Should Women Write About Themselves?

If there’s one thing most of us remember from high school English, it’s to avoid using “I” when writing an essay. As with much of what you learned in school, that particular piece of advice is, at best, half true. (And while we're at it, yes, it is entirely grammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction.) While there are certainly contexts in which personal statements are frowned upon, there are just as many instances in which they are not only acceptable, but de rigueur. Even so, there is a stigma surrounding first-person writing, and our disapproval of the first person may have a gendered component.

The demographics of writing seem to suggest that there is a de facto, though probably not inherent, difference in the way men and women write. In her recent piece for the Guardian, Sarah Burnside points out that while women are, on the whole, underrepresented in the media, they are overrepresented when it comes to confessional writing, particularly when the writing in question tackles traditionally “feminine” areas of expertise like dating and child-rearing. Burnside acknowledges that these subjects have their place, but it is clear that she would like to see more women (and perhaps men) adopting a classically journalistic, “objective” tone.

Let me be clear: The relatively low number of female writers tackling topics like politics and the economy is cause for concern, particularly if it reflects an actual gender bias that keeps some voices from being heard. In many respects, the criticisms Burnside levels are entirely valid. A lot of first-person writing is either inherently trivial in terms of subject matter, or lacks context; it’s all well and good to claim that the personal is political, but it needs to be situated as such in your writing if you hope to carry the point. I will be the first to admit to being exasperated by essays that so belabor the author’s standpoint as to degenerate into obsessive navel gazing. 

At the same time, however, Burnside errs a bit too far on the opposite side. While she acknowledges that the first-person has been unfairly denigrated as emotional (read: female), she suggests an implicit hierarchy of writing styles, and places writing that strives to “move beyond the self” at the top of the heap.

On the face of it, this is, of course, a fine goal. What Burnside does not seem to consider, however, is that looking inward is, in some cases, the best way to look outward. There is nothing inherently objective about the writing style we commonly laud as measured and neutral; the mere fact that an author does not state his personal beliefs in the first person does not mean that they don't inform his writing. For precisely that reason, it is common practice in much academic writing to include at least a brief autobiography. What’s more, this kind of measured introspection serves a double purpose, making potential biases more visible to the reader, and also to the writer herself.

Burnside draws no distinction between personal narratives of the oft-disparaged “mommy blogger” variety and op-eds that dip into the first person. As Burnside herself notes, women are hardly the only ones to indulge in self-involved rumination, and journalistic pieces that, to quote Burnside, “traverse the personal” are something else entirely. We make sense of the world around us through the lens of our own experiences, and if a writer has personal knowledge that informs her views on, say, government-funded birth control, that is a form of evidence in its own right. As a reader I want to know about her experience, provided she is comfortable sharing it.

Burnside argues that, at least in practice, the use of personal narration in "serious" pieces causes them to be "cordoned off into a 'woman’s corner.'" No doubt, but perhaps what is needed is not less female introspection, but more widespread acceptance of the first person as a legitimate way of discussing issues that have real importance for both men and women. To be sure, articles that appeal to the reader’s emotions can be manipulative, but then again, hard facts can be every bit as misleading; there’s a reason why we talk about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It is likely that we wouldn’t be so skeptical of the emotional and personal if they had not come to be associated with femininity. After all, emotional and personal responses play an absolutely essential role in all decision making, regardless of gender. Rational thought could not function without them.

The explosion of social media has brought this issue to the fore. It is now easier than ever to find a platform for one's message, but it is also easier than ever to use that platform to spout self-absorbed “jabber,” and as Burnside says, the fact that a good deal of social media content is written by women risks the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. Perhaps more to the point, though, bad first person writing gives a bad name to all personal narrative. The personal deserves to be taken seriously, and I believe that greater acknowledgment of our own histories, feelings, and biases can only lead to more engaging, and, in the long run, more objective journalism.