Opinion | The Canon

Create a separate class to explore women's writing

Barnard College’s First-Year Foundations courses, First-Year Seminar and First-Year English, are a required part of the Barnard curriculum for all students. Unlike Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization, these classes don’t share a syllabus of texts but rather have specific focal topics. One is dedicated to “Women and Culture.” The two other major literature courses’ syllabi, on the other hand, are full of male writers and thinkers, though one of the two does include several writers excluded from Literature Humanities, such as Margery Kempe, Madame de Lafayette, and Mary Shelley.

A different focus is needed in order to deal with female voices because of a disappointing truth about the past: The writers and philosophers we acknowledge and celebrate were not women. Even the inclusion of the aforementioned writers is somewhat questionable. Were the texts The Book of Margery Kempe, The Princesse de Cleves, or even Frankenstein truly so significant in their time that they warrant sharing a syllabus with Don Quixote or the Odyssey? Texts included in the Core Curriculum must be significant today. But when these classes are also framed as part of a study of Western thought, the texts must have been influential in their own time periods.

The syllabus for Literature Humanities, for example, is carefully put together (and sometimes modified by professors) to fit a particular pattern of Western thought: the rise of interiority and the inner self. This process culminates in Virginia Woolf—her To the Lighthouse is difficult to read and downright annoying, but it really is the perfect book to finish Lit Hum with, as an example of internal narrative. But does it really benefit the Core Curriculum to throw in additional female writers just for the sake of having more female voices? 

Columbia can’t improve the Core by throwing in gratuitous female writers. By limiting the scope of Core classes to the traditional canon of literature and philosophy, first-years will read Jane Austen as the first female writer. Is there really any way around this? All we have left is scraps of Sappho’s poetry and a few works by medieval writers and theologians. There are, of course, excellent female writers—it is just that the set criteria that define the Core Curriculum must exclude them. Finding female writers who influenced mainstream thought in their time requires broadening the scope of the Core syllabus. What of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji? As a Japanese writer, Lady Murasaki clearly wrote outside of the Western tradition. Similarly, women writers, even those considered to be from the Western world, also wrote outside of the Western tradition of the time, which largely excluded women. 

Would anyone really choose to drop Inferno in favor of a lesser (or lesser-known and referenced) work just for the sake of adding another woman’s name to the list? In this vein, some Contemporary Civilization professors choose to teach John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women instead of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman because Mill’s text is more rigorous and well-written. 

So why not do as Barnard has done and add the option of a women’s studies course to the Core? We have Global Core classes to present a non-Western viewpoint (another critique of the Core), so why not also focus on women in a separate class? There are plenty of fascinating courses that focus on women and literature by women, but Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, and Art and Music Humanities have very different foci. They are survey courses, and unfortunately for women throughout history, only in very recent centuries have women been free enough in society to show up on a “greatest hits” list of influential thinkers. 

Adding extra women to the Core constructs a false history—one where women were able to have their thoughts celebrated and held to the same standards as men. We don’t need to have women’s works lumped into a narrative of philosophical development from which their works were forcibly excluded or never had the chance to exist. The great women of history deserve their own narrative—one that is very different from that of the traditional Western canon. 

Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Anonymous posted on

You seem to be putting down Barnard's FYS and FYE, two seminars that don't read women for the 'sake of reading women,' but include authors that question the authority, privilege, and exclusivity of the "canon." Most of the discussion that goes on in those classes serves to broaden students' thinking about why certain works are considered "canonical" and analyzing attempts by writers, both male and female, to open and/or break down the canon, and why canonical works have imposed a this "hierarchy" as being more relevant/important than works by non-white, non-male authors.

Also, I seriously wonder how Virginia Woolf was taught in your LitHum class if you thought she was just thrown in for the sake of including a female voice. That's fairly dismissive of one of the most influential modernist writers of the 20th century (male writers included). It speaks to how limited the canon really is, if you don't consider her a part of it—and begs the question of why not? Only because she is female?

Anonymous posted on

I agree -- I feel like this author would be benefited by taking a critical theory class of some kind.
One issue, in my opinion, is that this is a class that is required. Sure, they could do other classes focused on marginalized writers, but if they aren't required courses, or if they are taught as a secondary option, they aren't going to be read as much as they would if they were part of the Core. Maybe the Core ought to include some post-colonial, critical race theory, and gender studies classes!

Anonymous posted on

"This process culminates in Virginia Woolf—her To the Lighthouse is difficult to read and downright annoying, but it really is the perfect book to finish Lit Hum with, as an example of internal narrative. But does it really benefit the Core Curriculum to throw in additional female writers just for the sake of having more female voices? "