Narration, Knowing, and Female Empowerment: Telling Stories, Authorizing Experience
Vera Brittain dreamed of the day when women's rights would be openly discussed and taken seriously. She would be proud to see this Oxford Round Table on Women's Rights. As I sit here, I feel her peering over my shoulder, urging me--and all of us--forward as we engage in these conversations. When she first came to Somerville College to take her exams in 1914, Brittain had to beg her father and mother to allow her to travel to Oxford from her Macclesfield home in Staffordshire. Once admitted to the University, she pleaded with her father to be allowed to continue her education. A woman's place was at Oxford, she argued. And as she argued, the Great War broke out and the world focused on things other than the education and Empowerment of women.
Brittain abandoned her studies at Oxford to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) as a nurse when the war broke out. It was the only war-related position considered suitable for young women of her age and class. After the war--and after losing her brother, her fiance, and more friends than she cared to count--she returned to Somerville to pursue her education. Profoundly changed, and sobered beyond her years, she went on to become one of England's most beloved writers. She told her story, determined to use her own experience as a means of explaining to younger generations what it meant to have been robbed of her youth because of the war. In the forward to Testament of Youth, Brittain writes:
Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of
personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some
element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of
my own youth by War.... [I wanted] to tell my own fairly typical
story as truthfully as I could against the larger background, and
take the risk of offending all those who believe that a personal
story should be kept private, however great its public significance
and however wide its general application. (1)
Here I must pause because I hear a great echo in my ears, and I think it may be echoing in your ears as well. Listen again to Brittain's words: "... take the risk of offending all those who believe that a personal story should be kept private...."
As I pause and listen, I hear behind those words another echo, and what emerges is a single word question: Why? Why are personal stories offensive? Why should a personal story be kept private? Especially if, by telling that personal story, it could have an impact on educational policy; on public policy; and (perhaps most importantly) on the teller of that personal tale? Should we not all continually "take the risk of offending" (2) and tell our stories?
Throughout history, women have told their stories, sometimes at great peril to themselves. They have often trembled while doing so. The social codes that have defined women's lives forced many women writers to adopt male pseudonyms. The names George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte) come to mind. Poems of the Greek poet, Sappho (whom Plato dubbed "the Tenth Muse"), all but disappeared completely when in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII ordered her poems burned. The story of the banishment and destruction of her work, and (more importantly) the story of the survival of fragments from her poetry tells a larger narrative that underscores the power inherent in women's narrations. Early in the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf (refused admission to Oxbridge libraries because of her gender) advised women in Three Guineas to become a community of outsiders and to tell their stories using their own language. We can best do that, Woolf argues in her response for a donation of one guinea for the society to prevent war, "not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. …