What Is a Female Author?

Grace Lavery, University of California Berkeley

The project aimed to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, highlight the challenges faced by female writers, past and present, and ignite a conversation as to the many reasons why writers chose to use a pseudonym.

–Freddie Campbell, letter to the Legacy/SSAWW panelists, 09/11/20, emphasis added.

To a certain kind of reader, the question “what is a female author” will appear pedantic. Its catechetic prosody, for one thing, suggests an isomorphism of call and response, an answer that resembles the question. Such catechisms are the order of the day. “What is a woman?” A woman is an adult human female. “What is a female?” A biological organism from the sexually dimorphic human species, whose morphology includes large immotile gametes. When playing in this authoritarian key, “female author” appears both redundant and insufficient as a definition of “woman author.” Redundant, because a “woman author” would mean an author possessed of large immotile gametes (and thereby already denote a “female author”); insufficient, because it is necessary that there be a difference between “woman” and “female” in order that the latter category be useful in defining the former. Or, perhaps, the only difference between a “woman author” and a “female author” would be–of all things–adulthood, and one is in essence forced to argue that a social role and a biological condition are co-essential, and that a woman author’s place, presumably, is in the home.

George Eliot, as everyone knows, was not a woman writer.

George Eliot, as everyone knows, was not a woman writer. Charles Dickens, writing to the author of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, admits that the stories possessed “such womanly touches” that he had been inclined to “address the said writer as a woman.” Dickens continues, more cautiously, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.” If there is a transgender quality here (and it is gender, rather than sex, that Dickens invokes when he couches his response in terms of “address” and “womanly”-ness) it is a transfemininity, a womanliness of mind, acquired through an act of “making.” So George Eliot was not a woman writer, except (perhaps) in the transfeminine sense of the word. But to respond that Eliot was, nonetheless, a female writer is to strip authorship to the reproductive (albeit unreproducing) system; it is, indeed, to confront Margaret Oliphant’s bitter (but accurate) remark that Eliot’s legacy dwarfed her own in part because Eliot had no children, whereas Mrs. Oliphant was widowed, indebted, and raising three offspring while struggling to find a room of her own.

The philistinism of the contemporary anti-trans movement is by no means its worst feature. Yet it is hard to think of a more clumsy, compulsive engagement with the history of feminism than to redress each and every act of authorship–authorship, which is the opposite of personhood–by reference to lurid speculations about hormones and chromosomes, neither of which had yet been discovered when Eliot related the sad story of Tertius Lydgate, the quasi- Byronic scientist who believed that social relations were ultimately reducible to a primitive matter, and who suffered much for the superstition. Except if it be the cringing “you go girl!” whooping, as the trousers are whipped off and the female author’s genitals exposed to the rigor of gendercritical “feminism.” Except if it be an attempt to flog Bailey’s Irish Cream, a commodity in trade from Diageo––which, if ever there were a corporation that did not need to play dumb about gender, it would be the company that markets its manliest stout in a somber monochrome epic of man, sea, and horse, and adorns its girly digestif with a meet-cute that pulls back a gamete short of coercion.

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