A Universal Commitment: Human Dignity
March 7, 2019
The arrival of Women’s History Month in March, and International Women’s Day on March 8, cries out for recognition. After all, the contributions of women over the ages are legion— which is also the dilemma. How can we recognize such contributions to our society—our art, literature, history, science, religion, social cohesion, cultural values, and human accomplishments—for half of humanity?
We can start with naming them. Yes, there’s an exceptionally long list of women writers who can stake a claim to a place in the creative writing canon. Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, George Eliot, Emily Dickenson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Emily Danforth, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, E. Annie Proulx, Rita Mae Brown, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko… as the list takes shape and rapidly threatens to become overwhelming in length, our anxiety grows. Who did I leave out? The subjectivity of the individual list-crafter becomes inescapable; we probably all carry such personal lists around in our minds, whether explicitly or not. What really matters, however, is the indisputable evidence that the creative writing of women is significant in our lives. We are inspired, if somewhat cowed, by this remarkable bounty.
Separating creative writing by gender has its own pitfalls, especially in this day where the presumption of a gender binary is itself open to scrutiny and debate. Yet having a wealth of creative writings by women readily available to all readers is, in the span of human history, a relatively new phenomenon. That fact alone merits thoughtful reflection—why has humanity had to wait until the past two centuries to read great literature created by women?
We have had to wait because equality has been elusive, even though the societal quest for gender equality is inherent to any shared commitment to the ideal of human dignity. That dignity must be universal if it is to mean anything, yet the universality of dignity is not monolithic. Diversity, especially when set within the context of a narrative of any specific demographic—such as the half of humanity which is female—overcoming centuries of subjugation, humiliation, loss of opportunity, and other forms of diminishment and objectification, is a narrative that deserves celebration.
Women continue to assert our full personhood, our dignity, and to share our distinctive gendered perspectives. Thankfully, that assertion is being progressively and more warmly received by society at large, yet we remain far removed from that goal of the truly decent society. Misogyny, gender-based violence, sexual assaults, the crass objectification of women, denial of women’s full agency, and a multitude of continuing put-downs, humiliations, denigrations, and exploitation continue.
The creative writing community is not immune from such pernicious influences, and some writers even claim a freedom of expression right to trumpet their misogyny. Achieving a societal consensus on where freedom of expression ends and hate speech begins is the work of all of us. As we think this month about the role of women within our writing community, we should actively discourage any form of hate speech or egregious assault on the dignity and humanity of women.
Chloe Schwenke, PhD
Interim Executive Director, AWP