Sunday, April 21, 2024

Two per cent of GCSE students study literature by female authors

I saw a tweet by Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, in support of the End Sexism in Schools campaign. It said that, "shockingly", only two per cent of GCSE students study literature by female authors.

It is a shocking statistic, and it made me think back to my own schooldays. Sure enough, I didn't study a single woman writer for O level or A level English literature.

Since you ask, here are the books I studied:

O level

  • The Merchant of Venice
  • An anthology of 20th-century British poets
  • Lord of the Flies

You had to study Lord of the Flies for O level in those days - I think there was a law. And there wasn't a single woman poet in that anthology: the poets I liked most in it were Edward Thomas and Edwin Muir. There was no Auden, who is now my favourite British poet of this era, and I don't think there was anyone later than the early Betjeman.

A level

  • Hamlet
  • The Tempest
  • Dr Faustus
  • Wordsworth's Prelude (Book 1)
  • John Donne
  • T.S. Eliot (Selected Poems)
  • The Rainbow
  • The Grapes of Wrath

I think we studied more texts than we needed to because use we had a good teacher and we were a bright class, but there was still no room for a woman writer.

When it came to my MA in Victorian Studies, male writers were in the majority, but we did at least study Felix Holt by George Eliot and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.

And it's interesting that, when I was preparing to start the MA course, I read the two Victorian novels I was most ashamed of not having read: Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights.

So all power to End Sexism in Schools. Not because the male writers I studied were bad, though Lord of the Flies was surely overrated in those days, but because one point of studying good literature is to widen your imagination and your sympathies. And you are less likely to do that if you study only writers of one sex.

You can download the full report from the campaign's website.


Jeff said...

For my O-Level English Literature we read: Romeo and Juliet, Far from the Madding Crowd and....Wuthering Heights.

Jonathan Calder said...

I was amazed when I read Wuthering Heights. It's a bleak and brutal book - not at all the romance I had imagined.

Anonymous said...

I am not an expert, but I thought that Jane Austen and a Bronte or two were required reading in girls' schools, then and now. Coming up with an answer of 2% might imply that their sampling was a bit selective. Anyway, my sympathies re: The Rainbow. We had to do Sons and Lovers, which I re-read recently, just to check, and yes, DHL really is a spectacularly misogynistic author.

Anonymous said...

I may be a bit of an old-fashioned Liberal, but I've always taken the view that any work of literature or art should be judged worthy of study on the basis of its own merit, not on the gender or group identity of its author.

As someone whose partner teaches English I can tell you the 2 per cent figure is nonsense. Many female authors can be studies for GCSE. However, one also has to bear in mind that there were very few prominent published female authors before 1800, so anyone studying literature of these earlier periods will come across a literary environment that is male-dominated. What else would one expect?

I do think it would be helpful if our Liberal MPs were to engage their own critical thinking skills before swallowing any and every bit of nonsense that left-wing pressure groups present to them.

Jonathan Calder said...

I've now added the link to the full research report to this post - apologies for not doing so earlier.

Jonathan Calder said...

Still, that didn't prevent the last two commenters condemning the research without having read it.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the silliest reports I have read. The headline claim is deliberately misleading and ignores the large number of female writers who can indeed be studied by GCSE students.

It claims 58 per cent of nineteenth century novels studied are from male authors. Possibly but as the vast majority of authors in the first half of the century were male this is hardly surprising.

Some of the books on the list are already on there more for political reasons than literary merit. Does anyone seriously think A Taste of Honey is the equal of Jane Eyre?

It's also worth noting that the vast majority of English teachers in schools and universities who develop the curriculum are women. Fortunately, most care more about literature than leftist identity politics.

Jonathan Calder said...

I'm delighted to see A Taste of Honey being taught. I am struck most by the extraordinary popularity of An Inspector Calls. Does it deserve such a dominant position?

I suppose its moral that "it's society's fault and we're all to blame" may appeal to a certain sort of teacher.

Anonymous said...

The one which baffles me is "Of Mice and Men". A (cynical?) teacher once told me that it was chosen because it was short.