On reading women and counting beans

feminist-theory-readerIn “Beyond Bean Counting,” author JeeYeun Lee says that every time she is in a room, she “automatically count[s] those whom [she] can identify as women, men, people of color, Asian Americans, mixed-race people, whites, gays and lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals, people with disabilities.”

When Lee received the call for submissions for the Feminist Theory Reader, she “imagined opening up the finished book to the table of contents and counting beans.” (See more at Google Books).

I know that I am guilty of bean counting, just like Lee. And I would also like to say that I don’t see the problem with it. As humans, we tend to categorize everything. We aren’t comfortable without being able to label things, know where they belong in this world, and where they stand relative to us.

As a grad student in English Literature, I have also opened up anthologies — such as the Norton Anthology of American Literature –Since 1945 — to the table of contents and counted beans. And while I have found that more women authors are being included in contemporary literature anthologies, I wonder if they are being included because they are women.

I did a little investigating on the Norton site, and in the review of the anthology found these statments: the concern with post-war literature has included women, but because they fit the theme of “cross-cultural mixtures and hybrid perspectives that result from a globalized contemporary life.”

The site lists works by Jhumpa Lahiri, Rita Dove, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Li-Young Lee, and claims that they have been included because they all have to do with translations of customs or language from another culture into American English.” Li-Young Lee is the only man included for this purpose, but there are three women.

The next section of the review dicusses the “inclusion of new immigrant voices in the spectrum of national perspectives.” The examples used of “works that maintain ties to previous culture while establishing links to America” include Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Am I reading all this wrong or are these women being included not because they are women, but because they fulfill a quota for diversity?

I have read many women authors in my undergraduate career, and I asked one of my professors why he chose the women authors that he did. He told me that the fact that they were women authors played a part in his selection, but it wasn’t the major factor. Some works were chosen because they “teach well” and others because they included the themes he need to discuss, such as realism and naturalism.

I am glad that more women authors are being included in classrooms around the country, but I have to wonder why they are. I’ve read Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ana Castillo, and Banana Yoshimoto – to name just a few – and the connection I feel to their texts has nothing to do with the fact that they are women.

Mostly, what I find appealing is the story of an outsider, and that “otherness” is usually based on culture or race, not sex.

Sharon Henry is a graduate student in the Spring 2009 Feminist Theory class. To read more student posts, click here.