At some time during the blur called grade school I remember realizing that all the books we were learning from were written by men. Curious, I started looking for books written by women. I don’t think I discussed this with anyone; I had learned my attacks of curiosity were often not welcomed or cherished. I do remember obsessing about the question and feeling anxious about the potential answer. Maybe there were NO women authors!
I also remember thinking that I was apparently learning what men thought was true. What if women thought some other things were true? I think I knew there was a good chance this was possible. My paternal grandmother, who I thought was magical, clearly thought very differently than her husband, my grandfather, who was very bossy. So why was I only learning part of the story? Who was in charge of saying that I could only learn what men thought?
Books were central to my existence; the staff at the public library knew me by name. I would bike the near one-mile trip back and forth, unearthing treasures and absorbing everything books could provide that little else in life could even approximate. I didn’t ask the staff about women authors; you never knew what could set off adults. I just searched.
Willa Cather saved me from desolation. She was the first woman author I found, and I thought I had discovered the promised land. I absorbed everything she wrote. It took me some time to find the approved standard (British) women authors: Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, etc. that show up in high school. Still no women authoring my textbooks. I paid attention. I was also now even more convinced that my concern about women authors was not a welcome topic of conversation. I just kept searching for them. One of my most challenging transitions with the arrival of Google was the death and burial of the card catalogue.
Over time, I believed that I had become an expert at what men liked to write books about. In high school I took courses about “World History” with textbooks that focused on lots of wars in Europe (and yes, I did wonder why the rest of the world was barely mentioned). I took courses about the “History of the United States” describing men creating their story of the world as they wanted it to be, and then controlling it to make sure it stayed that way, fighting among themselves to ensure this. Only later in life did I realize that they were also all “white” men.
If you read enough books, you recognize that there is an endless array of possible “stories” of what is “true” and what is “false”. Textbooks slant options kids have for exploring their world. Willa Cather taught me that the unreported truth can be unearthed. “Go West, Young Man!” actually included some amazing women who managed a challenging life journey. We shouldn’t have to work so hard to discover these women, but we can find them. Control is an illusion; eventually it confines, harms or fails those who believe in it. Covid has become a metaphor for this realization.
“Since then she had changed so much in her thoughts, in her ways, even in her looks, that she might wonder she knew herself–except that the changes were all in the direction of becoming more and more herself.”