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I started my college career in the STEM fields, specifically as a physics major. When I say STEM, I’m using the agreed upon acronym that is used to describe all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math studies and jobs. So, chemists, physicists, astronomers, engineers, etc., are all a part of the STEM fields. I knew that the statistics for women in STEM careers were not fantastic. In fact, women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce. Because of this, I didn’t expect to hear much about women or their accomplishments from any of my male professors in their male-dominated lectures in their male-dominated fields.
By the end of the first semester of my freshman year of college, I was no longer a physics major. An F in my first and only physics class more or less precluded me from continuing on in that field. Luckily, I found my calling as an English major. My first English composition course was with a woman I now consider a colleague of mine. She was my instructor for both of my composition courses and one literature course. I have taken a total of fifteen different professors for my various composition and literature courses throughout my three-and-a-half years as an English major. Of those fifteen instructors, all of whom had attained a PhD by the time I was in a classroom with them, eight (or just over half) have been female. My experience should not be uncommon, but also not exemplary of how the distribution of higher degrees in the humanities field looks. Statistically, I should have had an even higher percentage of female instructors in my English courses because women make up the majority of degree holders in the humanities fields.
The gendered breakdown of classroom statistics for students, as I remember them, were much the same. In a chemistry class (another STEM subject) which fulfilled a requirement in order to transfer from Riverside City College to any four-year institution, not just the University of California, I can remember about ten or eleven female students in the class (and of those, a majority were in a nursing program which made that specific class a requirement) in a class made up of about fifty students total. Contrast that experience of mine with any of the experiences I have had in an English class. More specifically, I was in a literature course the semester before I transferred to UCR in which I was one of exactly five males in the class, in a class made up of about 30 students in total. Or, even in an upper division setting, I am currently enrolled in a seminar class that is made up of a total of six students. Two students in that class, including myself, are male. The other five bodies that occupy our classroom (including the professor) are all female. While it is possible that I am misremembering my time at Riverside City College, it is much less likely that I am unsure of the statistical breakdown of a class in which I am currently enrolled. Especially one as small as a seminar.
But I digress. My issue is not with female representation in STEM courses (although there are several systemic issues at play which make it harder for women to participate in such fields), nor is my issue with male representation in English classrooms, either by students or faculty. No. My issue is with female representation in coursework within English classes. Whenever somebody talks about Literature, they are referring to something called the Canon. The Canon of American Literature, for example is a list of works written by American men and women that are deemed significant enough to study academically. These are usually considered the best works of authors who fit a certain demographic. It is from this list that many syllabi are written for English courses. My concern is that women are entirely under-represented in the Canon of American Literature.
David Handlin, a writer for The American Scholar, a website that publishes essays on literature and book reviews, compiled a list of the one hundred greatest American novels (specifically from 1770 to 1985). Given the statistics of women who study and teach literature courses, a greater emphasis should be rightly placed on female authors (just as in STEM courses, which is dominated heavily by men, a greater emphasis has been placed on males and male accomplishments); however, of the one hundred greatest novels, only fifteen were written by women. Of those fifteen novels, only three women appear more than once (Willa Cather with four entries, Edith Wharton with two, and most criminally of all, Toni Morrison with a paltry two entries on this list). If only fifteen novels on this list were written by women, then eighty-five novels then were written by men, and of those eighty-five, several men have been featured more than once (Henry James and William Faulkner, specifically, were listed seven times each).
Statistically, this is a mess. There is a plethora of literary works that have been written by women that have been simply passed over in favor of male-authored novels, and this is unacceptable.