What do we resist when we resist the feminine?


By Isabelle Boisclair (Sherbrooke University), translated by Bronwyn Haslam

Lire l’essai originale française par Isabelle Boisclair.

“Write in the margins until the margins take up half of the page.”

– M. Yaguello

            In 2004, I presented the results of a study on the proportion of men and women reviewed in 2003 in the Books sections of Le Devoir and La Presse[1] two Montreal daily newspapers. The writers reviewed were men in more than 70% of cases. As for the gender of the reviewers, it varied between 55-65% men. Have things changed in ten years? CWILA’s annual count for the year 2014 allows us to take stock (even if the corpus is not the same, CWILA’s sample being much larger [2]). It is in their comparison that the numbers speak. And what they tell us is that the picture remains virtually unchanged a decade later. For the representation of women [3] in literary media, a maximum seems to be fixed at about 30%. [4] What’s blocking it there?

When Literary Value Resides in the Sex of the Author

If women make up 50% of the population, and if they are now as educated as men—furthermore, following the same curricula, which attenuates the differentiation—shouldn’t we expect this diversity to be reflected in all spheres of social life? It is then after schooling that it bottlenecks. What are then the steps that women have to take so that we can speak of their books in newspapers and literary magazines? 1) Submit a manuscript; 2) Get published. Hmm. The path is not so tortuous… And of course, the author’s gender is not a factor considered in the choice of manuscripts, no more than in the decision to review or not to review a text. A number of other considerations are taken into account, we know. What we avoid, however, in insisting on these other factors is the fact that in the end, it’s still men who reap the greatest visibility.

So perhaps fewer women than men submit their manuscripts? This argument, often advanced by editorial bodies in their defense, has never been strictly proven. And if it were really the case, we might already question this deficit. Do girls have less confidence in themselves in daring to public writing, as Germaine de Staël advanced in 1800? If it were so, would it be attributable to some sort of feminine gene or… to the fact that there are fewer works by women taught in literature courses, fewer works by women discussed in the media, fewer women writers represented in public space?

In her study of the diversity in young literary publishing houses, Audrey Tremblay notes that an editorial worker questioned on the topic, after having immediately maintained that the press received fewer manuscripts from women,

pulled out at random [from her receiving list] a stack of 50 manuscripts received between January and March 2010. In this stack, she counts 29 male, 20 female, and just one indeterminate manuscript. Surprised at the large proportion of women, she begins the experiment again with manuscripts sent between April and June 2010: 27 male, 20 female, and 3 indeterminate. Thus, despite impressions, out of 100 manuscripts taken at random between January and June 2010, 56% come from men, 40% come from women, and 4% are indeterminate: men do send more manuscripts (128-129)

but in a feeble proportion. From this Tremblay concludes that it seems plausible that one’s conceptions of the masculine and the feminine, of men and women, influence the perceptions of editorial bodies. Occasionally, these are even expressed quite candidly; according to one of the publisher’s employees interviewed by Tremblay, “men’s writings seem to develop […] “ideas,” women’s seem to be “more instinctive, more emotional” (Tremblay, 132-133). How can we not imagine that these perceptions also influence editorial bodies? Could “gender unconsciousness,” [5] a bias that disadvantages women,[6] thus intervene at each step of the process? We do not have the numbers for published literary works by gender, no more than numbers for the “gender of manuscripts.” We know, however, that critical reception is primordial for whomever writes. Certainly, it does not attest to literary value. Rather, it promotes the circulation of the author’s name and the work and the inscription of the latter in literary history: it becomes more likely to be read, eventually taught, and canonized. It is the first turnstile in the mechanism that can bring the work to canonization and that qualifies the author as a writer. The judgment pronounced and the value stamped on the work remain to be seen. But the first step is this reception and recognition. Yet CWILA’s numbers show it: overall, women receive less recognition. What’s more, women participate to a greater extent in the recognition of works by men than those by women. The results speak and they have measured the little legitimacy accorded to women, the little space accorded to them in the literary field. [7] This sidelining rests on a long tradition of denial and disqualification of the value of women’s creations (Orieul, 2015), which in turn relies on their naturalization (Naudier, 2016, forthcoming), which is the basis for the prejudices that posit that women’s creations are necessarily less vigorous and less rigorous than those of men.

What are we resisting?

