Fri, Dec 28, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Academic on quest to rescue women’s writing

The Guardian

A Spanish academic has embarked on a five-year quest to rescue the works of female writers from the margins of European thought and give them the recognition they have been denied for centuries.

Carme Font, a lecturer in English literature at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has been awarded a 1.5 million euro (US$1.7 million) grant by the European Research Council to scour libraries, archives and private collections in search of letters, poems and reflections written by women from 1500 to 1780.

Font’s objective is not so much to unearth unknown or invisible female authors as to recover the voices of individuals whose work has traditionally been dismissed as overly personal and anecdotal “women’s writing.”

“These were women without formal education,” she said. “They wrote popular texts and letters about religion and politics. Their texts are less sophisticated and aren’t the work of famous female writers, but these are the ones we’re rediscovering.”

Although many of the women Font studies used religious language as a means to express themselves, their texts encompass much more than just the Bible.

Many contain musings on life, philosophy and the nature of the soul. Others are more temporal.

“There are everyday texts, about family problems, marital problems, sexual issues and abuse, and about their personal frustrations,” Font said.

“I don’t want to suggest that these women were just protesting or complaining — there are a lot of women who were writing about subjects that interested them: about politics and current affairs,” she said.

Taken as a whole, the texts subvert the idea that women in the early modern period were passive individuals or intellectual bystanders.

Font attributes their lack of recognition to the simple fact of their gender, limited access to education, and to social and intellectual conventions.

“What they wrote was seen as minor, as being a mere repetition of what men had written. Because a lot of these woman never had a formal education, they wrote in a more informal way. They weren’t following a formal essay style and they were criticized for that and told: ‘No, your writing isn’t proper; you don’t respect the flow of cause and effect,’ and so on. That’s how their writings came to be marginalized,” she said.

Font, who is using the grant to pay for five full-time project staff and to fund travel, conferences and workshops, said she had been struck again and again by the rigor and power of some of the religious and philosophical writing she has come across.

“There are dozens and dozens of women who — despite being unknown and making no claims to being mystics — express a very deep understanding of the human soul and articulate it in a religious or theological way that is every bit as impressive as the work of their contemporary male theologians,” she said.

However, the project is about something more fundamental than forgotten thinkers who could rank alongside St Teresa of Avila or Hildegard of Bingen.

“It’s about evening out our perceptions and acknowledging that even if women wrote in a different way, their ideas possess an intellectual value,” she said. “We need to change the way we read those texts and give them their just values.”

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