A Tribute to Literary Mothers

Article excerpt

Most of the great women writers of the past were childless. Not only obvious lesbians like Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall, and spinsters like Jane Austen and the Brontes, but George Eliot, George Sands, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf. All for various reasons avoided motherhood.

Since the 1950s, a remarkable number of the bestknown writers of Canada have been women, and the great majority of them have also been mothers. Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Audrey Thomas come quickly to mind.

All have had long, productive careers. Aside from Margaret Atwood, who had her daughter after she had established herself as a writer, the others were all contending with small children at the same time they were serving their apprenticeships as writers-Marian Engel with twins, Audrey Thomas and Alice Munro with three daughters each, Carol Shields with five children.

These post-World War II women did not grow up expecting to have it all: marriage, children and a career. At most, they probably expected to work at part-time jobs until their husbands were better established and the babies began to arrive. Writing was not a practical way of increasing family income. In fact, it cost money to write. Someone else had to mind the children, in daycare or at home, if a woman were to have any time alone at her desk or the kitchen table. Publishing a poem or a short story might boost the morale of a beginning writer, but it certainly would not practically justify the investment of time. Writing was an expensive, self-indulgent habit, fostered guiltily in the early morning, late at night or in snatches during the day as children got older.

For those whose marriages survived such selfish, self-indulgent behaviour, aids that other writers depended on, like Canada Council grants and parttime teaching, were harder to come by. What does a married woman need with government support or a job, when she has a husband to pay the bills? For those who found themselves single parents, the Canada Council might be more generous, but jobs were harder to come by, for many bosses were unwilling to hire women whose sick children might get in the way of work.

I had been given two Canada Council grants before Margaret Laurence got her first. I was offered tenure in the Writing Department at the University of British Columbia, where Audrey Thomas had been refused a job because she had children. She was apparently supposed to stay home with them, even if she couldn't feed them. …