National Writing Project

Book Review: Literacies, Lies, and Silences: Girls Writing Lives, by Heather E. Bruce

By: Shirley Brown
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Brown reviews this text, which demonstrates how the inclusion of intensive writing in a women's studies course can enable girls to reexamine their lives and gain courage to know and be themselves.

 

See the related article, On the Experience of Writing Literacies, Lies, and Silences, by Heather E. Bruce.

In the mid-1990s, when I was the coordinator of a program for pregnant and parenting teens, I tried to interest our small, all-female faculty in developing a women's studies curriculum for our students. At the time, there was little evidence that what I was advocating had any precedence or value. As it turns out, these were the same years that Heather Bruce was involved in her study of a high school–based women's studies course with a focus on writing. If only I had then the book she has recently written. Bruce's Literacies, Lies, and Silences demonstrates how the inclusion of intensive writing in a women's studies course has the power to enable girls to reexamine their lives and gain courage to know and be themselves. If someone like Bruce had worked with us, the students in my program could have developed a clearer sense of themselves as young women and mothers.

Now, here we are almost ten years later, and any discussion of gender and learning is more likely to devolve into talk of boys and their difficulties with literacy than it is to focus on the special needs of girls. Bruce's work is an important reminder that girls are still underserved in schools and that expressivist writing is a useful tool in helping female students make discoveries about their lives. Her book, based on her dissertation, adds to the still sparse literature on how writing—combined with women's studies—begins to redress girls' loss of a sense of who they are as they move from childhood into adolescence. Her study is clear in its objective to "examine the ways in which writing could help women's studies students in a high school to rethink gendered experience." Although women's studies at the college and university level has been restyled as gender studies, and this discipline has never found a foothold in high school curricula, Bruce's message is no less relevant. Both high school teachers and college composition instructors need to make the lives of female students more visible.

At the outset, Bruce reminds the reader of the research on girls and women with a special emphasis on the work of Carol Gilligan and Judith Butler as well as work in composition theory. To understand Bruce's objective in working in a women's studies high school classroom, it is important to remember that it was Gilligan who first reported on the way girls lose their sense of selves as they pass into adolescence and the failure of mature women, e.g., their teachers, to provide models that could help them recover those selves. Bruce also invokes Judith Butler's work Gender Trouble to demonstrate how performance theory can be helpful in reconciling ongoing tensions between expressivist and constructivist composition theories:

Performance theory's usefulness to this project includes its primary assumption that gender is produced in language—that gender is a fictional text culturally inscribed on sexed bodies at birth (10).

Since expressivist theory places emphasis on the importance of writing with an authentic voice as well as on emotional expression and reflection, and constructivist theory tends to emphasize "the social relationships instructing rhetorical interactions between speaker and addressee or writer and reader" (8), Butler's work provides a means for understanding how the two theories about writing may, in fact, be deeply connected and how writing might be usefully employed to examine constructions of gender.

Bruce further urges a feminist rereading of Janet Emig's work The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. She asserts her rereading of Emig's work as a feminist tale by calling attention to the need to reread Emig's study which involved five girls and three boys and focused heavily on the "writing behaviors of her primary informant, a young woman named Lynn" (7).

It is impossible to give attention to any and all of these theorists without referencing the issue of essentialism, the notion of female identity as a fixed biological essence, but Bruce argues that, "The antagonism produced by the essentialist/constuctivist debate limits progressive thinking about embodied writers" (27). Instead, she argues:

Because research that is concerned with identifying woman-friendly and female-oriented writing strategies has been dispensed with as "essentializing" and unworthy of further theoretical examination, the boundaries of discussion are set outside the category of woman altogether. In doing so, composition studies returns to its own "pregendered" past. Indeed it is difficult to imagine how we might accomplish the inclusive aims of composition if we fail to re-envision the subjectivity of the female writer and provide her a central place in our now-established discipline (29).

Beyond its theoretical underpinnings, Bruce's study takes us into the high school women's studies classroom of Emma Walker (a pseudonym). While it is hard to imagine such a class in a Mormon community, the site for the study in the mid-1990s, the class gained acceptance due to a variety of factors that were both personal and general. There is little doubt that the school principal's experience with his eldest daughter's bulimia and anorexia combined with Walker's conviction that her students struggle with gender stereotypes provided powerful arguments for the course.

Walker's women's studies curriculum was rich and diverse and drew on the state of feminist scholarship available at the time but included little writing. It drew on works by Angela Davis, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lawrence Kohlberg, and on such films as Killing Us Softly and The Yellow Wallpaper. (The complete syllabus and the extended reading list are included in the book.) It was Bruce's contribution to the course to show, as a participant-observer, how writing in conjunction with women's studies materials can help female students recover what they have self-silenced.

As the author demonstrates, writing not only provided a pathway for the students but also enhanced Walker's pedagogy. Walker had tended to assess student learning through class participation and occasional papers. Bruce introduced journals that functioned as learning logs, not diaries, and free writes in addition to other more traditional writing assignments, and Walker could see the difference they made:

When Walker examined the ways in which [passive learner] students asserted a voice and argued well-grounded positions in women's studies writing, she glimpsed the very active thinking and learning processes in which students were already engaged. She was unaware that students were actively responding to the ideas presented in women's studies before writing was incorporated (158).

That writing can make visible a learning process is a generalization that goes far beyond its applicability to a women's studies course in a high school, a setting where such a course still remains an anomaly. Not only in women's studies but in all courses Bruce argues that "taking female students seriously means making them visible at the center of the writing curriculum" (223). She advocates that "mainstream writing curriculum" be revised to be conscious of young women and the issues they face. It is probably unlikely many high schools will offer a women's studies elective in this age of standardized testing, but it is possible for teachers across the disciplines to encourage critical considerations of gender issues and use writing as the tool to do so.

There is a need for "feminist teachers to create a pedagogical space in classrooms where adolescent female desire can be unsilenced and explored" (197). Even if there isn't a course devoted to women's studies, it is possible for teachers to encourage their students to read and write through a gendered lens and to explore the gendered power dynamics that still exist. Certainly, one obvious way to do that in English classes is by having teachers call attention to gender issues by utilizing critical theory, particularly feminist critical theory, as one way of analyzing literature. What Bruce does not address is the lack of preservice education that prepares teachers to raise such critical examinations.

Bruce's findings begin to suggest what further research might help writing teachers learn on this subject, and she proposes a possible research agenda. For example:

First, investigations of the writing processes and products of case study students might also include examining these students' ways of writing and texts in comparison with their ways of writing and texts produced in their other classes.

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Additionally, findings from context-sensitive analyses of the students' written products might be more widely generalizable if students were to be studied in greater ethnographic depth.

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Another interesting approach would be to conduct longitudinal studies of a given sample of women's studies students, following them into their postsecondary years and beyond to examine the ongoing effects of both writing and of women's studies in their lives (219).

Bruce has made an important contribution in reminding both secondary and composition teachers that they need to "see" the young women in their classes and to remember that, in the main, their trajectory toward adulthood had involved a loss of self. Secondary classrooms and composition classes have a responsibility to engage young women in becoming more aware of who they are and what they have lost as they matured. Clearly, the issue for young women is complicated by environmental factors, but we cannot slough off our responsibilities in this regard. In this case, what is complicated is also necessary.

About the Author Shirley P. Brown, currently the National Writing Project's coordinator for online events, worked with pregnant and parenting teens for more than twenty-five years in her capacity as a teacher and an administrator in the School District of Philadelphia. Her strong interest in gender issues has more recently been captured in her book Gender in Urban Education, coauthored with Alice E. Ginsberg and Joan Poliner Shapiro.

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