27 July 2014

Reading Women

Sometime in February, after an online discussion with a friend, I made a decision to read only female authors in 2014.  I’m about six months into my pledge, and while I’ve made a three exceptions (to read works by colleagues of mine and the book I was giving away for World Book Night 2014), it’s been pretty eye-opening.  The whole point of reading women exclusively was to draw attention to my choices, my own attention, certainly.  But perhaps yours, too.

Women make up approximately fifty percent of the world’s population, and yet even in a nation with as much opportunity as the United States, female authors are not on equal footing with their male counterparts.  These charts by VIDA show the disparity in many mainstream literary journals as well as some journals who have a more balanced record of publication for 2013.

What’s the big deal?  The publication of women in literary journals is not going to solve world hunger, say, or create world peace, right?  But what happens when diverse voices are not heard?  What happens when those voices are blocked out, or go unacknowledged, or are silenced altogether?  What happens when books are banned, or even worse, burned?  We can collectively agree that burning books accompanies the darkest times in human history, that much besides knowledge is lost when idealogues like the Taliban or the Nazis determine what is appropriate.  But there are other ways in which voices are silenced, too, and they are more insidious, and therefore, we are less likely to recognize their danger.

With forces like these at work, we have responsibilities to seek out other perspectives, and we should also be called to answer (not just ask) what is lost when voices are silenced?  What might I learn, about my world and about myself, if I took a year to read women only?  And so I chose to read women’s stories, poems, and nonfiction. 

At first, in some small way, it seemed stifling to limit myself.  There are so many wonderful stories out there in the world, I bargained, why limit yourself?  As an English major in college, so much of my reading had been dictated.  I wanted to choose for myself!  And yet, as the months went on, my choices seemed to grow.  Books that I’d had in my to-read lists for years seemed to bubble, finally, to the top.  I found myself taking a chance on a book simply because it had been written by a woman.  I sought new writers and began to pay more attention to gender in other areas of life.  I’ve read some fantastic books this year, many that shook my world in some way – enlightening, disturbing, enraging, inspiring.

Already I am considering ideas for another reading challenge for 2015:  Americans only?  Works in translation only?  Men only?  By choosing to tune into specific voices, I began to hear them.  It seems obvious, but it is only when we choose to listen that we can truly hear the stories that are being told, and in doing so we see connections that have always been there.  There is true wisdom to be gained by seeing from perspectives that are different from our own, different from what is typically presented to us, and making choices that allow other voices to be heard.


  1. Cathleen, I enjoyed reading your essay. Why don't you read Latin American and Chicano authors in '15. There is a lot of rich literature out there.