Probing Question: How is 'women's literature' defined?

By Melissa Beattie-Moss
September 08, 2015

Welcome to the waning days of summer and the start of fall semester. In college classrooms across the country, professors are handing out syllabi in Intro to Women's Literature classes, preparing to discuss the most important contributions of women writers in the English language. Meanwhile, on beaches across the country, women can still be found lounging on the sand with page-turner novels in hand.

Does women's literature refer to any book written by a woman or for a female audience? Or is it a distinctly academic genre that examines how women authors have explored the female experience through the socio-political context of their eras?

"It's fair to say that the term 'women's lit' covers everything from the yearnings of fairytale princesses to the brilliant contributions of freethinking literary innovators," says Manini Samarth, senior lecturer in English and women's studies at Penn State.

Some works belong primarily to the marketplace of ideas and others to the commercial marketplace, she explains. "The women's fiction market includes a billion-dollar publishing category centered around 'Chick Lit,' produced for a female readership through targeted marketing strategies," she explains. "These books -- such as Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series, or Jennifer Weiner's bestselling novels -- often explore domestic or romantic relationships from a female-centered perspective."

While some in the Ivory Tower may sniff at this genre of contemporary women's fiction, the publishing industry embraces it as big business, says Samarth. Women buy books and read books at a much higher rate than men, she notes. "Surveys suggest that the typical woman reads nine books in a year, compared with five for men. Some studies in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. show that men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market. Book club members in these countries are mostly women."

What explains the 'fiction gap' between men and women? "There are varied explanations," Samarth says. "Neuroscientists have found women to have greater empathy, a trait that connects them more instinctively to characters and motives in fiction. Other research suggests that girls can sit still for longer periods than boys, a behavior that influences sustainable reading habits. What's more, sociologists point out the consensus-building nature of book clubs, a hub for women's supportive community."

Yet no line of analysis fully explains the gap, believes Samarth. "The fact remains that women continue to read fiction by men; but men don't necessarily read fiction by women," she notes. "To reach a wider audience over 150 years ago, the Brontë sisters assumed male pen names, as did George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, and George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans."

Even today, says Samarth, "J.K. Rowling -- whose publisher, Scholastic, claims that more boys have read the Harry Potter series than girls -- was told by her British publisher to avoid using her real name, Joanne, because a female writer would put off a young male readership. Their strategy apparently worked."

Women writers have not just had to change their names, but perhaps accommodate their writing styles as well, explains Samarth. "From the time of the early 18th century, 'high' prose' was determined by characteristics like order, wit, balance, and accuracy -- a style in keeping with assumptions of upper-class male identity. Women were exhorted to 'write like a man,' a dictum that British women novelists such as Jane Austen appropriated in their use of cool, ironic prose. (Interestingly, adds Samarth, Austen is a polarizing figure in this high-brow vs. low-brow debate. She has a fervently devoted fan-base of female readers and is considered by many to be the queen of English literature, whereas others argue that she produced overrated romances, "chick lit in 19th century costumes" as one critic called her novels.)

In some ways, the commercial marketplace may offer women writers a more level playing field than academia and the literary canon, notes Samarth. While women writers are well-represented on the contemporary fiction bestseller lists, the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century identified in 1998 by the Modern Library Series includes only nine written by women.

"Certainly no one is beating a drum here to require literary quotas," she says. "The problems lie deeper, arising from limiting definitions of women as nurturing, emotional, non-intellectual entities who simply don't write as well as men. And that of course leads to a related question: Who determines literary value, and is there a gendered component to such valuation?" To put it more simply, says Samarth, "By governing literary consensus, women write for women, and men write for the public. Given these parameters, the choice of only nine novels by women in the Modern Library's list isn't that surprising after all."

There is a category of work by women writers "that goes beyond the purpose of commercially profitable entertainment," Samarth explains, "namely the work taught in literature and women's studies classes by women playwrights, poets, novelists, and essayists who have used the written word to question their traditional roles, to contest hierarchies in political and social power, and to seek justice and significance in their everyday lives. Mary Wollstonecraft's philosophical treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman set a trajectory that women writers -- including Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood among so many others -- have followed since, a trajectory that combines literary excellence with advocacy."  

"What does the future hold for women writers?" may not ultimately be the critical question for society, believes Samarth. With the number of people reading for pleasure in steep decline, the most important factor for writers, regardless of gender, may be whether we reinvigorate a love of books and reading among the next generations. "Women's writing will somehow be a part of this as yet indeterminate future of book production and consumption, but to what extent and within what parameters, we can only imagine."


Manini Samarth is a senior lecturer in English and Women's Studies and can be reached at

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Last Updated July 28, 2017