With Will to Choose

What is commonly called literary history is actually a record of choices...Which works have become part of the "canon" of literature, read, thought about, discussed, and which have disappeared dependent on the process of selection and the power to select along the way. Such power, in England and America, has always belonged to white men. That class has written the record called literary history, which is clearly shaped by the attitudes, conscious or unconscious, of white men toward nonwhites and nonmales. As a result of the process whereby male power makes male culture and, therefore, male taste, the literary work of women has either been excluded from literary history or, when included, has been distorted by the values of the class that has transmitted it. From the Introduction   by Louise Bernikow to The World Split Open (L. Bernikow, ed.)   N.Y., Vintage Books, 1974

While questions are still being raised regarding the criteria used for enrollment in my Currier House course on Biology and Women's Issues, I should like to explain why I believe that it may be legitimate in some cases to select as participants in a course women, or blacks, or some other group which historically has not been represented in the elaboration of the traditional, accepted view that constitutes our perception of "reality" in a particular field.

Before doing that, I want to establish two points:

1. No one was kept from enrolling in my course at this particular time. In a long, thorough, and at times painful discussion, it was agreed that all the students then in the room (nine women and three men) could not fruitfully participate in a single seminar, structured in a discussion format, because of the great range of preparation, experience and expectations. We therefore had to decide which of two possible courses we were going to have: one that was elementary, descriptive and historical, or a more advanced and theoretical course. It was apparent that the three men in the room lacked the basic background in feminist literature required for participation in the latter. I made it clear that I was prepared to teach either, though I would have been dishonest not to admit that in a small seminar format, I would prefer to participate in the more advanced course. (I also teach in a large and more descriptive lecture course, Biology and Social Issues; I and five others lead the discussion sections, of which one explores the feminist perspective). The fact that the three men recognized that their level of interest and commitment was quite different from that of the women and decided not to enroll shows that all of us shared a common understanding of the alternatives and of the final decision. (I might note that I offered the men Independent Studies, to enable them to pursue their interests in feminist or women's issues in a systematic way.)

The 13 of us do not seem to have succeeded in communicating what happened in our discussion to others. Some people insist on seeing wide theoretical questions in what, this time, happens to have been a specific and practical issue.


2. In what follows, I shall have to use the words male and female, men and women. I want to make it clear at the outset that I am not talking about known biological differences between the sexes. I am talking about human adults who are the products of upward of 18 years of socialization. What, if any, of their sex-dimorphic social behavior is biologically determined I do not know and I do not think anyone else does either. Nor do I know any practical way to find out.

Our interpretation of reality is a construction that depends on the nature of the institutions that have social sanction to construct and validate what we perceive as real. In our own Western tradition, these have been the church, the state, and more recently the sciences. At present, the sciences are the chief generators and certifiers of reality.

The sciences translate nature into language. In this process, they employ the rules not only of grammar but of what conceptualizations are permissible about the world.

So we must ask: What sort of people have given us the version of the world that we accept as real and true? Who in Western society have been the church fathers, the statesmen, the scientists? And of course, part of the answer is contained in the very words of our question: they have been almost entirely the male scions of social privileged families. Therefore it becomes one of the tasks of those groups who have been excluded from the tradition of reality-making to examine the "real world" critically from their own viewpoints, and to generate their own models of those aspects that contradict or blatantly exclude their own experience.

Schools at all levels, including the universities, have traditionally been the sanctioned purveyers of accepted realities: their task is to continue and extend the job that begins at home, of teaching the young person what she or he shall or shall not accept as real. To quote from Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan:

[Don Juan] pointed out that everyone who comes into contact with a child is a teacher who incessantly describes the world to him until the moment when the child is capable of perceiving the world as it is described. According to Don Juan, we have no memory of that portentous moment, simply because none of us could possibly have had any point of reference to compare it to anything else. From that moment on, however, the child is a member. He knows the description of the world; and his membership becomes full-fledged...when he is capable of making all the proper perceptual interpretations which, by conforming to that description, validate it.

But the process never ends. Again and again in her or his life the child must learn first to see and then to admire the Emperor's elegant new clothes. (Only the "insane" fail to do so.)

One of the basic things the child is taught is what its parents learn first and often hold most precious about it: its sex. That moment in which Mrs. and Mr. Jones are told that they have just become proud parents of a ... (fill in the blank) affects significantly their attitudes toward the new baby. And they, in turn, determine an important portion of the baby's relationship to society and its outlook on the world. The baby at birth is destined for "full membership" as a woman or a man, a large part of its socialization at home and in school will be directed towards making it an acceptable member of the one group and not of the other.

It is a historical fact that the present construct of reality was assembled at a time (right up till now) when women were excluded automatically and without question from the church, the state, and the universities. This is one reason why women's contributions play little part in the reality that is presented to us. "I would venture to guess," writes Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, "that Anon, who wrote to many poems without signing them, was often a woman."

The few examples of women's achievement that we learn about in school serve only to reinforce the notion that these are all that exist so that not until the recent wave of scholarship about women have we begun to be aware of the rich heritage of women's activities that has been erased from history. So, Virginia Woolf had no idea how many women had been writing when she imagined for the fate of Shakespeare's "wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith" who, like her brother, loved the theater and wanted to act and write.