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Solitude linked to women’s creativity and “voice”

Writing, it has often been said, is a lonely business. Jo Malin’s new book, Herspace: Women, Writing, and Solitude examines three closely intertwined topics: women and solitude, women as writers, and women claiming and designing their own spaces to support creativity. When it comes to literary enterprise, women have traditionally been outnumbered and outspoken by men. Malin and her contributors bring to the fore an explanation we as a society probably should have arrived at on our own long before now: personal space and time is key to finding and raising your literary voice-and though it remains a fantasy for many U.S. women raising young children, getting some alone time in the bathroom probably isn’t all that’s needed here.

When she bought her first house in 1996, literary scholar Jo Malin was in her early fifties. It was at once the most scary and wonderful thing she had ever done- a risky personal decision with far reaching social and professional consequences that Malin could not have imagined at the time.

Today those consequences help to underscore the messages of Malin’s most recent literary project, Herspace: Women, Writing, and Solitude. A book of essays edited by Malin and Victoria Boynton, Herspace is a work that is “dynamic, disruptive and wonderfully emancipating,” according to William J. Kennedy, a professor of comparative literature at Cornell University.

“These fifteen robust, timely, and intellectually challenging essays explore women’s relationships to private time and space as opportunities that enable creative work, as alternatives to masculine models of creativity, and as sites of ownership and autonomy,” Kennedy writes in his cover critique of the book.

Malin, a project director in the School of Education and Human Development and an adjunct assistant professor of English at Binghamton, welcomes Kennedy’s enthusiasm, particularly coming as it does from a man. As a rule, when she discusses her book, which was published last year by The Haworth Press, men don’t respond with the same sense of universal intrigue as do women.

“Women are always very, very interested in the topic. I can tell that the subject is striking a chord with them,” she said. “The typical response from men tends to be very different, although it also seems to derive from hitting a nerve. Whenever I discuss the book with men, when I dare to suggest that many women might be just fine with a house as a partner rather than a man, they become very nervous.”

Malin’s accustomed to “That’s a depressing topic,” and similar conversation-stopping replies from men, she said.

Depressing or not, Malin’s topic has been a theme relevant to feminist perspectives on creativity and literature for more than a century. It predates by 60 years or more Virginia Woolf’s bold assertions in 1929 that a woman must have money and a room of her own, that human dignity is born of “privacy and space,” and that “intellectual freedom depends on material things.”

Malin, who is divorced and lived in an apartment for more than 20 years while she raised her two children and then completed her doctorate, ought to know about that. Though buying a home as a “single” woman put her at the vanguard of a burgeoning social phenomenon in the United States, even today her situation as the owner of “nearly 2,000 square feet of solitude” remains an unobtainable fantasy to many women worldwide.

“I feel very privileged, and sometimes even guilty to have such good fortune,” she writes in her introduction to Herspace.

As recently as the 1980s, in fact, even in the United States and even if they could afford the payments on a house, women still had a hard time buying real estate in their own names. Changes in lending standards over the past decade have opened the U.S. real estate market to women, and women are seizing the opportunity to own their own space in record numbers. By 2002, single women were buying homes at twice the rate of single men, with women representing a full 18 percent of all first-time home buyers in the United States, up from 15 percent just the year prior. Condominiums, which generally include grounds maintenance and some upkeep for a fee, are also popular with women. The National Association of Realtors estimates that close to half of all condominium owners in the United States are single women.
“Speaking for myself,” Malin writes of her own house in the introduction to Herspace, “I love my work and the freedom to write on a Sunday afternoon in blissful uninterrupted solitude. I am in love with the house as an architectural structure as well as a protected, intimate space that nurtures my solitude.”

Malin points out that many of the women who contributed to Herspace share her affiliation with higher education, and specifically with Binghamton University. But like all women in the United States, they have also been schooled in a “male-centered literary canon.”

“There are still relatively few women writers included in English classes,” Malin said.
That’s in part why many readers of the collection will be struck by such realizations as the fact that the word “husband” actually originates with “housebond,” the holder of the bond on the house.

Ultimately, though, the strength of Herspace is not limited by its examinations of the meaning and importance of solitude to women writers of the past. This is a book rooted in and rising up from the honesty and strength of the modern-day essayists and scholars who contributed to it.

Still, as pointed out by former faculty member Sidonie Smith, now the Martha Guernsey Colby Collegiate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, in Herspace “the voices of women writers accumulate into a chorus of exemplars, models, strugglers, and jugglers of the temporal and spatial pressures and pleasures of solitude: May Sarton, Virgina Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Zora Neal Hurston, Marguerite Duras, Kate Chopin, Alice Koller.”

Besides Malin, other modern day contributors to Herspace with Binghamton University affiliations are: Boynton, co-editor of the book and associate professor of English at SUNY Cortland; Anne Mamary, a contributing writer, who is now a visiting assistant professor at Clarkson University and like Boynton earned her doctorate at Binghamton in 1994; former faculty member Suzette Henke; and Kassia Fleisher and Lisa Johnson, both of whom earned their doctoral degrees from Binghamton in 2000.

Malin is also the author of The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth Century Women’s Autobiographies and co-editor with Boynton of The Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography forthcoming in 2005.

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