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.
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