Opinion | The Canon

Exploring female perspective within male-authored works

When considering the span of time the Core Curriculum covers, we cannot ignore the unfortunate reality that female writers were able to rise to prominence only relatively recently. We can agree that including the female perspective in the study of civilization as we mark its evolution from Plato to Woolf is crucial.

Proposed solutions to mitigate what is perceived to be the problematic “dead white men” focus of the Core include adding more female writers and creating a dedicated female-centric course focusing on the evolution of the role of women in human society. Both of these proposed solutions, however, prove to be inadequate in achieving the overarching goal of integrating women into the Core Curriculum and recognizing them as a fundamental part of human civilization and identity over time.

The inclusion of extra works by female writers or artists is problematic due to the sheer dearth of preserved and influential material. I would like to believe that the college has given the syllabus enough thought and consideration to include the most influential female works that resonate with the overarching progression and themes of its courses. To compromise on quality just to create a semblance of equality would be unfortunate. It would perhaps serve us better to accept the lack of valuable material by female authors before a certain time period.

The other suggestion—the creation of a separate female-centric course—undermines the very purpose of the Core. By relegating the influence and role of women over time to a separate course, we would inevitably be denying any female role in thought and civilization as it is portrayed in so-called patriarchal texts.

The solution then is not to create a dedicated female course, but to study the female characters in the groundbreaking works already part of the Core. Studying these characters provides key insights into the perspectives and thoughts of women at the time. Lysistrata and the works of Wollstonecraft, Woolf, and Austen of course make this understanding of female perspective and power their central focus. But it is important to note that, if we choose to do so, we can also derive meaningful insights through a deeper study of female character roles in otherwise male-centric texts. Thetis’ maternal role in the Iliad, the roles of Dunya and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, and the three sisters in King Lear are just a few memorable instances of complex female characters in traditionally patriarchal texts.

In fact, even in developing societies that objectively lag behind in ensuring equality of women in the workplace or with regard to cultural norms, we can learn a tremendous amount from the traditional roles women have played and their influence on character development, as well as economic and even cultural structuring. The worship of female gods in ancient Greece, for example, mirrors a modern-day cultural reverence for female deities in several parts of South Asia and can serve as a fascinating subject of study. Moreover, by studying women in the roles they occupy regardless of prominence, we may also be able to develop further insight into how these women think, which is a crucial part of understanding society and hence a function of the Core. 

The responsibility to examine these characters lies with instructors and their approaches and analyses of these texts. Personally, I was lucky to have professors who, for the most part, were able to bring the female perspective and the role of women to the forefront of discussions.

When trying to account for female roles and perspectives in discussion, it is crucial, however, not to compromise the quality of content. To include in the Core works by female authors simply because of their gender would only serve to trivialize the important role that women play by trying to fit them in unsatisfactorily. It is important to identify texts with interesting female characters and meaningful representations of the role of women—through these works, we can gauge the position of women at various historical points. Beyond that, however, we can only come to accept that the Core will inevitably hold a male bias, not as a result of intention, but of human civilization’s history. After all, Western society’s realities—not fabricated representations of equality—are what the Core strives to capture.

 Anirban Poddar is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. He contributes regularly to The Canon.

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

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good lord posted on

oy vey

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Anonymous posted on

I don't think I've read such a sexist statement on women in the core in a very long time. Honestly, I'm wondering if you even read the books.

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Anonymous posted on

because somehow this article NEEDED to be written...?

why why why why why

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Male CC'14 posted on

Congratulations -- this has singlehandedly proven that the Core mandate is, in fact, something achievable. In my time here, I have seen many, many instances in which people claim spheres of identity and explorations of socially constructed values as their own without regards of the denizens of these spaces, but I have never seen such an underhanded defense of 'speaking for others.' What bothers me the most is that, from what I can glean, the author is entirely unaware of this and, in fact, believes that they are opening up a realm of discussion on women's issues. I appreciate the sentiment, but really think they should have consulted with someone, anyone, who has thought of these issues at any point. Let's visit the text:

"It is important to identify texts with interesting female characters and meaningful representations of the role of women—through these works, we can gauge the position of women at various historical points."

... So we should only view women as they are viewed by men? Also, what does 'interesting' and 'meaningful' mean? For whom? The author asks us to institutionalize a gender, an entire half of our species, based on the normative evaluations relegated to them, without permission, from men -- who have never, and will never, understand the full body of their experiences. All we end up learning is the view of 'dead, white men' on these issues. More dangerously, we are expected to use these interpretations as foundational blocks of ideas from which to externalize our own involvement in society.

"To include in the Core works by female authors simply because of their gender would only serve to trivialize the important role that women play by trying to fit them in unsatisfactorily."

