The Ancient Woman’s Contribution to Literature
(No, Men Did Not Pioneer the Literary World)
It is commonly known that women writers often conceal their gender with pseudonyms, from George Eliot to J.K. Rowling, and everyone knows why: the “Big Five” publishing houses (Penguin/Random House; Hachette Book Group; Harper Collins; Simon and Schuster; Macmillan) are, and always have been, male-dominated presses. Scores of pages could be written to theorize why such a lack of literary influence has been handed to women, but in this article, we will have an honest look at the history of writing and publishing in the context of gender and explore two ancient and most foundational accomplishments in literature.
As an impressionable young teenager with a budding interest in writing, I went to the movies once with my best friend to see P.J. Hogan’s reimagining of Peter Pan (2004). The following conversation between Wendy Darling and her Aunt Millicent stuck and stayed with me throughout the years to come:
Wendy: My unfulfilled ambition is to write a great novel in three parts about my adventures.
Aunt Millicent: What adventures?
Wendy: I’ve yet to have them, but they will be perfectly thrilling!
Aunt Millicent: But child, novelists are not highly thought of in good society. And there is nothing so difficult to marry as a novelist.
And Wendy’s smile faded.
Let us take some time now to appreciate women’s foundational contributions to the world through literature.
“I, who am I among living creatures?”
Enheduanna: The World’s First Author
The oldest piece of literature has always been touted to be the Epic of Gilgamesh, written
by Babylonian writer Shin-Legi-Unninni around 1300 BCE, but the title of world’s first writer
actually belongs to a woman. Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon who lived in the 23rd
century BCE, predating Unninni by nearly a millennium. A princess, priestess, poet and writer, Enheduanna’s known works number in the dozens, from the myth of Inanna and Ebih to
her 42 temple hymns. Many encyclopedias and internet search forums have not been updated to reflect this discovery and still report Unninni’s Epic of Gilgamesh as the world’s first known
piece of literature.
Move Over, Gutenberg…
What about the printing press? Johannes Gutenberg is typically attributed to this great technological achievement in 1450 France and many books, encyclopedias and internet searches will confirm this. But author T.H. Barrett, who teaches East Asian History and Oriental Studies at the University of London, asserts otherwise. In his 176-page book, The Woman Who Discovered Printing, Barrett gives a fascinating historical account of Empress Wu Zhou, the only female ruler in China’s history. She developed a mechanical printing technology that predates Gutenberg by centuries, but was ignored in large part due to “sheer misogyny,” according to Barrett. Her groundbreaking accomplishment seemingly died with her in 705 A.D.
The truths about Enheduanna and Empress Wu disrupt the widely held belief that men forged literary civilization. While men might be taking the stage today, this was not always so. Since ancient times, women around the world have had too little access to education to become writers and for hundreds of years, their valuable contributions were suppressed. The 17th century saw a return of women writers, however, and the first historical novel La Princesse de
Cleves was written by Marie-Madelein Pioche de la Vergne. The 18th and 19th centuries gave birth to more famous women authors, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, The Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, and Emily Dickinson. The need arose in this era for women to hide their gender, that much is clear. Consider Marian Evans, better known as famous author George Eliot, who: “…chose a man’s name as a pseudonym because she knew that most female writers of the Victorian age were expected to write only romance novels with little substance. Eliot wanted to earn the same respect afforded Charles Dickens and other prominent English authors of the time.”
Women concealing their gender even when approaching an agent or publisher can be considered an indicator of where women are at in the publishing world. By the 1970s,
feminist printing presses were opening to promote women’s literature and give voice to
women writers because they were not getting the recognition from traditional publishers
that men were. These feminist presses were largely operated by women and supported by
female readership. Gillian Tindall, author of Sisterly Sensibilities, writes: “…a feminist
publishing house is not a cause to which my heart responds. There are surely few occupations which can claim to need a sexist backup less than novel writing? It is almost the only respected, paying art at which women have been busy nearly as long as men and with a comparable degree of success.” Tindall’s words “nearly as long as men” certainly do indicate her outdated understanding of literary history, given what we can now verify about the world’s first author and publishing technology. Today, women account for one-third of published writers, according to an annual statistic called the VIDA Count. This underrepresentation is not for a lack of ability,
because women’s published works also accounted for 67% of the top 100 literary fiction book sales in 2019. You do the math.
Being aware of the rich and proud legacy women share in the history of writing and publishing is imperative to inspiring change and fostering a more ambitious generation of women writers who will not be quelled.