Before such disparities, denunciations multiply, in cultural spheres as much as in scientific and political ones, [8] as do many explicit promotional initiatives for women’s culture (art exhibits, festivals, events for works produced by women) necessary for women to make space for themselves in the world and to make themselves visible: setting up women’s clubs to counter the weight of the historical tradition of the boys’ clubs. That said, we’re eager for both clubs to fuse—and for them to ensure equal representation. But until then, the question remains: what do we resist when we resist the feminine, the prism through which women’s works are perceived? [9] What do we want to be safeguarded against? What are we afraid of? That it’s sentimental? Really? Hey, it’s not the 19th century! Besides, if there’s sentimental literature, it’s the work of both sexes (Yes, some novels written by men are sentimental; I’ve come across them! Critics however, rarely call them so, as if this epithet could not be applied to the masculine). So, what are we resisting? The other-feminine? But… should not this supposed alterity play in favour of women—is not literature is especially valued for the privileged space of encounter with the other [10] that it constitutes? We ask what’s the danger, really, in seeing what’s going on—what’s being thought—on the other side of gender.

But especially we ask what to do to remedy this situation? We have only to learn to count, one is tempted to say. More seriously, there are several ways [11] to remedy it. First and foremost, to talk and denounce, as we saw above. Then, raise awareness, specifically among all the players (editors, marketing directors, and other cultural curators) so that, before wrapping up an issue or a season, they evaluate diversity. Then, get into action (Besse, 2015). Why not a Buy-Women’s Culture-Day, like the August 12th Buy-a-Québécois book-Day, launched last year with great success? [12] On a designated day, we’d buy a book written by a woman, a theatre or movie ticket, or an album by a woman. It’s obviously not enough to establish an equitable regime, but it’s a step. Lastly, on a larger scale, an actual equality observatory in Arts and Culture would be needed to provide education on the matter. [13] CWILA’s initiative, geared towards this, is commendable.

At the present time, it falls to publishing associations and the editors of books sections and literary magazines to recognize that women are not receiving their fair share and to envision a corrective. We can already hear the rebuffs: What, quotas? Not quotas: openness, a will to equity. Men owe the consideration that they collectively receive partly to the erasure of women and that is something that must be said. And yes, if you increase women’s share, there will surely be a decrease in what’s allocated to men. The number of pages in a newspaper or journal is counted. Can that seem shocking? Yet the inverse situation has existed for far too long, without apparently shocking anyone.

* * *

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that we had to work for the coming of the woman writer—the “poetess”: “As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” [14] If the woman writer has arrived, her presence is still often resisted. Have we worked hard enough? We have made it possible for her to live and write, but do we really welcome her? It seems like we don’t. The place we give to her is still too small. So we have to work more. And if the image of the glass ceiling is essential to illustrate the impossibility of reaching a certain hierarchy in the economic sphere, the essential image here is that of the treadmill… women walk, yes, as much as they can, and they write, as much as they can, but the machine that’s been slid under their feet has them stay in the same place.

[1] The numbers were compiled throughout 2003 (Boisclair, 2004a). I summarize our conclusions here: 73% men were reviewed annually in Le Devoir as compared to 27% women; 72% men were reviewed annually in La Presse as compared to 28% women. In both newspapers, more men are reviewed, more than 2.5 times the proportion of women. The gap is less wide when it comes to reviewers: 54.5% of reviewers were men at Le Devoir as compared to 66% at La Presse, and 34% of the reviewers at La Presse were women as compared to 45.5% at Le Devoir. There are thus more women reviewers (34% and 45.5%) than women reviewed (27% and 28%). We can observe a greater openness to women at Le Devoir but only with respect to the gender of the reviewers.

[2] See the 2014 CWILA Count numbers. Note that the methodology is more or less the same: in both cases, the proportion of men and women reviewed by critics is reported as well as the number of male and female critics in the Books section; the reviewers’ gender is given in relation to the gender of the authors reviewed. However, the numbers in 2004 were broken down by literary genre. Our interpretation of the results thus agreed with the remarks of Catherine Lalonde, editor of the Books section of Le Devoir, from an interview she gave to CWILA. Lalonde explains that the large proportion of essays reviewed by Le Devoir skews the results in men’s favour: as women write fewer essays then men, they are less reviewed as well (Scott Leslie [n.d.]). And if it is so, then let’s suggest it is due to a shortfall of confidence, the essay being the genre par excellence that confers authority (Tellier, 2010). Children’s literature skews the data in women’s favour. But despite this bias, women remain in the minority.

[3] I cannot help but refer to the note Evelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand wrote last year, as to my inclusive position on this designation (Ledoux-Beaugrand, 2014, note 12).

