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 firstname.lastname@example.org.