Joanna Williams

Gender neutrality and the war on women’s literature

Gender neutrality and the war on women's literature
Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Text settings

Education has become embroiled in a culture war and rather than extricating itself politely, it just keeps digging. What gets taught has long been subject to debate: move beyond the basics and you rapidly head into dangerous terrain (although, look hard enough, and you will find those prepared to argue that even maths and spelling are racist). Now it’s not just taught content but the name of modules that is under the woke microscope.

One of the UK’s leading exam boards, OCR, has proposed renaming the ‘Women in Literature’ section of its A level English courses. It is taking votes on new titles: ‘gender in literature’ or ‘representing gender’.

But ‘women’ and ‘gender’ are not simply interchangeable: they mean entirely different things. ‘Women in Literature’ suggests novels, plays or poems written by women or focusing on the experience of womanhood. There is a vast quantity of excellent work that fits this criteria. You could kick off with Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, before moving to Virginia Woolf, then perhaps Toni Morrison or Sylvia Plath before coming up to date with Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt.

‘Gender in Literature’, on the other hand, is far more nebulous. Every author has a gender and so the module could include work by anyone. But when everyone is included, work by women about being women is lost in the melee. 

As we see time and again, gender neutrality means, in practice, the erasure of women. Health professionals refer to ‘pregnant people’ or ‘individuals with a cervix’. It’s women’s toilets that become unisex. The made-up ‘womxn’ replaces the offensive ‘woman’. OCR say they want to create a more diverse curriculum. But swapping ‘women’ for ‘gender’ erases the female voice from the study of literature and makes the curriculum narrower.

In reality, simply being male or female is unlikely to see authors qualify for the ‘Gender in Literature’ module. Those worthy of consideration will either probably have to be transgender or write about their struggles with gender norms. It will be Juno Dawson, Caitlyn Moran and Robert Webb on repeat. An obsession with gender is very much a modern preoccupation – the word has only been used as a synonym for sex since the mid-twentieth century. As such, we risk trapping children in the present when the power of literature is its capacity to transport us through space and time.

OCR claims that modernising its curricula will help ensure a fair balance of ‘genders, races, ages, disabled/non-disabled people and cultures of characters (are) portrayed in images throughout assessment material’. But an identity checklist is a terrible way to determine curriculum content. Literature students deserve access to the very best that has been written and performed. Instead, they are effectively being asked to value work because the author is black or transgender or in a wheelchair.

Sadly, too many teachers and educational bureaucrats start from the assumption that quality literature alone cannot captivate students. Something else is needed, they insist, to make the work relevant to young people. This philistine approach leads to literature being subsumed under the weight of the issues it must carry. Virginia Woolf is first and foremost a woman, Jeanette Winterson represents the LGBT community, Zadie Smith is a woman of colour. Literary works are reduced to an expression of the author’s identity.

Feminists first championed this approach to the curriculum by arguing for the inclusion of more female writers. They saw representation as an end in itself. When I studied English at university in the mid-1990s, I read Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Aphra Behn on my newly-revamped course. They were all great books but we all knew to appreciate them not just as ‘texts’ but as work by women. At the same time, we learnt to criticise male authors for employing the ‘male gaze’. As an ardent 18-year-old I found sexism spotting to be a fun and virtuous exercise. But it soon became too easy and left me feeling, frankly, dirty.

Having made the case for female authors – not on the basis of their work but on the grounds of under-representation – women find they are being squeezed out to make way for other groups deemed more oppressed or more worthy of inclusion. But if we ditched the identity politics for a curriculum determined solely on the basis of merit, the study of literature would be crammed full of fantastic women novelists.

OCR is now asking teachers to vote in an online survey to determine which texts should be studied and what names should be given to modules. Here’s a better idea for the bigwigs at OCR: drop the identity politics and think about what makes a truly great work of literature.