[4] A few observations on the 2014 count of book reviews in French publications: if we exclude books co-authored by both genders or for which the gender of the author is not known, 27% of the reviews are on books written by women as compared to 62% on books written by men. Women wrote 34% of the reviews included in the sample; men, 67%. Women reviewed 43% female-authored texts and 46% male-authored texts. Men reviewed 20% female-authored texts and 64% male-authored texts. This is to say that female reviewers comment on texts written by men and those written by women in more or less equal proportions, but that men comment very little on texts by women. Some media deviate from the norm: men at Lettres Québécoises take the greatest interest in works by women (34%)—but recall that everywhere male reviewers are more numerous than female reviewers. At Liberté, women are very little interested in texts by other women—26% as compared to 70% for texts by men—but at Liberté female reviewers are at their most numerous (40%). Spirale, which follows closely behind them (38%), is the magazine where women give the most importance to texts written by women, devoting 54% of reviews to them. Here, the numbers are perhaps inflated by issue number 247, featuring a dossier on feminism edited by Martine Delvaux. If it’s worth noting that at Nuit Blanche women are interested in texts by men (48%) and texts by women (50%) in a relative parity, it is unfortunate that this concern is not accorded by their (male) colleagues who are interested in texts by women in a meagre 12% of cases—the lowest number of them all—as compared to 72% by men, and it is here, at Nuit Blanche, that women are the least numerous. As we see, the numbers are useful and paint a good picture of the situation, but they often bring us to the brink of new questions.

[5] Inspired by Eleni Varikas’ proposed “gender consciousness” (1986), I have formulated this gender unconsciousness “to underscore the concealed actions of the gendered dimension of social relations when, in transmitting these gendered connections in writing (an author) or in reading (a critic), one does not question them” (Boisclair, 2002, p.80). The result of this bias relegates the feminine (and women associated with it) to the particular, to something specific to women and as such, that interests them only, while the masculine interests everyone, women included. As Delphine Naudier reminds us, “[…] the ability to universalize our point of view is denied to women” (2016, forthcoming).

[6] See, for example, the story of Catherine Nichols who submitted her manuscript under two different names, one female one male, with markedly different responses… (Nichols, 2015). This bias does not only occur in the literary world. Studies show that in education, the esteem for women, and the value and the qualities attributed to them, are deficient from the start (Fulger, 2015).

[7] For a history of the progress of women in the Québécois literary field, see Isabelle Boisclair (2004b).

[8] See, for example, the tumblr, “Congrats, you have an all male panel”; the Facebook page “Décider entre hommes” (Decisions between men) or Besse (2015), Boisclair (2015), Cadieux (2015) and Smith et al (2015).

[9] If I speak here of the feminine rather than of women, it is because I dare to believe that the resistance is not directed explicitly at women, that it does not express a literal misogyny. I am rather of the opinion that it expresses the dominant conception according to which women naturally bear the values correlated to the feminine. But in the end, in resisting the feminine, it is women who are affected.

[10] Certainly, the text is not a subject, but Gaudez invites us to engage with the subjectivity it mediates. According to him, “intersubjectivity is at work between the different agents in the text as much as between the author/reader, author/text, or text/reader. [In his article] the text/reader relationship is systematically considered as an socially defined intersubjective relationship” (Gaudez, 2010, p.98, note 38).

[11] In her critical review of Michelle MacArthur’s “Achieving Equity in Canadian Theatre: A Report with Best Practice Recommendations,” Louise Forsyth selects a few of its proposals for attaining greater equity (2015, forthcoming).

[12] See the event’s Facebook page.

[13] An organization similar to H/F Île-de-France (thanks to Dinaïg Stall for having informed me of the existence of this organization). Other, more targeted initiatives like Où sont les femmes (Where are the women) (see also, on Twitter, the hashtags #OùSontLesFemmes and #EtLesFéministesComptaient).

[14] Thanks to Émilie Notéris for having reminded me of this passage in her text “Science et sensibilité” (2015).

Works Cited

BESSE, Caroline (2015, Aug. 12). Sexisme à Hollywood : comment les actrices se mobilisent [Sexism in Hollywood, How actresses are going into action]. Télérama, http://www.telerama.fr/cinema/sexisme-a-hollywood-comment-les-actrices-se-mobilisent,130112.php

BOISCLAIR Isabelle (2015, Aug 12). Scène culturelle : où sont les femmes? [Cultural Scene: Where are the women?]. Le Devoir. http://www.ledevoir.com/culture/actualites-culturelles/447308/scene-culturelle-ou-sont-les-femmes

BOISCLAIR, Isabelle [in collaboration with Manon Monette] (2004a). Le sexe de la légitimité. Analyse de la réception critique selon le sexe des producteurs et des recenseurs dans deux quotidiens de la presse québécoise [The gender of legitimacy: Analysis of critical reception by the gender of the producers and reviewers in two daily Québécois newspapers]. Paper presented at the 72nd ACFAS Congress, May 12-13, 2004, unpublished.

BOISCLAIR, Isabelle (2004b). Ouvrir la voie/x – Le processus constitutif d’un sous-champ littéraire féministe au Québec (1960-1990) [Open the way/voice – the constitutive process of a feminist literary sub-field in Québec (1960-1990)]. Montréal: Nota Bene.

