Creation and (Re) Production: The literary and the corporeal

I’ve explored, albeit lightly, the issue of child-free/less-ness in recent months. In combing through my personal archives, it seems I’ve a history of considering the implications of motherhood/reproduction….

During the Renaissance, known as the era of great rebirth, the act and process of human thought, particularly as articulated in literature, was considered a veritable Genesis. Throughout history, the image and the language of the creative and generative act was reproduced from the dominant male perspective. This bias appropriated the acts, meanings and privileges of creation and procreation, thus effectively usurping the already limited powers of women.

One of the most powerful and far-reaching vehicles for this expropriated creativity is found in authorship. Verse, composition and intellectual production has been made a prerogative of male writers, and the fallacious – or shall I say phallacious – evidence of the masculine nature of writing and writing authority is exemplified in the hermeneutic comparisons of the pen and the penis. This metaphoric equation is critical because it shapes how we perceive the processes of writing and creation – literary and otherwise- to be.

Assuming this to be true, then creation becomes an act rooted in male biology. There is great significance in this male appropriation of that literary creativity so closely associated with corporeal procreativity. Much as a mother has traditionally been understood to be responsible for making an imprint on her children, so does the pen and the printing press make an imprint, a textual transformation, on readers. This would be consistent with the prevalent influence of John Locke, among whose notions it was believed that the individual’s character is not predetermined, but subject to formation through the impressions made on it. And indeed, individuals were able to make impressions on people’s characters, although some were able to influence on a larger scale than others. In Western cultural history, women have often been confined to making their mark only the physical act of giving birth, while males are allowed creative agency in influencing the masses becoming progenitors of “immortal things like books”.

Female authors themselves have employed the language once relegated to female biology in observing literary movements, as Hannah More did in 1799:

“Who are these ever-multiplying authors, that with unparalleled fecundity are overstocking the world with their quick-succeeding progeny? They are novel-writers, the easiness of whose productions is at once the cause of their own fruitfulness, and of the almost infinitely numerous race of imitators to whom they give birth”  

Here, the author is protesting unregulated literacy, particularly the intense production of the women-driven, eighteenth and nineteenth-century equivalent of dime store or Harlequin romances. This tension has been described as the “disruption of the proper relation of reader, writer and book”. Perhaps there is a “wrong kind of literacy,” one that “can produce an individual who is a bad copy”. That literacy and literature “reproduced” individuals and that males were given exclusive franchise to this reproduction was an indication that some treated it as an ill-conceived task for women.

So powerful was the pen-penis metaphor that it was internalized into Western culture, thus allowing the fact that males possessed the language and meaning of creation (and by extension, of procreation) through their power of the pen(is) to become a societal norm dictating literary tradition. Consequently, women were discouraged, even prevented from seeking authorship under these cultural pressures.

This exclusion of women – from the opportunity to reclaim the voice, language, and meaning of creation and reproduction, a fruitful agency so long enjoyed by men – is condemnable. It is particularly annihilative for its libidinal and phallogocentric perversion of the portrayals of the female body and sexuality, and especially of mothers and motherhood. This appropriation of the creative act has contributed to and perpetuated the centuries of negation and repression of woman’s body, sexuality and identity.


*With thanks to the following, whose own literary works/research inspired this thoughtful ramble: Helene Cixous, Sandra Gilbert, Jessamyn Jackson, Dr. Mary Klages, Anita Levy, Hannah More,