Tale of Genji is thought to be the first novel ever written. Its author - Murasaki Shikibu - was a Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting. It was poorly and partially translated into English in 1882 and into Modern Japanese in the early 20th century.
So why should we care about these women writers? What importance do they hold for us today?
Well, the fact that we don't remember them makes me think of what Caroline Criado-Perez calls the "Brilliance Bias." This is the idea that when we think about brilliance, we don't automatically think of women. In her words:
"When brilliance is considered a requirement for a job, what is really meant is 'a penis.' Several studies have found that the more a field is culturally understood to require 'brilliance' or 'raw talent' to succeed ... the fewer women there will be studying and working in it."
If we are ever going to dispel patriarchal ideas, like the Brilliance Bias, we need to start by rewriting women, especially women from the Global Majority, back into the story. Because ideas that women are not brilliant, that they do not have anything significant to say, that they cannot compete with men, are dangerous. They harm everyone in our society.
And, quite frankly, I've had enough of them.
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