BOISCLAIR Isabelle (2002), Incidence herméneutique de l’identité sexuelle, mélecture et émergence de la lecture au féminin [Hermeneutic impact of sexual identity, misreading and emergence of women’s reading]. In Josée Vincent and Nathalie Watteyne (Eds.), Autour de la lecture. Médiations et communautés littéraires (pp77-100). Québec: Nota bene.

CADIEUX, Alexandre (2015, Sept. 8), “Où seront les femmes?” [Where will the women be?]. Le Devoir, http://www.ledevoir.com/non-classe/449496/theatre-ou-seront

FORSYTH, Louise (2015, forthcoming). Daring to Challenge Pervasive and Unfair Discrimination in the Theatre Industry. Canadian Theatre Review, 164, fall.

FUGLER, J.P. (2015, July 2). Why the Lack of Women in Educational Leadership Matters. Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jp-fugler/lack-of-women-in-education_b_7708220.html?utm_content=buffer72673&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

GAUDEZ, Florent (2010). De l’intersubjectivité texte/lecteur comme construction fictionnelle [Of text/reader intersubjectivity as a construct in fiction]. In Florent Gaudez (Ed.), La connaissance du texte. Approches socio-anthropologiques de la construction fictionnelle. Paris: L’Harmattan.

LEDOUX BEAUGRAND, Evelyne (2014). Quand les femmes comptent [When women count]. FCAL/CWILA, http://cwila.com/quand-les-femmes-compten/

NAUDIER, Delphine (2016, forthcoming). Genre et activité littéraire : le double jeu de la nature [Gender and literary activity: Nature’s double dealings]. In Jan-Ré Mélody (Ed), L’œuvre du genre. Paris: L’Harmattan.

NICHOLS, Catherine (2015, Aug. 4). Hommes de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name. Jezebel, http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627

NOTÉRIS, Émilie (2015, Sept. 2). Science et sensibilité [Science and Sensitivity]. L’Humanité, pp. 22-23.

ORIEUL, Anaïs (2015). Sexisme et littérature : les auteurs ne s’intéressent pas aux écrits des femmes [Sexism and literature: Authors are not interested in women’s writing]. Terrafemina. http://www.terrafemina.com/article/sexisme-et-litterature-les-auteurs-ne-s-interessent-pas-aux-ecrits-des-femmes_a282585/1

SCOTT LESLIE, Savanna (n.d.). En conversation avec Catherine Lalonde, responsable du cahier Livres au Devoir  [In conversation with Catherine Lalonde, editor of the Books section of Le Devoir]. FCAL/CWILA, http://cwila.com/en-conversation-avec-catherine-lalonde-responsable-du-cahier-livres-au-devoir/

SMITH, Stacy L. et al. (2015). Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Inequality%20in%20700%20Popular%20Films%208215%20Final%20for%20Posting.ashx

TELLIER, Carolyne (2010). Une question d’autorité ou l’autorité en question. Sexuation de la rhétorique dans l’essai québécois (1977-1997) [A question of authority or authority in question: gendering rhetoric in the Québécois essay (1977-1997)]. PhD diss, Literature and Communications department, Sherbrooke University.

TREMBLAY, Audrey (2014). Mixité et égalité dans le champ éditorial québécois. Étude des compositions des maisons d’édition contemporaines et catalogues (1995-2005) [Diversity and equality in Québécois publishing. Study of the composition of contemporary publishing houses and catalogues]. Masters’ thesis, Sherbrooke University.

VARIKAS, Eleni (1986). La révolte des dames. Genèse d’une conscience féministe dans la Grèce du XIXe siècle (1833-1908) [Women’s revolt. Genesis of a feminist consciousness in 19th century Greece (1833-1908)]. PhD diss, Paris VII.

WOOLF, Virginia (2005 [1929]). A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt. Citations refer to the 2005 Harcourt edition.

Isabelle Boisclair

Crédit: Photo Université de Sherbrooke par Michel Caron

Isabelle Boisclair est professeure en études littéraires et culturelles à l’Université de Sherbrooke. Ses recherches portent sur les représentations de l’identité de sexe/genre et de la sexualité dans les textes littéraires. Elle a publiéOuvrir la voix/e. Le processus constitutif d’un sous-champ littéraire féministe au Québec (1960-1990) (Nota bene, 2004) et dirigé plusieurs collectifs. Elle a également co-signé, avec Lucie Joubert et Lori Saint-Martin, Mines de rien. Chroniques insolentes (remue-ménage, 2015)

bhaslam-reading photoBronwyn Haslam‘s poems and translations have been published in journals including AufgabeThe Capilano Review and Matrix. She works as a freelance translator and lives in Montreal.





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