Unless I'm terribly mistaken (and I sincerely, truly hope I am) this suggests that because there is a perceived paucity of a history of good female writing, we should not seek to supplement the Core with female writers for fear of them seeming superlative in the context of the male, western canon. But is it not the purpose of the Core to espouse the notion that great literature and, indeed, great thought is the product of the human enterprise and not one sex in particular? And, I'm sorry, there is a HUGE LIST of exceptional female writers deriving from a wealth of different experiences - Margaret Atwood, Bell Hooks, Maya Angelou, Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison - that goes on and on to perpetuity. To say that adding Frankenstein or To Kill a Mockingbird to the Core is somehow superfluous in comparison to the male canon seems offensive to me.

I've gone on long enough. All I want to say to the author is this:

I appreciate that you see this issue within the Core, and that you think it should be corrected. However, you need to know that you are arguing for looking at a handful of characters in an entire canon of male work as not only somehow representative of the entirety of the female sex, but also the best, most readily available window through which to see the 'role of women in society.' I think this is particularly egregious given that there exists a long tradition of brilliant female writers who can share their own, native, non-interpretive accounts of their experiences.

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Anonymous posted on

Disclaimer: This response is is a male perspective on a male perspective of an institutional perspective of the representation of the female perspective through the lens of great male perspectives

Do you see how messed up that is? Just let women speak for themselves

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brb i'm going to go gouge my eyes out posted on

This is basically the same as a white guy saying "Yes, black people deserve equality and to be heard! Oh but don't actually talk to any of them, because then you're just doing it because they're black. So just ask other white people about them! That way you get a totally realistic unbiased opinion!"

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false equivalency posted on

... What if I told you a large amount of black people... are... women... ? #intersectionalitymatters

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Anonymous posted on

truly incredible

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um posted on

I don't think you understand that women written from a woman's perspective is drastically different from women written from a man's perspective.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm a girl and totally agree with this article. The fact remains that for most of western history, literature and philosophy have been dominated by men. There are many great books in western culture and we only have the opportunity to study a very small number in lit hum; I'd much prefer books be chosen soley on merit than needing to consider the author's gender.

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smh #internalizedmisogyny posted on

college age woman calling herself a "girl" is just one of the many, many things wrong with this comment

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lol @ male econ majors posted on

Props to Anirban Poddar for successfully communicating to the Spec community his having read a total of three extra-curricular novels in his entire life, all of which were written by John Updike.

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I dare you posted on

Please give me 5 influential female authored texts worthy of replacing the following on the CC syllabus:
1) Plato - The Republic
2) Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics
3) Adam Smith/Karl Marx - Economic Philosophy
4) John Locke/Thomas Hobbes - Political Philosophy

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oh my good lord posted on

i can't.

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oh my good lord (again) posted on

*as in i can't deal with you

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Anonymous posted on

You're implicitly ignoring the fact that any female-authored texts, even if they were indeed as good as any of the ones you stated above, would have been completely unable to achieve the same kind of influence or even a lining of the same *acknowledgement* that their male peers would have. Even today, studies show that a man's opinion is considered more grounded and trustworthy even if a woman presented the exact same argument. Who knows what incredible female writing has been lost to the ages (Hypatia, anyone?), mostly because they went ignored by the literary and philosophical gatekeepers.

But since like 90% of people who take CC and Lit Hum sparknote their shit anyway, I see no reason why we couldn't throw in a few more excerpts for them to read and/or Google--Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Anscombe, de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand (although not even I as a feminist could admittedly vouch for people needing to deal with that bullshit.)

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... posted on

WHAT THE F*** IS THIS S***. SERIOUSLY.

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Anonymous posted on

Let's be real, Anirban. It's just that the Core is burdensome enough as it is, and I'll be damned if they add on another fucking humanities class. What we call the "science requirement" is a glorified exercise in middle school-level problem solving at best. Sorry, but I like my English majors capable of maybe a simple math proof, not just bullshit interpretations of "death" and "representations of sexuality" in Winnie the Pooh.

Hey kiddies, you have electives for a fucking reason. Use them wisely when exploring other perspectives. The Core is pretty much fine as it is.

That being said, Anirban, you didn't really add anything meaningful to the discussion. You can do better.

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Anonymous posted on

"Exploring female perspective within male-authored works"
The idea behind the article is well-meant, but flawed. Studying a male-authored work would be studying male perspective. Granted, it might reveal a lot of insight on male perspective regarding women, but it would never provide enlightenment on the FEMALE perspective. You wouldn't need to sacrifice quality to include more literature authored by women or others outside the realm of "dead white men." To try to truly understand the role of women solely through characters crafted by men cannot be an effective/holistic approach.

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