When I was in high school, I read the book Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. It was my first introduction to string theory, but also my first introduction to the mathematician Ramanujan. As a young child in India, Ramanujan re-developed modern mathematics from scratch. He wrote to professors in England, sharing his proofs, but most of them did not respond, finding that he was sending proofs that were already widely known. One man did respond, and brought Ramanujan to England.
Ramanujan died before the age of 35. And, in reading Hyperspace, I remember the sense of grief imbued in that story. If only he had not had to spend so much time doing work that others had already done. If only he had not been ignored for so long. If only he lived longer, just imagine what he could have accomplished!
When I read of women whose writings have survived to us from antiquity or even more recently than that, there is no such sense. No one seems to mourn all the girls who never had an opportunity to learn to read and write. No one brings up the rare woman who did fight for and gain a voice and shakes their head with sorrow at the possibility lost. If only she had not had to fight so hard just to learn. If only she had been given a platform for her ideas. If only she had not died so young in childbirth!
In the experience of myself and some of my classmates, "feminism" has become a dirty word. It is as if when a woman says to a man, "I am a feminist," the man might hear any number of things. He could hear those words, but he could also hear, "you are a rapist," or "I hate men," or even simply "you are doing something wrong." When one person is privileged, it is difficult for them to hear about or understand that others are not.
I know that I grew up with many privileges, but a penis wasn't one of them. I know I can't entirely blame my lack of self-confidence on that, but I have also experienced having my ideas ignored until they are repeated by a man. I have been cat-called and groped. Would I be a different person if I hadn't been?
At my undergraduate program at St. John's College, there were fairly even numbers of men and women students, though the tutors skewed more male. And men and women both spoke in classes. But I always had trouble speaking up. And I can't help but wonder if I might have been able to speak more if I had been in an all female class. Would that have helped my confidence? I didn't know, when I began, how to argue and put forth my point, and especially how to take someone arguing back aggressively. And yes, the more aggressive speakers tended to be overly self-confident males, speaking as if they were speaking not opinion but truth.
I learned how to function in that environment by adapting myself to it, and I can't help but wonder whether that program might have benefited from adapting itself to me. If, perhaps, by actively seeking out women writers - even if they were not part of the traditional canon on which the program is based - they might have demonstrated that even I, a woman, had a place in rhetoric.
In what may be one of the world's first recorded humble-brags, Isaac Newton is credited with saying, "If I have seen further it is from standing on the shoulders of giants."
I believe that the point of this course, Women Writers, and the anthology, Available Means, is to unearth that trace of female rhetoric that has always existed, whether or not it was acknowledged in the traditional Western Canon. Because if we are to move forward, to find ways to communicate the goals of feminism without ostracizing half our audience, to find a way to see further... then we must first find our giants.