Monday, January 24, 2011

Anonymous was a woman

Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, explains why Virginia Woolf is right:

I would venture to guess that Anon,
who wrote so many poems without signing them,
was often a woman.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf wrote those words about the entire realm of literary creation, not about that special subset of it called "quotations"—the minting of concise snippets so eloquent or insightful as to be memorable. But those of us who dig deeply for the earliest sources of well-known lines discover, time and again, that here, too, Woolf was right: Anonymous was a woman. Many of the great quotesmiths have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.

Scholars of sociology, history, psychology, women's studies, and other fields, not to mention writers and thinkers like Woolf herself, have written about why this should be so. I won't seek to tackle that question here. Instead, I present the raw material—or, rather, the fraction of it we know.
(thanks, Cindy)

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire, right? Nope, a woman called Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

"The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money." Not Hemingway, not Fitzgerald but Mary Colum.

So who are these women? And why don't we know them? Go read the article and find out. The best thing to read on the subject, though, is How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ. I read it a long, long time ago and it made me angry enough to feel like my bones were going to melt. Read it.

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